Elizabeth Warren used to be more interesting. Her ascent in the Democratic presidential campaign is the oft-told tale of a politician becoming boring, telling voters what they want to hear and disguising it as something else. Yet she may be making a classic political blunder.
Once upon a time, Warren was a “diehard conservative,” particularly on economic issues. Even as she made her ideological journey leftward, she could speak about how corporations were getting a raw deal in the world of mass tort lawsuits (think asbestos, breast implants, airplane crashes—the sorts of things law firms advertise about on cable television).
“The Two-Income Trap,” the 2003 book Warren co-authored with her daughter, has been described as reactionary in a number of respects. Matthew Walther summarized the book as arguing that “generally speaking, the exodus of women from the home into the workforce that began in the 1970s has been a disaster for women, who find the infinite responsibilities of child-rearing compounded with the drudgery of wage labor; for families, who are now twice as vulnerable to the pitfalls to unemployment — a disaster for everyone, in fact, except corporations who have benefited from the vast pool of cheap and readily exploitable labor provided by women over the last four or so decades.”
David Brooks, recently revisiting the book, notes that Warren was not arguing to turn back the clock on women in the workforce. Rather, she supported school choice and vouchers to free parents from a system of lousy public schools and economically burdensome private ones. She also criticized liberal, taxpayer-funded daycare proposals as punishing stay-at-home parents. Warren even recognized how taxpayer subsidies bloat the cost of higher education, and that housing is over-regulated.
Warren’s book, written in her transitional period, was also critical of Republicans. Brooks makes the point that this Warren “was a completely heterodox thinker, who deviated from the liberal mainstream with abandon,” while candidate Warren “has made sure that her policy views conform to progressive orthodoxy.”
Brooks is not the only person to have noticed. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver recently tweeted: “Warren gets a LOT of credit from the media —and from voters —for being wonkish and policy rather than poll-driven. But she holds very few positions that aren’t good politics for her, in terms of appealing to the Democratic primary electorate.”
Silver’s critique seems like an understatement. Warren is marketing herself as the candidate with a plan for everything, but more often than not those plans originated with her Democratic colleagues.
On the key issue of health care, for example, Warren has embraced the single-payer Medicare-for-All scheme proposed by socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders. On climate change, Warren has picked clean the skeleton of Gov. Jay Inslee’s dead presidential campaign. The Washington Examiner’s Timothy P. Carney has catalogued a host of additional examples.
Warren’s plan for a wealth tax echoes a 2017 proposal from Sanders. Her abortion platform is essentially the 2016 platform, adding provisions originated by Sens. Dick Blumenthal and Tammy Duckworth. Her proposal to force politicians to disclose their tax returns was really authored by Sen. Ron Wyden, and so on.
Moreover, as Silver points out, Warren’s plans tend to favor pandering over policy. Blue states like Vermont, California, and New York could get single-payer math to work. Warren opposes nuclear power, even though it represents one-fifth of all energy generation in the United States and close to 55 percent of the carbon-free energy in this country. (When Vermont shuttered its nuclear plant, its carbon emissions increased.) Warren also wants to ban fracking, although natural gas produces about half as much carbon dioxide as coal and is largely responsible for the reductions in U.S. carbon emissions over the past eight years.
For now, Warren’s journey from heterodoxy to orthodoxy is working. She has risen to second place, mostly on the strength of the most tuned-in, most liberal voters. This might seem odd in a race with Sanders, but it appears the activist class is figuring out that running a self-identifying socialist is probably a bad idea. Accordingly, Warren is attracting the enthusiasm and crowds of… Howard Dean in the early stages of the 2004 primary campaign.
However, were she to win the Democratic nomination, the limits of her strategy would become more obvious. President Trump ran and won as a heterodox candidate. He was seen as a more moderate candidate than not only Hillary Clinton, but also past GOP nominees. Heterodoxy also served George W. Bush well as a “compassionate conservative” appealing to so-called soccer moms, Bill Clinton running as a “third way” Democrat, and even Jimmy Carter running as a moderate and a born-again Christian.
Of course, more ideological candidates like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama can win the presidency. But there are two things notable about Reagan and Obama in this regard.
First, both Reagan and Obama were running in favorable environments. By the end of the Carter administration, unemployment and inflation were both serious economic problems, the country suffered an energy crisis, Russia had invaded Afghanistan and Iran had taken American embassy staff hostage. By the end of George W. Bush’s second term, the Iraq War was widely unpopular, his administration was seen as not competently addressing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and a crisis in the financial markets was destroying people’s retirement savings and putting mortgages underwater.
Second, both Reagan and Obama were top-tier political talents. Both had a calm demeanor. Their rhetorical skills also helped convince swing voters that they were not too extreme for the White House.
Warren lacks the skills of a Reagan or Obama. And so far, it does not appear that America will be in an economic or international crisis in 2020. In such an environment, Warren starts to look like a textbook example of winning the primary to lose the general. The ghost of Elizabeth Warren past would have a better shot at victory.