I’m not anti-Warren by any means. I like her—my policy preferences tend to be reasonably close to her policy preferences. I have been, for a very long time, a “one-and-a-half cheers for capitalism” kind of guy.
Also, I think Elizabeth Warren did okay at the debate Tuesday night. It wasn’t the strongest performance in the world, but when you’re the frontrunner—and she’s now pretty clearly the frontrunner—your first job is to not screw up.
She didn’t screw up.
But here is a thing I tell people constantly: Never confuse your preferences with analysis. You can like someone, or desire a certain outcome, without thinking it’s likely. For whatever it’s worth, my default setting is to assume that any time my analysis matches up with my preferences it means that I’m probably wrong about one or both of them.
Which is why I’m here to tell you that lurking beneath Warren’s strengths is a gigantic weakness. And that weakness got bigger on Tuesday.
Presidential campaigns are about stories and the stories are about perceptions. That’s why the same piece of information might be deadly for one candidate, but survivable for another.
For instance, in 1992 it came out that Bill Clinton had an affair. This was bad. It put Clinton in a tough spot. But his character was already sketched out in the minds of voters as the lovable scamp. His philandering wasn’t something he bragged about, but it fit within a preexisting view of him that people could make sense of. And so he went on to be elected president.
If, in 2012, Mitt Romney had been hit with charges of having had multiple affairs, it would have blown up his entire candidacy. Because the public perception of Mitt Romney was “upright guy, solid citizen.”
You see this in politics over and over. The most recent being Donald Trump’s penchant for saying things that are not true. The story people have in their heads is “he always exaggerates so you have to take him seriously, not literally.”
So lies that he tells, and gets away with, would kill most other politicians.
Which brings us to Warren. She’s still relatively unformed as a political commodity, because despite the fact that she’s been in the national spotlight for five years, relative to Biden, Trump, and Bernie, she’s a fresh face.
And what is the story people have been told about her? That she’s the brilliant professor. The wonk with the plan for everything. The politician who looks at the data, figures out how to find a solution, and then fights for the plan. Her campaign is, in a real way, the technocratic version of the Sanders movement.
Which brings us to her vulnerability. If people know anything bad about Warren, it’s her very strange and very real problem with having claimed Native-American ancestry. And now with having claimed to have faced pregnancy discrimination.
If you pay attention to the debates, you see that she very pointedly will not answer straight-forward questions about taxes going up under her healthcare plan. This avoidance has happened at every single debate. Everyone on stage points it out. Even the moderators see it and highlight it.
And the worst part is that Bernie Sanders is standing right next to her answering the same question truthfully, even though it’s inconvenient. He explains that yes, your taxes will go up, but that they will be offset by you spending less money every month on health insurance and services.
Elizabeth Warren absolutely refuses to say the first part of this out loud.
Add this all up and Warren is now running the risk of having the knock on her being that “she doesn’t tell the truth.”
It is untenable to present voters with a character whose narrative is “wonky technocrat” but whose vulnerability is “she doesn’t tell the truth.”
Those two stories don’t fit together and could wind up hurting her at some point. The question is whether the Democrats figure this out on their own, of if they roll the dice and hope that Trump and the Republicans can’t make it stick.
Maybe they won’t be able to. But it won’t be for lack of trying.