Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author.
A presidential bid that began almost a year ago with an embarrassing DNA test to prove her Native American roots has now become the dominant story of the Democratic race. Elizabeth Warren performed well in the debates, is rising in the polls and on the stump has transformed herself from a professorial wonk into a hardscrabble Horatio Alger candidate with an affecting personal story: a young woman who rose from Norman, Oklahoma, to Harvard through affordable college now out of reach for much of the middle class.
While Warren still trails Joe Biden in nearly every national and state poll, the trend is striking—as is the looming gap between her considerable skills and Biden’s repeated stumbles. The strategic premises of her campaign are to claim the progressive mantle from Bernie Sanders, stake the “alternative to Biden” ground, and then engage in a one-on-one battle for the nomination.
There are significant challenges to this strategy, not the least of which is winning over a reasonable share of the African American vote, where Biden dominates. In fact, the South Carolina primary in 2020 could be Iowa 2008, but in reverse. Back then, Barack Obama convinced African-Americans that he was more than a symbolic candidate when he won the caucuses in an overwhelmingly white state. This time around, if Warren were to win a respectable slice of the black vote in South Carolina, she would prove to white liberals skeptical of her electability that she has support among a constituency without which no Democrat can win a nomination, or the presidency.
In polls, Warren trails Biden in South Carolina by dozens of points. What’s more, about half of the state’s black Democrats say they support Biden, while Warren is practically tied for the lead among the state’s white Democrats.
And African American Democrats are, as Tom Edsall pointed out in a much-discussed column in the New York Times, on average, more centrist than white Democrats. The party’s “more moderate wing, which is pressing bread-and-butter concerns like jobs, taxes and a less totalizing vision of health care reform, is majority nonwhite, with almost half of its support coming from African-American and Hispanic voters,” he wrote.
So it would make sense for Warren to draw some distinctions between herself and her party’s most liberal voters, in order to make her candidacy more appealing—or at least acceptable—to the elements of her party that do not fully embrace the canon. And there’s a long history of winning presidential candidates doing this without alienating their most loyal supporters.
During his quest for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, George W. Bush deftly managed to draw the fervent support of evangelical Christians while also running against the most conservative elements of the Republican-controlled House. In October 1999, Bush joined Democrats in criticizing the GOP-controlled Congress for attempting to scale back the Earned Income Tax Credit, charging they were trying to balance the budget “on the backs of the poor.” He promoted a federal role in education—anathema to most conservatives—and when he spoke to the NAACP, he quoted W.E.B. DuBois (who late in life joined the Communist Party) and conceded that there is no escaping the reality that “the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln.”
Just as George W. Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative,” Bill Clinton in 1992 dubbed himself “a different kind of Democrat.” He had chaired the Democratic Leadership Council, which advocated a more moderate approach to governing, blasted the “brain-dead politics of both parties,” promised to “end welfare as we know it,” said he wanted “to be tough on crime and good on civil rights,” denounced hip-hop singer Sister Souljah for incendiary words about white people, and urged that abortion be “safe, legal—and rare.”
Barack Obama also on occasion refused to dance to the base’s tune. As a freshman senator, he refused to join a filibuster against Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, arguing that such a fight “would have effectively signaled an unwillingness on the part of Democrats to confirm any Bush nominee, an unwillingness which I believe would have set a dangerous precedent for future administrations—blocking Roberts was not a realistic option.”
Obama went on to defend Democrats who’d voted to confirm Roberts: “Russ Feingold, the only Democrat to vote not only against war in Iraq but also against the Patriot Act, doesn’t become complicit in the erosion of civil liberties simply because he chooses to abide by a deeply held and legitimate view that a president, having won a popular election, is entitled to some benefit of the doubt when it comes to judicial appointments. Like it or not, that view has pretty strong support in the Constitution’s design.” Considering that Roberts’ votes twice saved Obamacare, this view has a hint of accidental prescience.
And Donald Trump more or less took the Republican canon and tore it into little pieces in his 2016 campaign: “No!” to any cuts in Social Security and Medicare! “No” to free trade! “No!” to foreign wars and an American leadership role in the international community!
What these disparate candidates—the past four presidents of the United States—had in common was a willingness to disagree with people on their side of the divide. In doing so, they signaled an openness to other ideas and assumptions, and suggested that their views are not locked in stone, that they are not held hostage to a rigid party line. When Hillary Clinton in 2005 told abortion rights supporters that abortion “represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women,” she was reflecting just that kind of expansiveness. She had a very different outlook when she ran for president in 2016.
So far, there is little sign that Warren has any interest in following the example of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. She is a candidate whose surge is in good part predicated on her deeply detailed policy proposals and her campaign skills, but evidence of the potential for broader reach to middle-of-the-road voters is difficult to find.
Still, the 2020 campaign, despite the frenzy of polls and debates and town meetings, is still in a formative stage. The chance for shifts in emphasis is great. At some point, Warren or another progressive might find it useful to embrace the genuinely masterful formulation of Pete Buttigieg: “Medicare For All Who Want It.”
The template for such a move to the center is President Richard Nixon’s decision in 1971 to open diplomatic relations with China. Because of his lengthy, often unscrupulous dedication to militant anticommunism, it was possible for Nixon to end almost 15 years of isolation without being branded “soft on Communism.” William F. Buckley and others on the right denounced him, but Nixon suffered no political damage at all, and greatly increased his stature in history as a master diplomat.
Right now, however, if Elizabeth Warren is thinking about following the path that Richard Nixon took, she’s on a very, very slow boat to China.