Elizabeth Warren bet on being right — and lost

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Noah Millman
·7 min read
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I was sad, but completely unsurprised, when Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race. There was no rationale for continuing after her extremely poor showing on Super Tuesday — coming in third in her home state and fourth behind Mike Bloomberg in California, Colorado, Tennessee, and her natal state of Oklahoma even though, by the time of the election, it was already clear that the moderate "lane" was consolidating behind Joe Biden and the Bloomberg campaign therefore lacked a rationale.

But the truth is that Warren's campaign had failed long ago and required some extremely unlikely catalyst to give it a third lease on life. How did such a promising candidate come to such an uninspiring end?

In conducting a post-mortem of the Warren campaign, it is vital to recognize that she was never denied her shot. She not only had a legitimate chance at the title, but got a second one after stumbling in her first outing.

As early as November 2016, observers were musing about what might have happened if Warren had challenged Clinton for the nomination instead of Bernie Sanders. (Sanders himself reportedly would have stood aside for Warren had she decided to run that year.) Warren was quickly able to turn herself into a folk hero — "nevertheless, she persisted" is a phrase with its own Wikipedia entry — and was universally rated a formidable contender for the nomination well before she announced. She seemed uniquely capable of harnessing simultaneously the left-wing energy of the Sanders campaign and the angry disappointment of Hillary Clinton's partisans.

I made the case for Elizabeth Warren in precisely those terms in October 2018. Almost immediately after I penned that column, Warren made the decision to release the results of a DNA test showing that she likely had one Cherokee ancestor five or six generations back.

It was an almost unfathomably ill-considered decision. Not only did it do nothing to mitigate concerns that Warren fabricated or exaggerated her non-white ancestry to promote her career (or, far more likely, to goose the statistics of the employer who had already hired her), it offended Native American leaders who had to stress that a genetics test had no bearing on tribal membership and provided no insight into their needs and concerns. It made her look tone-deaf, hypocritical, and ridiculous, and played right into President Trump's tiny hands.

On the other hand, in a technical sense, it proved that she was right — she did, indeed, have Native American ancestry.

To her enormous credit, Warren clawed her way back into contention by sheer grit and determination. Where once she emphasized that she was a "capitalist to her bones" who just wanted to eliminate corruption and monopolistic practices and make free enterprise work for all of society's stakeholders, now she tacked left across the board, proclaiming herself the woman who had "a plan for that," whatever "that" happened to be: regulating Wall Street, promoting affordable housing, fighting climate change, you name it. She rejected big-dollar fundraisers and PAC support, and doggedly built a reputation as a strong alternative to Sanders as a vanguard progressive — but one more able to work with the Democratic Party establishment.

So when Sanders was briefly removed from the campaign trail due to a heart attack, it looked very plausible that she would inherit his movement. She briefly became the front-runner for the nomination both in polls and among handicappers, and in my own estimation as well; I wrote another column at the time outlining what I thought she needed to do to expand her coalition beyond her natural base and become a plausible consensus nominee.

That's when she started to come under fire for not having the kind of detailed plan for a health-care overhaul that she had for everything else. She responded by unveiling a plan that pleased absolutely nobody: It threatened to take away health insurance from those who were happy with it, but was financed in such a way that she could not promise (as Sanders did) that middle-class families who got health insurance from their jobs would pay a great deal less. And when she realized how unpopular the plan was, she promised to phase it in slowly — forgetting how a slow roll-out nearly killed ObamaCare. It was a disaster on multiple levels: raising questions about the seriousness of her commitment to Sanders' signature issue and undermining her core brand as the woman who always had a plan.

On the other hand, in a technical sense, it proved that she was right — you could, indeed, pass universal health insurance without raising taxes on the middle class.

If you're sensing a theme here, congratulations — but stay with me, because I want to make something clear. There has been a lot of talk about how Warren lost because Americans put women in a Catch-22: They need to be three times as qualified to merit consideration, but if they demand respect for those qualifications they are rejected as bossy and superior. Meanwhile, men can be ambitious well beyond their abilities and be rewarded for it. So Warren got killed for releasing a DNA test that proved she did have Cherokee ancestry, while Biden gets a pass even when he fantasizes out loud about an entirely fictional episode where he was arrested trying to visit Nelson Mandela in prison. And Warren's support collapsed when her financing plan for Medicare-for-all had some questionable assumptions, while Sanders gets a pass even when he throws around entirely made up numbers in the tens of trillions.

I am not going to dispute that line of argument in general, because it has far too much evidence across too many walks of life to dispute. But it is not the argument I am making.

The belief that if you prove you are right then you should win is, when you think about it, a very peculiar one for a politician. Very few political arguments are won by forcefully arguing the rightness of a case, because most serious political arguments are contests of interests, and few people want to accept that their interest deserves to lose. The people most inclined to believe this notion are the products of meritocracy, the mass educated middle- and upper-middle class professionals who were selected for their ability to pass tests, and who became the core of Warren's support.

Perhaps precisely because of that conviction, and the argumentative facility that comes with it, they're a group that is surprisingly blind to the fact of their own class interests and the consequences of pursuing them. Perhaps for the same reason, they may not have noticed the degree to which Warren's proposals, over time, came to reflect those interests, sometimes in ways that conflicted with what had once been her core message. (For example, she spent a lot more time talking about forgiving student debt and making four-year college tuition-free than about wage-bolstering alternatives to college — something for which, needless to say, she also has a plan). But the Democratic primary's voters may have — or may have intuited that fact from the numerous cues that told them who Warren was, and who she was talking to.

In fact, of course, Warren has as good a claim to a hardscrabble origin as Biden does, and has remained as true to it in her way as Biden has in his — and her way has more relevance for policy. But his has more relevance for politics. In a democratic culture, any claim to a superior right to govern — very much including on the basis of expertise, intelligence, or just-plain-rightness — is suspect. The only basis for the right to govern is winning the people's trust.

There are any number of lessons to take from Warren's rise and fall and rise and fall again. For every thing Warren did wrong, you can point to a dozen things she would seem to have done right: investing heavily in Iowa and New Hampshire (both demographically-friendly states), earning key endorsements (from the Des Moines Register to the Working Families Party), winning nearly all the debates. She was right an awful lot of the time.

Which is why, from where I sit, the most important lesson is: If you'd rather be right than president, you just might get your wish.

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