In fairness, Harris dropped out of the race on Tuesday afternoon. Warren, by contrast, remains very much in the hunt. But her poll numbers have nearly halved since October. If that trend continues, then soon Warren, too, will be looking for an exit.
It’s tempting to linger on the superficial similarities between the two candidates — both women, both lawyers — rather than the deep differences. Warren is a fundamentally ideological candidate, while Harris is a consummate careerist whose main passion seems to be the acquisition of power. Yet, beneath the deep differences, there is one important similarity: Both candidates often appeared to be running less for president of the United States than president of Twitter.
In this they are not alone. Three months ago, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait compared modern Democratic politics to a science fiction scenario in which a virus wipes out the entire political leadership except for one old man, who is immune because of his age, but also, possibly, too old to handle the job: “The virus is Twitter, and the old man is (duh) Joe Biden.”
This remains possibly the most perceptive analysis of the state of the race today. Even the moderates in the Democratic primary often seem to be angling for retweets rather than votes, embracing ideas that are unpopular with the general electorate, and not even necessarily appealing to Democratic primary voters, but which yield heaps of accolades from the Twitter brigades.
Medicare-for-all, which both Warren and Harris embraced very early and without much thought, is not the only example of this tendency. But it is the most striking. Both were aping Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), of course, but nationalizing the health-care system isn’t a passion project for either Warren or Harris, as it is for Sanders. It’s something they said because they thought voters would like it, a belief that’s difficult to understand, except by resorting to Twitter.
True, Medicare-for-all polls moderately well, but only if you don’t get into details such as the cost, or the disruption to the existing system — something that eventually, they were going to have to do. Predictably, when they did have to talk specifics, it went badly, and arguably caused their subsequent decline in the polls.
Yet, that’s with a friendly audience. In a general election, the policy is almost perfect political poison: near-certain to be unpopular, and impossible to pass even if you somehow win the presidency and both houses of Congress after campaigning on it. Barack Obama’s much more modest reforms nevertheless triggered a fierce voter backlash that lasted throughout his presidency and cost the seats of many of the swing-district moderates who voted for it. Good luck persuading their successors to pass something much more expensive and disruptive.
That’s how things look in the real world. But on Twitter, touting Medicare-for-all generates an easy cascade of retweets and enthusiastic emojis. So Harris and Warren both mentioned it early and often — then stumbled catastrophically when pressed to explain what exactly they would do and how they would pay for it.
Which makes it interesting to watch Warren continue to campaign for the Twitter vote, unchastened and unbowed. Over Thanksgiving weekend, she re-upped her March promise to abolish the electoral college, a cause that is likely to be even less popular than Medicare-for-all outside of Twitter, substantially less likely to help her win the presidency (since she would, definitionally, have to carry a lot of states whose electoral votes she’s promising to devalue), and — given that it would require a constitutional amendment — impossible to deliver. Predictably, this earned her more retweets and media coverage than her earnestly wonky plans to reform shift work or to make college free.
The irony is that the earnest wonkery is the stuff that Warren really is passionate about: reducing the imbalance of power between workers and corporations, boosting the disadvantaged kids who want a shot at the top. And the greater irony is that many of these things would also sound pretty good to voters, if they weren’t being drowned out by her never-never promises to the Twitterati.