And then suddenly, she wasn’t.
Warren’s support began to dribble away. She came in third in the Iowa caucuses and fourth in New Hampshire. Many are attributing her less-than-stellar performance to a botched handling of her Medicare-for-all proposal. Others discuss the “electability” obsession of Democratic voters desperate to evict President Trump from the White House, and misogyny also plays a role. But there’s one thing that doesn’t come up, and should: the economy.
We forget now, but beginning in the summer of 2019, many — including Warren — were convinced we were on the cusp of an economic slowdown. “Markets are braced for a global downturn," the Economist warned. Trucking company executives feared slowing earnings. “Wall Street’s favorite recession signal suggests the economy is in trouble," CNN Business reported. The stock market was, as they say, volatile.
This is the environment in which Warren rose to the top of the heap.
Warren’s understanding of people’s fears around money and the economy is highly developed — it is, you might say, her superpower. She came to prominence not as an elected office holder but as an expert first in bankruptcy, then in personal finance. Her breakout book “The Two-Income Trap,” co-written with her daughter, literally changed the public understanding of how families were — or weren’t — handling the increasing pressure of wage stagnation, so much so that conservative talk-show host Tucker Carlson still reveres it. By September 2019, she was able to draw more than 20,000 people to Washington Square Park in Manhattan, with a speech on how corporate and government corruption are linked — something she’s fought for more than two decades.
But then the recession that so many expected didn’t happen. By mid-fall, things began to look more promising. The stock market began to surge so much that both the Dow and S&P 500 hit record highs again on Wednesday, the day after the New Hampshire primary vote. The unemployment rate has been below 4 percent for more than a year, and people are increasingly satisfied. A Gallup survey released Wednesday found 6 out of 10 Americans saying they were “better off” than they were when Trump became president three years ago and that it was now easier “to go and buy things in stores” than it had been before. In another Gallup release, nearly three-quarters of those surveyed believed they would be in a better economic position in 2021.
This is going to make it harder — much, much harder — for any Democratic candidate to defeat Trump. But for Warren, in particular, this good news pushes her signature issues into the shade, more so than for many other candidates. No one is more identified than Warren with tackling systemic corruption, both in the corporate world and in the world of politics. And unfortunately, one thing I’ve learned in more than two decades of writing about personal finance is that when people believe times are good, it’s harder to get them to engage with overall governance issues; they’re less interested in the policy “plan” to make this or that better. In the run-up to the Great Recession, for instance, there were many articles and investigations into the troubled housing market and Americans’ willingness to take on mounds of debt — they were all but ignored until disaster struck.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has avoided many of these traps, for any number of reasons. But perhaps most important is that his two signature issues — health care and education — are the kitchen-table topics that continue to keep Americans up at night. It’s also true that he has held elected office for four decades, and thus has a better instinctive sense of when to pounce and when to stay silent. It was Sanders who seized the initiative on Social Security, successfully using former vice president Joe Biden’s longtime support for benefit cuts to chip away at his support. Warren, who could and should have been a leader on this — many attribute the push to raise Social Security benefits to her work in the Senate during the Obama administration — was reduced to following in Sanders’s lead on the issue. And because Warren’s signature issue is corruption and how it impacts both political parties, when she suddenly pivoted and campaigned as a “unity” candidate who could work with the establishment, it came across as both intellectually incoherent and a little bit, well, desperate.
I don’t mean for this to read as an autopsy. If there is one thing we all should have learned over the past several years, it is that political prediction is not exactly a science, and things can change in a matter of days. Disgust with Trump’s penny-ante corruption remains high — more than a few voters are revolted by how he has turned the White House into an income stream for his own properties. If any Democratic candidate can make that a defining theme for the electorate, it’s Warren. I hope she’s got a plan for that.