With the launch of her exploratory presidential committee on New Year’s Eve, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been among the first to jump into what is sure to be a crowded field of Democrats vying for their party’s 2020 nomination. In a four-minute video, she laid out in clear terms her bold, progressive agenda for a people-centered economy—a major improvement on the video she published last fall as part of her widely criticized response to President Donald Trump’s false accusations about her Native American ancestry.
For Warren to make her intentions clear nearly two years before the actual election is a good problem to have during this time of political devastation being wrought by Trump. With a partial government shutdown in progress that has no end in sight, and an announced pay freeze for federal workers, the president’s callousness toward working Americans is more apparent than ever. Into this fray, surely Warren’s move is a welcome one. There are, however, caveats to the senator’s bid and critical lessons for voters looking ahead to an inordinately long campaign season.
Warren has a strong track record of fighting on behalf of working Americans.
First, the good stuff: Warren has a strong track record of fighting on behalf of working Americans. Prior to becoming senator, her greatest achievement was to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a government agency designed to enforce existing regulations protecting ordinary Americans against the shenanigans of banks and the financial industry. As a U.S. senator, Warren has backed a “Medicare for All” bill, spoken out against harsh conditions facing immigrants in detention, criticized the war in Afghanistan, and called for an end to the U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. Most recently, she has also backed the idea of a “Green New Deal” to address the ongoing environmental and economic crisis through a green jobs program—a critical litmus test for progressives in Congress.
Second, she has taken a strong position on racial justice, an issue that stymied Sen. Bernie Sanders early in his primary campaign ahead of the 2016 election. In Trump’s first year in office, Warren took a bold position against Jeff Sessions during his confirmation as Attorney General, attempting to read a letter by Coretta Scott King denouncing Sessions’ attacks on black voting rights. She has just hired Anne Reid, a black woman, as her new chief of staff. Most importantly, she has made very clear that the economic struggles facing Americans are more deeply felt by people of color. In her exploratory committee launch video, Warren narrates, “Working families today face a lot tougher path than my family did. And families of color face a path that is steeper and rockier—a path made even harder by the impact of generations of discrimination.”
Third, if this nation is to ever have a female president, Warren would be a good first choice, and certainly a much better one than Hillary Clinton. Warren is a huge improvement on Clinton in terms of progressive policy positions. Unlike the 2016 Democratic nominee, she has clearly articulated many of the Democratic Party’s stated ideals from the beginning of her campaign and unequivocally thrown her political weight behind them. Wall Street executives view Warren as an enemy—as evidenced by their intense lobbying of the Obama administration against her leadership of the CFPB. Clinton, on the other hand, was a well-known friend to corporate America.
Warren’s own family story is a poignant one—her father was a military veteran who worked as a janitor while her mother earned minimum wage at a Sears department store. Despite her family’s strong working-class roots, Warren went on to become a professor at Harvard Law School in 1995. Her family history, however, is also the starting point for where Warren’s potential downfall as a presidential candidate lies.
No doubt there will be endless debates between progressives as to whether Warren deserves support, whether she is better than Sanders, whether she can beat Trump, or whether she is progressive enough.
Her disastrous response to Trump’s constant childish heckling of her family’s links to Native American ancestry could be Warren’s Achilles’ heel. The elaborate nature of the video and website she released last fall checked off almost every strategic mistake she could have made, starting with validating Trump’s racist slurs. The video begins with Trump’s voice, making clear that she was addressing his questioning. As many have pointed out, the best way to tackle a lying bully is to ignore him rather than to give him the attention he is desperately seeking. Perhaps the worst mistake she made in her quest to address Trump was to reduce the idea of Native American ancestry to a genetic calculation—a move that was roundly criticized by indigenous Americans and that may have actually hurt their struggle to maintain sovereignty.
Not only did the DNA test expose her naïveté in political strategizing, it alienated Native American communities. Unless Warren addresses the mistake she made head-on and apologizes to those impacted, it will haunt her throughout her campaign. Indeed, her ability to acknowledge her error will also be a critical test of whether she truly cares about people of color, or is simply using voters of color as her party has done all too often .
Warren’s other major challenge will come from Sanders, who is also likely to launch a bid for the nomination. Progressives who supported Sanders’ bid for the Democratic nomination in 2016 are still seething over Warren’s decision to endorse Clinton over Sanders during primary election season, despite her political alignment with Sanders’ values. Now Warren will have to contend with a popular lawmaker who has a decades-long political record, as well as experience running a primary campaign. She will also have to find a way to distinguish herself from Sanders—a conundrum that analysts are already speculating over. Her greatest advantages in appealing to Sanders’ supporters and other voters may be her relative youth and her gender.
No doubt there will be endless debates between progressives as to whether Warren deserves support, whether she is better than Sanders, whether she can beat Trump, or whether she is progressive enough. There will be exhortations to “unite” behind one or another candidate based on cynical calculations of who is a more formidable rival to Trump. The likely entry of former Vice President Joe Biden into the race may recreate the bitter 2016 battle between Democratic Party stalwarts and activists eager to push the party to the left.
We have only to read the news on a daily basis to be reminded of the extensive damage that Trump has done to people, institutions and the planet as we head into the 2020 race. If Trump has taught us anything, it is that electoral politics do matter and that there is indeed a significant difference between a center-right Democrat and a far-right demagogue.
Leading into the primary races of 2020 our task as progressives is to demand that Warren—and all the other Democratic candidates—understand clearly that they serve the American people, not the elites. It is to insist that they not replicate Clinton’s folly in casting herself as “not-Trump” rather than hammering out a bold vision for progress. It will also be incumbent on us all to ensure that whoever wins the Democratic nomination in 2020 will defeat Trump in order to end the devastation he has unleashed on the nation. The last two years have dragged on for far too long. The next two years will as well.