Elizabeth Warren's last chance

To win in New Hampshire, the "capitalist to her bones" needs to remind voters of who she really is

Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Joshua Lott/Getty Images, Yevhenii Dubinko/iStock)

The chaos out of Iowa has certainly provided confirmation to those of us who argued that the likelihood of a contested convention was being underestimated. It's not just that, without any result to announce initially, all the major campaigns claimed some kind of victory, leading to no winnowing of the field. The results themselves would have had a similar impact even had they been announced with alacrity.

As of this writing, Joe Biden, the national front-runner, is in a cripplingly distant fourth place. Bernie Sanders, nationally in second place and surging, is winning the most votes, but has showed limited ability to gain support from other candidates in precincts where he was non-viable. And Pete Buttigieg, who is a close second place to Sanders in votes and surpassing him in state delegate equivalents (Iowa's homespun version of the electoral college), will struggle to capitalize on his performance, since he has been polling in fifth place in Nevada, sixth in South Carolina, and is fighting Michael Bloomberg for fifth place in the biggest Super Tuesday prizes of Texas and California.

The party faces the very real prospect of coming out of Super Tuesday with Sanders as the delegate leader, but one unlikely to win a majority — and with a Bernie-Bloomberg contest down the stretch that could leave the party genuinely and deeply divided going into the general election whoever the convention winds up picking.

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From the beginning of the campaign, I saw this as a real risk, and it was an important reason why I thought Elizabeth Warren was the best candidate to avoid that outcome. I still feel that way. But the hour is late. New Hampshire may be Warren's last real chance to make that case to the voters; if she comes in third or lower there, her fundraising may start to dry up, and the four Bs — Bernie, Biden, Bloomberg, and Buttigieg — may get all the attention. If she wants to remain in the game, it's time for a Hail Mary.

Here's the pass I'd throw if I were her.

New Hampshire is a funny state, and one that likes to confound expectations. Its Republicans voted for Pat Buchanan in 1996 and John McCain in 2000, two people who agreed on almost nothing, but who both opposed their party's establishment. Its Democrats revived the campaigns of both Clintons, in 1992 and 2008 respectively, then turned around and gave resounding support to the would-be Clinton-slayer Sanders in 2016. It has a very high proportion of independents, an independence that manifests itself more than anything in not liking being told what to do.

It's kind of a terrible fit for the campaign Warren has been running. But it's not a bad fit at all for who Warren has been. If I were Warren, I'd use my closing argument in New Hampshire to let them know what they've been missing.

They've been missing the woman who used to be a Republican, for one thing. It's no surprise that she was: She grew up in conservative Oklahoma, after all, and she started her career as an follower of the “law and economics” movement that aimed to tilt judicial rulings in a more economically-efficient (which meant more business-friendly) direction. She became a Democrat partly because the Republican Party became more extreme in the 1990s, but also because she changed her mind in response to evidence: As she researched personal bankruptcy, she learned that some of the presuppositions of the pro-business perspective she was taking were simply incorrect. She followed where the evidence led her to an entirely different perspective on the relationship between law and economics. And she continued to follow them long after she became a Democrat into areas where they upended comfortable liberal shibboleths, as in her book, The Two Income Trap.

This isn't a part of her life story that Warren likes to lead with, because it's not a great way to win friends among Democrats, particularly in our hyper-partisan age. Democrats don't generally want to hear their candidate praised (even back-handedly) by conservative firebrands like Tucker Carlson. But New Hampshire is chock-full of voters who have switched allegiances, often multiple times. They make up their minds themselves. It behooves her to present herself as someone who prides herself on intellectual honesty rather than someone who simply follows progressive fashion. And she continued to do that long after she shifted to the left, becoming a thorn in the side to the Obama administration precisely because she felt that they were being insufficiently tough on Wall Street's malefactors.

Warren's core issues of fighting corruption, cronyism, and monopoly capitalism are a good fit for New Hampshire. They're actually a considerably better fit than either Sanders' democratic socialism or Buttigieg's meritocratic liberal centrism. But Warren has done too little to distinguish herself from either.

It's been far too long since Warren has emphasized that she is “a capitalist to her bones.” Rather than explain how her Brandeisian liberalism differs from Sanders's more left-wing version, she's tried to elide their differences in the hope of becoming the standard-bearer of the left. Even her slogan, “she's got a plan for that,” sounds like she's supportive of Sanders-style central planning, when the actual thrust of many of her core initiatives is to open up economic space for more Americans to make their own plans. But that battle is over, and she lost. Any votes she's got a chance to pull away from either Sanders or the other candidates will only be ones looking for big structural change that isn't socialism. She might as well tell them what that is.

As for Buttigieg, Warren has been quick to criticize his fundraising, but she's been far less willing to go after his essential disposition, because it overlaps too much with the views of the well-educated professionals who have turned out to be her core constituency. These people may well be drawn to the air of diligent mastery and competence conveyed by her many plans, but McKinseyites excel at drawing up plans, and tailoring them to what they intuit the client wants. In a battle of managerial types, Buttigieg is likely to come off as more reassuringly familiar. The real Achilles' heel of his inexperience is not that he hasn't been around long enough or doesn't know the ropes, but that we don't know what he'll fight for. And New Hampshire consistently prefers fighters to managers.

I suspect there's an air of the pundit fallacy in the foregoing. I know what attracted me to Warren, and so I'm convinced that what she needs to do is be more like that to attract enough voters to come in second in New Hampshire. And I'm asking my favored candidate to do a lot in very little time in terms of changing voters' impressions of her, what she represents, and what kind of president she could be.

But she needs to make a change of some kind. And as always, I believe that change needs to be towards finding the most appealing version of her authentic self. Warren's biggest stumbles in the campaign to date — her DNA test, her Medicare-for-all plan, her he-said/she-said tiff with Sanders — have all revolved around attempts to be who she thought someone else needed her to be. She didn't need to prove she was really Native American, or that she was as left-wing as Sanders, or that a woman could be president.

She needs to return to why she ran, and why she got into politics in the first place. Because if the answer isn't there, she never really lost it to begin with.

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