Handicapping presidential elections nearly two years in advance may be a fool’s errand but that’s exactly what those seeking the Democratic nomination in 2020 are being forced to do. That’s why Sen. Elizabeth Warren became the first big name to formally announce her intentions on New Year’s Eve, more than 13 months before the first votes are cast in Iowa.
Warren has had a rough recent few months after an attempt to put the controversy over her claims to Native American ancestry via a DNA test turned into a fiasco in October. The test hurt her among tribal groups that believe ancestry tests are a challenge to their right to determine who may claim membership in a tribe, while also causing many on the left to question her judgment. And it didn’t do a thing to silence Republican critics — like President Donald Trump — who continued to mercilessly mock her pretensions to minority status.
But despite advice from liberal outlets like the Boston Globe to sit out 2020 and let the crop of Democratic newcomers have a shot at challenging Trump, the DNA fiasco has not deterred Warren. Warren foolishly passed on entering the 2016 race when she might have had a better chance to beat Hillary Clinton than did Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose insurgent movement benefitted from the fact that most serious Democratic politicians wanted no part of fighting the former first family’s formidable political machine. Warren knows this is her last chance at the big prize.
In early polls of Democratic voters, Warren has trailed former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders, with all three placing ahead of the flock of newcomers filling a field that might number as many as 25 entrants. But Warren believes her two septuagenarian rivals (she’s only 69) can’t adjust to the changing political environment and is eager to establish herself as the closest thing to a frontrunner in a race that clearly lacks one.
That is why she thought announcing her intention to set up an exploratory committee — which will allow her to raise money and hire staff — on New Year’s Eve would help set her back on a path to success and discourage her opponents.
But while she can appeal to women and her party’s left-wing base with her tough rhetoric about Trump and Wall Street, the notion that Warren should be considered an early favorite for 2020 is not only far-fetched, it’s a snare she should avoid if at all possible. Far from being the sort of candidate who uniquely matches the spirit currently animating Democratic voters, Warren is instead a paradigm of entitlement and bad timing. In other words, she is the moral equivalent of Jeb Bush.
Almost exactly four years ago, the former Florida governor was seeking to establish himself as the Republican frontrunner for 2016. He had raised an enormous amount of money and was attempting to intimidate other Republicans — like Sen. Marco Rubio, who appealed to the same category of mainstream GOP voters — from getting in the race.
Like Warren, Bush had heard from many Republicans asking him to step aside and let younger Republicans compete for the presidential nomination. Indeed, at one point even his mother, the late Barbara Bush, told him it would be better for the country if a third Bush didn’t seek the presidency.
But Bush knew this would be his only chance, and stayed in the contest even as the competition with Rubio and others cannibalized the donations and ultimately the votes of mainstream Republicans as an outlier candidate in the form of Donald Trump wound up benefiting from their squabbling.
There are plenty of differences between Warren and Jeb Bush. While the “low energy” tag Trump pinned on him was unfair, it’s also true that Bush was a more laid-back sort of candidate than the feisty Warren. Nor can she be said to epitomize her party’s discredited establishment the way the Bush family did for Republicans. But the similarities should scare Warren and her supporters.
Bush tried to appeal to voters on the issues of previous election cycles when his ideas about education reform, immigration moderation, and a tough interventionist foreign policy were in vogue. But in a year in which Republicans wanted an outsider who rejected establishment conventional wisdom about everything and would fight Democrats tooth and nail by fair means or foul, Bush was an obsolete political model.
Warren runs the same risk. Democrats may be just as receptive to her anti-Wall Street demagoguery as they would have been in 2016, and like her willingness to mix it up with Trump. But it’s just as likely that the key to victory in 2020 for Democrats will be not so much her brand of hard-line leftist economics as someone with the charisma that can mobilize Democratic voters.
Moreover, candidates who can appeal to minority voters — the key to the Democratic base — better than Warren, such as Sen. Kamala Harris or Beto O’Rourke (although his claims to Hispanic identity are as tenuous as Warren’s to membership in the Cherokee tribe), may be a better bet to energize the party. Worse, just as Bush seemed too tame to battle the Democrats, the combative Warren may have already failed the one test her party faithful will require its nominee to pass: the ability to withstand Trump’s abuse.
The point about the DNA test wasn’t so much whether it backed up the stories that she has been telling about her family’s Native American ties in spite of the lack of documentary proof. Democratic voters may be sufficiently entranced by intersectional ideology that they may not care much whether, as the test said, she is anywhere from 1/64 to 1/1,024th Native American.
But they do know Warren fell for Trump’s bait by seeking to silence his “Pocahontas” jibes. We don’t know yet what issue or quality will ultimately set the winner of the Democratic primaries apart from the field, but we do know that being weak enough to be trolled by Trump is a disqualifying characteristic for any potential Democratic candidate.
Although waiting to announce would have risked letting her rivals gain an advantage, by announcing early Warren reminded us of her weakness as Trump immediately began attacking her. As much as Democrats sympathize with anyone Trump abuses, being the butt of his contempt also shows them she isn’t the dragon slayer they seek.
That’s why all the faux hype being ginned up by Warren’s supporters about her early announcement seems vaguely familiar to Bush’s push around the same time in the last presidential cycle. Anything may be possible in a race with this many candidates, but, as proved to be the case with Bush, being among the early front runners in this kind of an election is no advantage, especially when the reasons she is likely to fail are already baked into her campaign cake.