What a Trump vs. Warren race would look like
How many Pocahontas jokes do you think she can stomach?
Despite Elizabeth Warren's rise to the top of numerous major polls, I am not entirely sold on her winning the Democratic presidential nomination. The phenomenon of a candidate who races ahead of the competition months before the first primary contest only to end up with a third or fourth-place finish in Iowa — or even drop out before a single vote is cast — is not exactly unknown.
That said, there is a good argument that at this point no one is mistaking Warren for a Michele Bachmann. Early surging dropouts tend to be ideological outliers who rile up the most excitable elements in a given party's base at a time when not everyone is paying attention, which is why people like Ron Paul were contenders in the Iowa Straw Poll back when that was a thing. Warren, meanwhile, is the only candidate showing signs of doing what I and many other observers said would be necessary for the eventual Democratic nominee — namely, splitting the difference between DNC establishment types and progressive activists. On paper Warren might have a great deal in common with Bernie Sanders, but her style is fundamentally different. Yes, she talks about breaking up the world's largest corporations and increasing taxes (and even creating new ones) and single-payer health care, but she also talks about the importance of party unity. She understands that you can say "I agree with Bernie" in a debate as long you explain to donors behind closed doors that you are not here for a "revolution." She does not shout or rant.
For all of these reasons, Warren is a great candidate in a Democratic primary and the one most likely to win the nomination if Joe Biden implodes. (Nancy Pelosi's recent decision to make his son Hunter's extensive knowledge of Eurasian mining infrastructure a 24/7 cable news talking point probably won't help forestall that possibility.)
Does that mean that she will be equally effective in a general election? This will depend on a number of factors, only some of which Warren has the ability to control.
The most important of these is the extent to which she decides to make her campaign about Trump as opposed to the policy debates in which she has generally excelled. If Democrats learned anything in 2016 — an open question, surely — it is that it is impossible to win with a campaign that is not about anything except the all-consuming "Can you believe he said that?" badness of one's opponent. McMansion wine moms in Northern Virginia want to hear about what a misogynist the gross orange man is, and they will pay $4600 a pop for the privilege. The voters Democrats actually need in 2020 are the ones in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania who want to hear that Trump is right about trade and manufacturing and the swamp but that he has shown he can't get the job done. Warren is in a good position to make the argument that she can. But will she?
Then there is the related question of her composure. If you don't think Trump is capable of getting under her skin, remember that last year he single-handedly convinced her to take a freaking DNA test, the results of which she proudly reported, not-so-accidentally endorsing the "one-drop" theory. Native Americans were, rather understandably, appalled. Everyone else, with the possible exception of Trump himself, was confused. This is not how a sober-minded person responds to jibes from someone who has spent his entire life insulting people.
The Native American ancestry controversy is not going away, even if Warren does somehow manage to beat the current Super Tuesday math, which still favors Biden. How many Pocahontas jokes do you think she can stomach? Is she ready for Trump to tweet "Colors of the Wind" with her face superimposed on the Disney princess character by some teenaged alt-right sludgelord? Is she ready for the rally at which Trump tunelessly declaims — in that affectless monotone he adopts whenever he is trying to read something — the lyrics from Cher's "Half Breed"? Talking about postal banking in the middle of all this is going to require a very cool head.
This is to say nothing of questions that we officially do not discuss about the misogyny, unconscious or otherwise, that obviously persists among certain older Democratic voters. Among the small but all-important bloc of voters who went from supporting Barack Obama to Trump, it seems to me not impossible that sex was an important, if largely unacknowledged factor. If you do not think that there is such a thing as a lifelong Democrat who has doubts about a woman's ability to be commander-in-chief, you have never been on a UAW golf outing.
Warren has no control over her sex. But she is the person who gets to decide whether she runs, both in the upcoming Democratic primary contests and in the general election if she manages to win, as the sober pragmatist she has always presented herself as.
Doing so in the midst of what will almost certainly be relentless and crude personal attacks from Trump will be very difficult. But it is probably the only way to nullify the built-in rhetorical advantages that, in the face of his inability to deliver on any of the promises of his 2016 campaign, increasingly look like his only weapon in the next election.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.