In a genial but deceptively tough interview, CNBC’s John Harwood reveals a dilemma at the heart of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) recent fall in the national polls (from 27 percent in October to 13 percent presently in the IBD/TIPP Poll and, overall, from nearly 27 percent in early October to 16.1 percent today in the RealClearPolitics average):

John Harwood: I was asking as an economic matter. You say that you’re a capitalist to your bones.
Elizabeth Warren: I am.
John Harwood: Isn’t a consultancy that advises businesses on how to be more lean and efficient part of the creative destruction that makes capitalism capitalism?
Elizabeth Warren: Depends on the kind of capitalism we’re talking about. I am proposing something called accountable capitalism. You may remember that, for more than a century, American corporations owed multiple duties. They owed duties to their investors, but also to their employees, to their customers, to the communities where they were located, to our country. And then, in the late seventies, an economist comes along and says, “Hey, here’s a novel idea. How about if you only owe any kind of duty to your investors?” Which means, make it all about profitability. That means that American corporations today, these giant corporations, they have no loyalty to America or to American workers.

Not getting an answer to his question, Harwood later pressed on:

John Harwood: Let me go back to the McKinsey example. Your friend Deval Patrick, the former governor, worked at Bain Capital. When he got into the race the other day, he said he thought the Obama campaign had given a bum rap to Bain when he was running against Mitt Romney. This is a part of how business works; some deals go bad, but it’s not a bad thing. Do you think he’s right? Is Bain Capital and what it represents in the economy a bad thing?
Elizabeth Warren: When they’re trying to tweak up corporate actions that are already aiming only toward increasing profitability, perfectly willing to, if they could save a nickel by moving a job to a foreign country, would do it in a heartbeat — that is a problem in our economy. Even Jamie Dimon says so. Others who come in and help them do that, that’s not making our economy work any better and it’s not making our country work any better.
John Harwood: Do firms like that have a constructive role to play?
Elizabeth Warren: They have a constructive role to play when we have accountable capitalism. If what they were helping do is make that company work better for employees as well as shareholders, for the communities where they’re located as well as shareholders, then sure. But that’s not what they’re doing.

So anyone who works in consulting is a bad guy so long as capitalism does not meet her accountability standard? Sounds like it. It is hard to be a capitalist if you need to call everyone in the private sector a bad guy.

Increasingly, Warren seems defensive (insisting her backpedaling on Medicare-for-all is not really backpedaling) and eager to pick pointless fights with any candidate other than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), as she did in condemning South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s fundraising from big donors, something she would have to do in the general election unless she plans on unilaterally disarming against President Trump.

And that points to Warren’s second problem: Sanders. The New York Times reports that “with Mr. Sanders enjoying a revival after his heart attack in October and Ms. Warren receding from her summer surge but wielding a formidable political organization in the first nominating states, it’s increasingly clear that their biggest obstacle to winning the Democratic nomination is each other.” Nevertheless, neither wants to attack the other, which right now is hurting Warren more since she is sliding in the polls and struggling to explain her position on health care:

Until she unveiled her own, more gradual implementation plan — after weeks of saying “I’m with Bernie” on Medicare for all — Ms. Warren had carefully guarded her left flank to avoid handing Mr. Sanders any fodder.
Now, Mr. Sanders’s aides say Ms. Warren’s shift has signaled to progressive voters that she is malleable on what they consider a fundamental values issue. Her pivot on health care, along with the support she enjoys from a handful of billionaires, represents the best opportunity to diminish liberal enthusiasm for Ms. Warren, say Sanders supporters.

Warren’s unwillingness to challenge Sanders might make her predicament worse — and permanent. Aside from ideology, this echoes the dilemma that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) faced in his presidential run against then-candidate Donald Trump. He refused to take on Trump for fear of offending his followers; as a result, Trump waltzed to the nomination ridiculing Cruz every step of the way. The lesson: If you do not challenge the person who holds most of the voters you need, you are not going to win.

In sum, Warren’s attempt to be the capitalist-who-dislikes-capitalists and her refusal to take on Sanders leaves her exactly where she did not want to be: a pale imitation of Sanders. Instead of being the not-as-crazy-as-Sanders choice for progressives, she comes across lacking the qualities that helped her rise during the summer months — candor, high-mindedness, authenticity and intellectual consistency.

But don’t count her out. In a campaign with four to five top competitors (each with distinct bases of support), proportionate distribution of delegates and plenty of money to keep all of them going, the race might turn into a long slog. It’s possible Warren might endure thanks to her remarkable work ethic, robust fundraising and organizational strength.

Both Sanders’s and Warren’s supporters should nevertheless banish all talk of a joint ticket. Having two far-left, old, white candidates might be a recipe for total disaster. A ticket that is doubly scary to moderate voters, has little appeal to African Americans and hails exclusively from New England sounds like the Republicans’ dream opposition.

No, Warren’s best hope rests in finding a comfort zone that is not quite as extreme as Sanders (one she can comfortably inhabit without being defensive), avoiding needless, petty fights with others and maybe even stressing her actual accomplishment in setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, giving her claim to some executive experience and showing her ability to get something done. There, she has a real advantage over Sanders.

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