Why Elizabeth Warren lost
Elizabeth Warren ended her presidential campaign Thursday. It was clearly beyond hope; across all the primaries and caucuses so far, she did no better than third place — not even in her home state of Massachusetts.
It's easy to forget now, but back in October Warren briefly reached first place in the polling average, and was nearly tied with Biden for most of that month. Starting in November, however, she started a long decline that continued through January, when she started losing primaries. Nevertheless, she still had a major impact on the race — especially in how she almost single-handedly destroyed the candidacy of Mike Bloomberg. It was at times a bitter contest between her and Bernie Sanders for leadership of the American left, but Warren could still play an enormously important role within the movement. That will be up to her.
So what happened in November? It is hard to pin down exactly what is happening in such a chaotic race, but Warren's campaign certainly made a number of strategic errors. One important factor was surely that Warren started backing away from Medicare-for-all, selling instead a bizarre two-step plan. The idea supposedly was to pass universal Medicare with two different bills, one in her first year as president and one in the third year. Given how difficult it is to pass anything through Congress, and that there could easily be fewer Democrats in 2023 than in 2021, it was a baffling decision.
Worse, Warren then released a plan for financing Medicare-for-all that was simply terrible. Rather than levying a new progressive tax, she would turn existing employer contributions to private health insurance plans into a tax on employers, which would gradually converge to an average for all businesses but the smallest. The clear objective here was to claim that she would pay for it without levying any new taxes on the middle or working classes. But because those employer payments are still part of labor compensation, it is ultimately workers who pay them — making Warren's plan a horribly regressive head tax (that is, an equal dollar tax on almost all workers regardless of income).
All that infuriated the left, and struck directly at Warren's branding as the candidate of technical competence. It suggested her commitment to universal Medicare was not as strong as she claimed, and that she would push classic centrist-style Rube Goldberg policies rather than clean, fair ones. (Her child care plan, with its complicated means-testing system, had a similar defect). Claiming her plan was the only one not to raise taxes on the middle class was simply dishonest.
In sum, this was a classic failed straddle that alienated the left but gained no support among anti-universal health care voters. More speculatively, this kind of hesitation and backtracking may have turned off many voters. In the Trump age of constant desperate chaos, voters seem more attracted to confident candidates who stick to their positions rather than constantly shifting around with the political winds.
Warren later got in a dispute with Bernie Sanders over whether or not he had said a woman can't beat Trump, but at that point it was already over. By January, Warren was far behind in the polls, and she would never recover.
It seemed to me and other lefty writers that the Warren we had known for years had vanished somehow. But the old Warren came back in a big way in the last two debates, where she absolutely obliterated Mike Bloomberg. She nailed him to the wall on his attempt to straight-up buy the nomination, his racist record as mayor of New York City, and his history of alleged sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and Bloomberg promptly nosedived in the polls. (After he lost everywhere but American Samoa on Super Tuesday, Bloomberg announced he was suspending his campaign, and endorsed Joe Biden.) In a Medium article announcing her decision, Warren wrote, "We fundamentally changed the substance of this race." That is certainly true.
In a press conference discussing her campaign's end, Warren said that she had not decided yet whether to endorse anyone. "I need some space around this," she said. Reportedly both the Biden and Sanders campaigns are courting her support. It would be rather odd for someone with her priorities to endorse Biden, the man who wrote the bankruptcy bill she has spent her entire professional life fighting, instead of the only remaining progressive in the race, but that is now her choice to make.
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