Increasingly, the Democratic presidential nomination seems a battle between former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren. Senator Bernie Sanders impacts the race but with scant signs of growth in his support. Senator Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg still hold on to smaller constituencies, with life in other candidacies, including Senators Booker and Klobuchar, and with flashes of passion from former Congressman O’Rourke.
There is still time for another candidate to emerge but the race has remained in near stasis as summer has turned to fall.
The two leaders – Biden and Warren – are the two candidates who have presented the clearest rationales for their candidacy. Biden fundamentally promises a return to the Obama years and Warren pledges big structural change. The latter is making some observers nervous, resulting in a spate of polls that show general election voters are not yet ready to embrace big structural change.
The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows a plurality of non-Democratic primary voters supporting smaller scale policy changes and majority opposition to some of Warren’s policy proposals. The centrist Democratic organization Third Way presents data that voters want a more centrist approach on health care rather than Medicare for all. CNN continues to show that voters prefer a candidate who can defeat Trump over one with whom they agree on the issues, which may be a false choice if they can have both.
There are many reasons to be anxious about the 2020 election. The stakes are extraordinarily high, we are now in an impeachment process, and, with over a year to go, many factors are simply unknowable, including the progress of Democratic candidates as they move toward the nomination and the general election, the erratic behavior of the president, and the potential for corruption of the process.
I am not, however, concerned about Warren’s articulation of the need for big structural change. Here’s why:
- Warren has left herself a lot of room to define the nature of structural change. The words establish her as the change candidate, and as a clear contrast to Biden’s return to the recent past. As the leading woman candidate, and a Biden alternative, she would represent change in any case. Embracing that positioning seems smart and many of her proposed policies, like increasing taxes on the super wealthy, are in fact broadly popular.
- Warren has the capacity to be a reform candidate. She is financing her campaign differently than the other candidates, and she is undaunted by demands of both big corporate interests and the super-wealthy. For the 30 years I was in polling, messaging of standing up to big corporate interests to bring change has been a strong elixir. Back in 1990, in polling for the late Senator Wellstone (who, for the record, was always clear he didn’t listen to his polling), 72 percent of Minnesotans said the problem in Congress was more that its members listened to special interests than that problems were beyond government solution. Similar results have replicated in the interim but few candidates can authentically articulate the message. Despite two Pinocchios from the Washington Post, Warren is uniquely able to articulate that her presidency would listen and respond to people and not to special interests (hopefully combined with a plan for economic growth and small business development). Genuine reform in how we conduct business in Washington would be big structural change.
- Voters will likely be more interested in the results than in the process of change. Warren has a variety of plans – and ways of paying for them that do not require tax increases on the middle class. Voters favor lower health care costs, more accessible post-secondary education, more economic opportunity, fair treatment and fair pay in the work place, and Warren is talking about these issues. Voters are not – at this point – ready to embrace Medicare for all but they may also understand that it won’t happen unless they do and there are interim steps in the process they may endorse moving forward.
- The impeachment process may change the context. On the downside, it may make Washington and Congress look even more partisan and angry. On the upside, it may focus discussion of the threats of the Trump presidency. Democrats have so many complaints about Trump that our attacks are like spam – diverse, diffuse, and occasionally obscure to some people. That he represents a threat to national security and to the electoral process in which people choose their own leaders can become central to arguments against him. In either case, the process may spur greater interest in change from business as usual in Washington even if the desire for change encompasses both parties.
None of this discussion should suggest I do not have anxieties about the leading candidates. My principal anxiety about Warren is whether she will appear the Harvard professor who needs to be the smartest in the room, or whether she is the woman of blue collar roots motivated by instincts of caregiving and reform. Candidate imagery and gender interact, and I am sure her campaign is well aware of the image downsides of being the “Smart Girl.” As for Biden, his strength is in a perception that he is a known quantity and a decent man, who represents little that is radical or risky. Other than gaffes that can undermine perceived steadiness, I worry that he will not connect with younger voters whose heightened participation is essential to prevent this electorate from being older than the 2016 electorate, a demographic change that would favor Trump.
Additionally, Sanders may garner more support than I am crediting him with here and others may emerge. There is room for both to happen. A three or four candidate late field can spur another anxiety: that no one have a majority of delegates going into the convention.
I am not, however, anxious that Warren is the candidate of big change. If the country moves from Trump to Warren, it will be a big change – in structure, process, and result.
Shortly after the 2016 election, I had lunch with a colleague whom I respect. I noted that in politics as well as physics, for every action there is a reaction. We went from a brilliant, erudite President who believed in meritocracy to the current incumbent. The next wave, I suggested, could bring big change. Maybe, my colleague responded, but we are in for a whole lot of hurt in the meantime. His prediction was correct. We will see if mine was as well.