The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Elizabeth Warren is stirring up an intra-party feud

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) answering questions from reporters at the Capitol. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
4 min

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) occupies a singular place in the Democratic Party: a former Harvard law professor with unshakable self-certainty, she lends the presumption of intellectual rigor to every argument she makes.

This is true even when what she says would seem to contradict all evidence and experience — and has more to do with crass political calculation than anything else.

In a New York Times op-ed last week, Warren argued that the only way for Democrats to stave off catastrophic defeat in November is to immediately enact a massive social agenda by legislation and presidential order.

Some items on her list — such as a ban on lawmakers owning stocks and a global minimum corporate tax — seem to me like common sense and are probably doable.

But most comprise a familiar list of vague priorities for a vastly expanded federal government: a raft of higher corporate taxes and some form of price controls, breaking up monopolies and canceling student debt, massive investments in clean energy and early education.

Warren wielded a bunch of highly selective polls to make the case that these are all things for which American voters are clamoring — and if they punish Democrats this fall, it will be because the party did not deliver.

This argument was taken seriously enough to land her a guest spot on no fewer than three Sunday shows, where she reiterated her talking points as if they were self-evident. (Did I mention she used to be a Harvard law professor?)

Except that there are a few obvious reasons to question Warren’s wisdom here — and maybe her sincerity, too.

First, as she must know, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence suggesting that voters ever immediately reward anyone for passing huge spending programs. The 2003 Medicare prescription-drug expansion created nothing but headaches for George W. Bush and his party. President Barack Obama’s health-care law, while more popular now, was a political liability for years.

But why go back even that far? Just last year, Democrats spent nearly $2 trillion to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. An excellent piece by Alexander Burns in the Times last week pointed out that pretty much no one noticed.

I’m not saying these kinds of programs don’t benefit Americans. I’m saying the idea that voters will change their minds as a result is less realistic than the premise of most Disney movies.

Second, let’s note the inconvenient fact that Warren is from Massachusetts, one of the bluest states in the United States. She’s not really the person you call when you want to know how to win a handful of competitive districts in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

I suspect Warren’s rebuttal would be that she knows what energizes Democratic voters, and turnout is what will make the difference in November. But even if you buy the turnout-is-everything theory (and I don’t), recent history suggests she may not be such a keen judge of her own party’s voters, either.

When she ran for president two years ago, Warren won less than 8 percent of the primary vote (or slightly more than Mike Bloomberg, a former Republican billionaire). The combination of Warren and fellow Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), icons of the populist left, ran almost 20 points behind Joe Biden, who refused to back most of their signature proposals.

But the point of Warren’s latest media blitzkrieg isn’t to win the midterm elections. Nor is it really about the specific policies she’s flacking. She knows they have no chance of becoming law this year, and she knows the party’s trajectory isn’t likely to change at this point, no matter what.

What Warren is doing is putting herself in a very public position to say, “I told you so.” This is like me telling you that if you really want to be a billionaire, you have to sell all your possessions and invest the money in ethereum. You’re never going to be a billionaire, but at least this way, I can forever say that it’s only because you didn’t listen to me.

You’d have to presume Warren is setting herself up for another presidential bid in 2024, perhaps whether Biden seeks reelection or not. (She’ll turn 75 then, which these days makes her almost old enough to be taken seriously.)

Now, if Warren wants to take another shot at the White House, she should. She’s a talented candidate and might well perform better the second time around.

But the media shouldn’t treat her maneuvering as an act of intellectual courage — much less serious strategic advice — just because she comes with a rarefied pedigree and a reputation for wonkishness.

What the past week made clear is the same thing Obama told me during a dust up with Warren over free trade in 2015: “Elizabeth is a politician, like everybody else.”