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A Dem for All Seasons?

Cheryl Senter/AP Images
Elizabeth Warren speaking at a campaign event at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, October 2019

After Barack Obama won reelection in 2012, a spate of news articles, columns, and essays heralded the Democrats’ large and apparently impregnable Electoral College advantage. I know—I wrote some of them. I remember counting up the states the Democratic presidential candidate had won at least five times in the previous six elections, going back to 1992; five out of six seemed to me, in this volatile and polarized time, pretty reliable. Those states’ electoral votes added up to 257, just thirteen short of victory. The advantage seemed irrefutable. How could a Democrat possibly fail to win, say, Wisconsin, which the party had not lost since Ronald Reagan was reelected?

But lose Wisconsin Hillary Clinton did—by a mere 22,748 votes out of nearly 2.8 million cast, but she lost. Pennsylvania and Michigan were the two other states she lost narrowly in 2016 that every Democratic nominee since her husband had carried. And some states that had seemed to have turned or at least to be trending Democratic weren’t close at all. Since 1992, Democrats had carried Iowa in every contest except 2004; Donald Trump won the state by nearly ten percentage points. They had also carried Ohio four times out of the six elections between 1992 and 2012; the two Republican wins there were by George W. Bush, who, unusually, won the state by a smaller margin as the incumbent in 2004 than he had in 2000. Trump won it by eight points.

No one speaks of a Democratic advantage anymore. Indeed, what one hears from liberals today is a demand to do away with the Electoral College, with its bias in favor of small states, which tilt Republican. The Washington Post reported after the 2016 election that because each state is awarded two electoral votes based on its Senate representation in addition to those it receives based on its population, the votes of citizens in the ten least populous states had carried two-and-a-half times the weight in the Electoral College as the votes of citizens in the ten most populous states.1 Conservatives defend it, since it’s been working rather well from their perspective, especially in 2000 (when Al Gore won the popular vote by 500,000) and 2016 (when Clinton won it by 2.8 million).

As one surveys the 2020 electoral landscape, there are a few states that were thought to be blue but where the trend is not reassuring. In 2012 Obama won Minnesota by eight points, Clinton by just a point and a half four years later. He carried New Hampshire by nearly six points, Clinton by less than one half of one percent. Nevada went from a 6.7 percent Democratic margin to 2.4 percent. Trump has his eye on all three. They add up to twenty electoral votes.

Was this failure to win states that seemed reliably Democratic Clinton’s fault—because she didn’t talk enough economics, because she spoke of “deplorables,” because of the controversy over her e-mails? That’s the common explanation on the broad liberal-left; that, plus those St. Petersburg–created Facebook bots that convinced many black voters and young voters that she was their enemy.

Clinton had her deficiencies, some of them without doubt her fault and some of them invented and marketed by a right wing that placed a target on her back for a quarter-century. But as I watch the current group of Democratic contenders, I can’t help suspecting that there may be another factor at play in the collapse of what used to be called the “blue firewall.” What if assembling that Obama coalition—which, according to the electoral demographer Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress, “is broadly understood to include not just nonwhites, young voters, unmarried and highly educated women, professionals, urbanites…but also 40 percent or so of non-college whites in critical states”—was just really hard to do? What if it took a candidate who had an ability, quite rare in politics, to inspire many different kinds of voters—and a dose of crazy luck, given the timing of the Great Meltdown in September 2008—to draw all those blocs out in large enough numbers and keep them unified? What if, more than that, the Democrats’ last two presidents were simply politicians of unusual skill and charisma who also ran highly disciplined campaigns that allowed them to overcome both the Electoral College’s tilt toward red states and the far greater number (which we should always remember) of self-identified conservatives than liberals in this country?2

It may well be that by November 2020, the American people will have learned enough about Trump’s corrupt and unethical acts as president that a majority will vote for anyone running against him. But assuming that Trump is still in office and that there will be a multibillion-dollar attack campaign by the president, the GOP, dark-money multimillionaires, Fox News, the quote-unquote Justice Department, and the Kremlin that paints the Democratic nominee as both radical and corrupt (aided along the way by Facebook, which has indicated that it will not police the truth of political advertisements on its site), the question of the election will be: Can any of these Democrats recreate and energize the Obama coalition? All of them have talents and strengths—but all come up short with crucial elements of it.

The big story of the campaign so far has been the ascent of Elizabeth Warren. A reluctant and somewhat shaky candidate in 2012 when she was persuaded to run for Senate—she became the first woman elected to the Senate from Massachusetts—Warren has transformed herself. She’s smart and exudes energy and gets to the point. She’s fast on her feet. For me, the moment that most captures what is best about her came in the late July debate, when the moderate former congressman John Delaney chastised her: “Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises. When we run on things that are workable, not fairy tale economics.” Warren’s quick riposte: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders; drawing by James Ferguson

Her numerous plans for regulating the finance industry, breaking up tech monopolies, and other matters have won her much press attention, and they are popular with the Democratic base. But I think that what many people like about Warren is the complete absence in her self-presentation of the usual Democratic caution. For thirty-plus years, Democrats have been careful not to be too this or too that: too liberal, too aggressive, too angry at the “malefactors of great wealth,” to use Teddy Roosevelt’s famous phrase. Warren is utterly incautious about such matters, and about describing and denouncing this malignant form of capitalism we’ve been living with for forty years. Bernie Sanders does that too, of course, but while Sanders usually seems to be lecturing—basically his only emotional gear—Warren comes off more as someone who is jousting and enjoying it.

Warren has stolen much of Sanders’s thunder, but he is not to be discounted. His heart attack in early October seems, if anything, to have rallied his supporters around him. The words “heart attack” make for a scary headline, and it led some observers to write him off, but as was pointed out in news stories explaining what it means to have two stents inserted into one’s pulmonary arteries, it’s quite common for the patient to feel better almost immediately.3 He came out the following week and delivered what is generally regarded as his best debate performance so far, and then he held an event in Queens at which Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed him in front of a staggering 26,000 people.

Still, Sanders’s campaign does seem to be suffering from the fact that voters seeking an anti-establishment candidate have more choices this time than last. Most commentators point to the similarities between Sanders and Warren, but more to be noted, I think, are the differences: he is an independent socialist who, though seeking the Democratic nomination, will not call himself a Democrat (which a lot of state committee people and the like surely aren’t keen on). She is a Democrat and a self-proclaimed “capitalist to my bones.” While exciting the left flank of the party, she quietly makes sure to play nice within the Democratic Party establishment. He loudly seeks to rattle it. Their campaigns have an entente for now, but at some point, it will be in the interests of one of them to break it.

If there’s one rule of presidential campaigns that seems to hold across party lines and across the decades, it’s that campaigns end when they run out of money. Sanders, who with his small-donor engine posted the biggest haul of the last quarter, will have the money to stay in all the way. From his perspective, even if he’s not winning, there’s no reason for him to make an early exit and endorse Warren, as some have suggested he do—provided he is amassing delegates, because delegates mean leverage at the convention over the eventual candidate.

Joe Biden
Joe Biden; drawing by James Ferguson

Then there’s Joe Biden. On paper, he is probably still the most electable candidate—the one most likely to accomplish the straightforward and crucial task of winning back those Obama-to-Trump voters in the Great Lakes states. Biden is the clear choice of non-college-educated Democrats, who make up two-thirds of the party (according to the 2017 Pew Typology Survey). Warren, for all her populism, is much more favored by college-educated Democrats (18 percent of the party, per Pew) and especially by those with graduate degrees (15 percent).4 Biden is also the overwhelming choice of black voters, among whom high turnout will be essential to the Democratic nominee. He is deeply disliked by younger voters, which is a big problem for him, but he has a wide lead among older voters, who get less press than younger voters but go to the polls in much larger numbers.

In the flesh, however, Biden has not looked like a candidate capable of taking on the enormous jobs of running for and then being president. His debate performances have been, at moments, alarming. He wasn’t always this way. When he debated Sarah Palin in 2008 and Paul Ryan in 2012, he was smooth, self-assured, fluent—not at all like the man we’ve seen this year, whose face sometimes betrays the struggle to pull the right words out of his brain and who stops in mid-sentence and feverishly darts off in another direction. And yet his support, for the most part, has not dipped as much as one might have thought.

A large percentage of Iowa Democrats remain undecided, so things could change, but the time for bold gestures is running out. The next nationally televised debate will be held on Wednesday, November 20, in Atlanta. In early December the Iowa Teamsters, always an important participant in Iowa Democratic politics, along with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and the teachers’ union, will hold a candidates’ forum.

And on Monday, February 3, Iowans will caucus. Right now, says Jeff Link, an experienced Democratic hand in the state who’s sitting out this campaign, “it’s Warren’s to lose.” She assembled a strong team there earlier than the others. Biden, Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg all have large staffs as well. If there is to be a surprise, Link’s tip is to keep an eye on Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. “Never discount a neighboring senator,” Link told me. She has been making visits to the state for years.

I hear people mention Klobuchar more frequently as the voting draws nearer. The reason is simple: a lot of Democratic insiders—it’s hard to say exactly how many or whether they constitute a majority—are more than a little nervous about the two front-runners. They’re nervous about Biden for the aforementioned reasons. His big donors, it is whispered, are feeling antsy about him and are looking around for a non-Warren-or-Sanders alternative. And they’re nervous about Warren because a number of them perceive her as being too far to the left to win a general election.

The big issue here is Medicare for All—specifically Warren’s pledge to eliminate private health insurance, which about two thirds of Americans use, according to the Census Bureau. On November 1, Warren released her long-awaited health care plan, in which she laid out the details of how she would fund her program without raising taxes on the middle class. This wrinkle allows her to one-up Sanders, who has acknowledged that middle-class taxes will increase under his plan, though he consistently claims that the “overwhelming majority” of working- and middle-class people will pay less in taxes than they do in premiums, deductibles, and co-payments. This may be the beachhead on which Sanders’s and Warren’s entente collapses—it will be interesting to see if Sanders starts criticizing Warren’s plan as unrealistic.

Under Warren’s proposal, most costs would be borne by corporations, whose tax rate would go back up to 35 percent on foreign earnings; the top 1 percent of earners, who would pay higher capital gains and wealth taxes than the ones she had proposed previously; Wall Street, which would pay a financial transactions tax; and employers, who would pay to the government an amount per employee roughly equivalent to what they now pay to insurance companies in the form of their portion of employees’ premiums.

The plan also includes assumptions that are highly optimistic—about $7.5 trillion in spending reductions over the next decade, a figure based on a number of assumptions about savings on everything from tougher tax collection to comprehensive immigration reform (which would create more citizens, hence more taxpayers and more revenue, but which Congress has not passed since Ronald Reagan was president). It would reimburse doctors and hospitals at lower rates, a move that creates two powerful, and popular, foes.

The speculation before Warren released her plan centered around the extent to which she would inch away from the elimination of private insurance to be able to insulate herself from general-election attacks from Trump and the powerful lobbies. She has instead released a plan that, to use the popular argot, leans in to Medicare for All in an emphatic way. There can be no walking away from this if she’s the nominee. She has clearly decided that she will try to make “M4A” the, or at least a, centerpiece of her campaign—that taking a firm line on this advances her “brand” as the people’s David taking on America’s corporate Goliaths.

She will say to voters: You will never pay a penny for health coverage of any kind, and the big insurance companies will stop making billions in profits. Who knows? It could work. Adherents on the left believe this is the moment America has been waiting for: it just needed someone—and both Warren and Sanders could be that someone—to advance this fight in moral terms and without apology, and the country would respond. Other, more mainstream liberals see enormous risks. Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago, a widely respected liberal health care expert, tweeted the day Warren released her plan:

Going hard on M4A is just a heartbreaking mistake for Democrats. A proposal like Warren’s or Sanders’ wouldn’t get 20 Senate votes. It’s a huge electoral risk as we seek to remove President Trump. And there’s so much else we can do [to] help people that is much more popular+feasible.

Medicare for All—in its purest form, with private insurance companies eliminated, which even Canada and the UK don’t do—has become the litmus-test issue of this campaign. Biden is against it, as are all the other major contenders. But it has had a growing constituency on the left since the early 1990s. There are other issues that strike me as at least as important and are less controversial. Raising middle-class wages is a matter of the highest urgency and is sure to be popular. But there is no activist base organized around the idea. M4A, for better or worse, is where the action is.

Meanwhile, the surreal impeachment drama slogs forward. It seems pretty certain that the House will approve one or more articles of impeachment before the year is out and move the matter to the Senate for trial. We can’t anticipate what the House Republicans will resort to next, since people who can stand before the country and say with a straight face that closed-door congressional hearings, which happen all the time, are out of bounds are capable of saying anything. But they can’t stop the vote on impeachment from happening, and after the Ukraine revelations, nearly all the purple-district Democrats are on board.

It’s understandable that the Democrats want to do this fairly quickly, but there’s one thing that I think is more important than speed: they need to show the American people, once they do begin taking public testimony, clear and dramatic evidence of presidential wrongdoing. Courageous figures like diplomats Bill Taylor, Kurt Volker, and Alexander Vindman gave apparently riveting testimony in private about the nature and scope of Trump’s misconduct in the Ukraine matter. One assumes they and others will be willing to do so in public, with the cameras rolling.

What we know already is clearly impeachable, and more than half of Americans agree in most polls. But surely there is more to come. It’s rather unlikely that Trump’s pressure on Ukraine was some aberration and that his handling of other matters has been above reproach. He has almost certainly violated the emoluments clause, and probably flagrantly. He is almost certainly still running the Trump Organization, in fact if not in title, which he said he would not do. I trust the House Democrats’ investigators are turning over these rocks.

Courts may also compel the testimony of current and former administration officials who have refused to appear before Congress. The crucial figure here is former White House counsel Don McGahn, who told Robert Mueller’s investigators that Trump directed him to lie about Trump’s wanting to fire Mueller. That’s open-and-shut obstruction of justice, even if the terribly disappointing Mueller refused to say so. If McGahn can be forced to confirm that before Congress, it will be a moment that will stand in history with John Dean acknowledging a “cancer on the [Nixon] presidency.”

In other words, Trump could be far more unpopular by next November than he is now. A certain percentage of Americans will stay with him no matter what happens. But some chunk of his 40 percent will desert him if there is enough evidence of unfitness, especially if the small cracks in the Republican wall spread and deepen, as seems possible. Incumbent presidents with sub-50-percent approval ratings during their reelection year can win. Barack Obama was in the mid-40s for the first half of 2012, according to Gallup. But mid-30s? To go from there to victory seems well-nigh impossible.

So it might turn out that all this hand-wringing about the Democrats is misplaced. On the other hand, if they should have learned one lesson from 2016, it would be about the perils of overconfidence. They need to put the Obama coalition back together. And they mustn’t choose between Obama-to-Trump white working-class voters and younger, more multiracial and “woke” voters. They need both. It’s the nature of the Democratic coalition, which is far more diverse—racially and ideologically—than the Republican one. Right now, the two current front-runners are speaking to only part of the coalition. The nominee will be the one—Biden, Warren, or in this still-fluid contest perhaps someone else entirely—who can best reassure the other part.

—November 6, 2019

 

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that John Delaney had dropped out of the presidential race and misattributed the phrase “malefactors of great wealth.” The text above has been amended.

  1. 1

    See Katy Collin, “The Electoral College Badly Distorts the Vote. And It’s Going to Get Worse,” The Washington Post, November 16, 2016. 

  2. 2

    In Gallup’s 2018 survey of American adults’ ideological leanings, 35 percent described themselves as conservative, 35 percent as moderate, and 26 percent as liberal. This is quite an improvement over Bill Clinton’s day, when the respective numbers were 43, 36, and 17. But assuming roughly 250 million adults in the United States, that still means around 22.5 million more conservatives (and moderates) than liberals. See Lydia Saad, “US Still Leans Conservative, But Liberals Keep Recent Gains,” Gallup, January 8, 2019. 

  3. 3

    See, for example, Nicoletta Lanese, “Bernie Sanders Had Two Stents Put In. Is It Serious?,” Live Science, October 2, 2019. 

  4. 4

    I base these conclusions about voters’ preferences on The Economist’s running online feature “Who Is Ahead in the Democratic Primary Race?,” which uses data from the magazine’s pollster, YouGov, and other sources to measure candidates’ support. Biden leads Warren and Sanders among those with a high school education or less, for example, 31-19-15. Among black voters, Biden leads 42-14-12. Voters sixty-five and over prefer Biden over Warren 40-24. These numbers are as of November 6.