In death, as in life, Elizabeth Warren’s campaign has been the most lavishly praised effort of the 2020 cycle. We’ve now seen essay after essay after essay after essay analyzing what went wrong for Warren. The general consensus seems to be something like:
- The awful power of the Democratic establishment.
- Voters couldn’t handle her detailed plans and hard truths.
- Warren didn’t show voters how hard she could fight until the Nevada debate where she took down Mike Bloomberg.
This is all wrong. All of it. Literally every one of these explanations runs exactly counter to what happened during the race.
Warren lost not because of sexism, or the establishment, or the stupidity of voters, or a lack of aggression. She did not lose because of her own particular vulnerabilities as a candidate.
Warren lost because of a series of strategic decisions she made over the last four years. This nomination was hers for the taking and she made unforced errors at every important inflection point.
Elizabeth Warren deserved to lose.*
(1) She missed her moment. In 2015, Hillary Clinton was Barack Obama’s not-quite-designated successor and while her numbers were superficially strong, it was clear that she was beatable. Progressives were clamoring for Warren to run. Bernie Sanders asked her to run. The din was such that Warren repeatedly had to say that she wasn’t running in order to tamp down speculation that she was about to jump in. And Warren clearly didn’t have much affection for Clinton, because she didn’t endorse her until the primary was effectively over.
Had Warren run, she would have been at least as strong a challenger as Bernie Sanders. And Bernie got 43 percent of the primary votes and came within a few million ballots of beating Clinton. It is entirely possible that Warren would have been the Democratic nominee.
But even if Clinton had been able to out-muscle her down the stretch, Warren would then have begun the 2020 cycle as the front-runner, with a massive organization and base of support, just as Sanders did.
I’m sure Warren had good reasons for not running in 2016. But in politics, timing is everything. If you want to be president and you have a shot at the White House, you take it. Those opportunities rarely present themselves twice.
(2) She ran as a progressive. I understand that progressives are Warren’s base, but for precisely that reason, she did not need to position herself as a progressive darling. Many of Warren’s policy proposals are more populist than progressive and she could have offered herself not as a revolutionary, but a reformer there to finish Barack Obama’s work. Someone who wasn’t running to change the system, so much as fix it.
Instead, she ran as Bernie’s wingman in the burn-it-all-down primary. She should have been his chief antagonist.
By deciding to run as a progressive, Warren entered into a bidding war against a socialist. This was an unwinnable proposition. There was no redistribution she could offer, no government expansion she could propose, that Bernie would not be willing to top.
This isn’t science or anything, but I suspect that if you could sort the Democratic electorate by its voters’ attitudes toward how the party should exist today in relation to how it was four years ago, it would look something like this:
(3) She refused to attack Sanders. Warren’s natural coalitions should have been a trifecta of blue-collar Democrats, college-educated women, and progressives. She ceded significant portions of each by refusing to go after Sanders during the campaign.
Note how Pete Buttigieg’s rise came after he attacked Warren for the unworkability of her Medicare for All plan, which brought white college-educated suburbanites into his camp. Those voters were there for the taking, had she been willing to highlight the infeasibility of the Sanders agenda.
Instead, Warren hugged Sanders as tight as she could while lashing out at the field’s moderates, over and over. She did not understand that the way to win those moderate voters over wasn’t by crushing Biden and Mayor Pete, but by highlighting the contrast between herself and Sanders.
(4) Medicare for All. Maybe the single biggest unforced error in a generation of presidential politics. Warren didn’t want to be in favor of Medicare for All. She only flipped midway through the campaign in order to keep pace with Sanders.
And she executed her flip in the worst possible way. Unlike Sanders, who consistently allowed that M4A would mean new taxes for the middle class, Warren refused to admit that new taxes would be part of her plan. You simply can’t lie to voters when they know you’re lying.
And you especially can’t lie to them when you keep telling them that you’re the one with all of the best plans—and they know you’re lying.
Then it got worse. When pressure mounted for Warren to show her work, she released a roadmap for her version of M4A that was so stunningly wrong on the math that it was either the product of incompetence or deception.
Think of it this way: By refusing to give details on how he would accomplish M4A, Bernie Sanders left the impression that he had no workable plan. By giving her shoddy details, Warren removed all doubt.
But then it got worse still: A few weeks later, Warren flipped again. This time she said that she would introduce a “transition plan” that did not eliminate private health insurance, but would turn to the full-Bernie, M4A at a later date.
Which put her in the absolute sour spot where she alienated both pro- and anti-M4A voters while demonstrating to both sides that she could not be trusted to be a straight-shooter.
(5) She changed her pitch twice in the final weeks. As things went sideways for Warren in the run-up to Iowa, she reoriented her campaign around being a woman in the most unsubtle, ALL CAPS way possible. She accused Sanders of telling her that a woman couldn’t be elected president and then, when he denied it, accused him of lying. She took what should have been the subtext of her campaign and made it the text.
And then, when that didn’t work, as she was circling the drain Warren decided to pitch herself as a “unity” candidate. You cannot spend a year attacking most of your rivals with any club at hand and then credibly offer yourself as the uniter just because you happen to be sitting in fourth place and have no path to a delegate majority. This is little more than rank opportunism.
The irony here is that once upon a time, Warren absolutely could have been the unity candidate. Had she opted from the start to run as a reformer, had she not taken the most uncompromising M4A approach, had she not said “fight” every 15 words, she could have had a chance to bring the party together around an agenda that could have been seen as a continuation and expansion of the Obama legacy rather than a bold revolution against it.
The end result of this series of mistakes is that Warren finishes her 2020 run not enhanced, but diminished. She didn’t fight the good fight and lose because of events outside her control. She conducted herself in such a way as to suggest that she might not be the competent, principled intellectual that many Democrats believed she was before she ran.
This is a thing that happens sometimes—ask John Edwards, ask Marco Rubio. As David Axelrod likes to say, presidential campaigns function like an MRI for the soul.
Sometimes, because of circumstance, or the opposition, or just plain bad luck, a campaign doesn’t work out. There’s no shame in that. American history is riddled with the names of respected politicians who failed to be elected president—Scoop Jackson, Bob Dole, Mario Cuomo, John McCain.
The shame only comes in the instances when the campaign fails because it reveals something previously unseen in the candidate.
*Caveats: None of this is born of anti-Warrenism. For years I’ve called Warren my beau idéal of the progressive politician. Insofar as my own preferences matter, I would say that along many vectors my politics map reasonably well to Warren’s, especially when it comes to reforming capitalism and markets. But none of that has anything to do with the strategically terrible campaign she ran.