America has been learning a tough lesson over the past few years: Policy actually matters. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts just might be the fortuitous heir of that tough lesson in the 2020 election cycle.
In poll after poll for months, Democratic voters have overwhelmingly said they want to nominate someone who can beat Donald Trump next year. But following Hillary Clinton’s loss to him in 2016, many wonder whether a woman—a better qualified, more competent woman at that—can attract the kind of news coverage and following necessary to win over voters in the Rust Belt and elsewhere that cost Clinton the election.
In fact, some veterans of Clinton’s campaign have warned that anyone who can’t go toe-to-toe with Trump on driving the news cycle probably can’t defeat him next year. In a series of tweets last year, former Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon argued that “an uninteresting character is most susceptible to being sucked into [Trump’s] vortex because they cannot command attention on their own.” In other words, anyone who isn’t dynamic enough will simply spend the entire election cycle responding to the stream of endlessly stupid, offensive, and baseless number of lies that escape from Trump’s diseased brain.
And perhaps, it was just me, but I took “uninteresting” to mean anyone who, like Clinton, was actually accomplished, understood the intricacies of governing and making public policy, and had ideas about what they wanted to do if they were elected. Fallon’s tweet thread appeared to be an admission that, despite their best intentions, Clinton’s candidate slogan was more-or-less reduced down to, Whatever I do, I sure as hell won’t be Donald Trump. And that obviously didn’t win the Electoral College even if it won the popular vote by millions.
Veterans of the Clinton campaign have plenty of wisdom to offer, and I take their observations seriously. But I’m also starting to wonder if Fallon’s sentiment could be a vestige of 2016 that doesn’t translate so neatly and directly to 2020. Certainly, Trump is going to bluster his way through the campaign hurling as many boorish insults and meaningless promises as are capable of whimsically popping into his head, and at least a third of the nation will buy that entire crap sandwich at face value. But for everyone else, Trump will now have a record to answer for. That record may include the muscular economy he inherited (or frankly, Trump might succeed in tanking it by next year), but it won’t include the world-class health care he promised everyone, the broad restoration of the manufacturing industry, a big beautiful border wall, a decrease in the number of immigrants coming through the Southern Border, an end to the opioid crisis (which Trump tied to his wall and keeping drugs from crossing the border, as if that were a real solution), a more equitable tax system that closed the loopholes benefitting the nation’s richest, or more generally, a return to the days when most of the country felt like some version of the American dream was within reach.
And that leaves an opening for a skilled communicator who has a vision for restoring that dream, that sense of possibility to the nation. As you already know, Warren has a plan for that. In the wake of a losing Democratic election cycle in which a pugilistic, bombastic con man triumphed over a candidate who was studied and learned, if not always accessible, Warren has waged her campaign on the implausible bet that good ideas, sound policy, and earnest intent backed up by a lot of fight can win over a decisive amount of voters in 2020. It almost feels like the polar opposite of what Fallon was suggesting—this idea that “having a plan” could capture the imagination of enough of voters to pull away attention from the grotesque carnival barker deploying a daily fusillade of bombs from his twitter feed. But Warren is definitely in the midst of an increase in momentum. When I went with a group of California-based Daily Kos staffers to see her speak in Oakland a week ago Friday, the line to enter the open-air venue at Laney College streamed for a mile or more as attendees filed in for hours. Warren’s team, who had already changed venues to accommodate more people, delayed the rally’s start time by about an hour to allow everyone inside. When Warren finally took the stage around 8:30 p.m., she announced it was her 90th town hall and her biggest crowd so far—estimated at about 6,500 people. (And yes, she still stayed late into the evening to snap a selfie with everyone who wanted one after the rally.)
“Thank you, Oakland!” she exclaimed to cheers, promising to return to the site of this milestone.
Changing venues for more space may be becoming a trend for Warren. She also had to change venues in Elkhart, Indiana, this week to accommodate more people than expected.
When I had the chance to take a quick photo with Warren together with my wife, I asked Warren quickly what she had been most struck by on the campaign trail—anything that was perhaps escaping the news coverage.
After noodling on it for a second, she responded, “So it’s how many people hear hope in the willingness to fight back in the details of the plans. That’s hopeful.”
The notion that people would find “hope” in “the details” of someone’s policies would have sounded almost preposterous in the weeks following Clinton’s 2016 defeat. But Warren’s implausible bet appears to be getting traction with an electorate that is perhaps more aware than ever that bombast alone isn’t worth a hill of beans. Trump’s lunacy has surely helped make a bid like Warren’s possible.
Perhaps Warren’s biggest hurdle at this point isn’t inspiring people, but rather overcoming voters’ preconceived notions about who can beat Trump. Could a candidate with a profile that’s at least generically similar to Clinton in terms of gender, race, age, and education level possibly do in 2020 what Clinton failed to do in 2016? It’s a question Warren confronts in almost every Q&A she does, and her answer is almost always rooted in convincing people not just to believe in her, but to believe in themselves and their own instincts.
At a Houston conference for women of color, Warren told attendees that “the heart” of whether a female candidate could prevail in 2020 lies in how we fight for that prospect.
“How are we going to fight?” Warren said. “Not just individually, but how are we going to fight together? Are we going to fight because we’re afraid? That’s not who we are. That’s not how we’re going to do this.”
This week she addressed doubts that it’s possible to get anything done in Washington even if she were to be elected. “You’re not going to be elected ruler of the universe or monarch,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes remarked during a televised town hall with Warren in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “So you’re walking in and you have a website full of plans that might pencil out and that people might like, but in what universe are those going to be passed?”
“That’s the reason I’m here today,” Warren responded of taking her message to a deep red state in the Midwest. “The bottom line is, we’ve gotta build a grassroots movement across the country—we gotta do it,” she said, explaining that having a robust grassroots movement opens the path to taking back the Senate and governor’s offices, state legislatures, and city councils across the country.
“Look, we can give up,” she told Hayes. “Or we can say, ‘This is the moment that we fight.’ I am in this fight all the way,” she reaffirmed, nodding her head urgently.
Warren is asking us to fight for what we believe in but also to just fundamentally believe—in her, in ourselves, in this country’s resilience. She’s not asking us to do it alone. She’s there too, not mincing words, not ducking and weaving, not tailoring her campaign to the wishes of big donors. Impeachment? She was for it first. The ‘70s-era Hyde Amendment that bars Medicaid from paying for abortions? Joe Biden’s wrong about it. “We do not pass laws that take away that freedom from the women who are most vulnerable.” The ultra rich? She’s gonna tax ’em, two cents on every dollar of wealth over $50 million. And more—ask her a question, she’ll give you an answer and then she’ll tell you her plan.
Warren is more wonky than either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, but she’s less aloof than both. She’s also more forthcoming, which perhaps makes her more relatable than either. She has neither the walk-on-water qualities of Obama and his soaring prose, nor Clinton’s intimidating presence forged through decades of gritty public scrutiny. And it remains to be seen whether her earnest mettle can attract the movement of foot soldiers necessary to win the nomination, take back the White House, and transform the government into one that actually works for the people.
But if the nation were to ping-pong from one extreme to the other—from incomprehensible policy driven by profound ignorance to intelligible solutions rooted in a coherent vision—Warren would be the natural beneficiary of that opposite reaction.