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Elizabeth Warren Was Her Own Worst Enemy

The Massachusetts senator faltered every time she tried to be a conventional politician.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

What happened to Elizabeth Warren? Despite periods in which she seemed to be a front-runner, with a strong message and sturdy base of fundraising, the Massachusetts senator’s fortunes fell into decline, culminating in her decision to drop out of the presidential race two days after the Super Tuesday primaries. Those results indicated that her early hopes were impossible to retrieve: She placed third in her home state and failed to place any better in any other states.

Some of the reasons Warren failed to prevail are simple and predictable. It was a race with a lot of candidates; most of them weren’t going to win. Female candidates are treated differently by the media and by voters. As she noted in remarks to the press today, it was said all along that there was a “lane” for progressives and one for moderates, and she was unable to straddle them. (There might never have been room for her to dominate in the progressive lane, either.)

It also seems clear that in the Democratic primary, policy simply does not matter as much as it should, and Warren staked her entire candidacy on being a kind of folksy policy wonk, the grandma with a plan. This is not to say Democratic voters don’t care about policy at all—they care deeply about things like health care costs, climate change, gun violence, and women’s rights. They also appear to be significantly to the left of the centrist banality they are poised to nominate. But they may not care as much about those things as they do about just having a Democrat in the White House. Certainly, they are being poorly informed about the candidates’ policies by the media, which has always preferred horse-race coverage to policy coverage, and to whom the fact that Democratic voters say they care more about electability than anything else was a red rag to a bull.

The ability of Joe Biden to marshal the establishment and ride the wave of media coverage to astounding victories in less time than it takes to get a sourdough starter going was obviously the final nail in the coffin. But unlike Bernie Sanders, who had previously been the favorite for Super Tuesday until that dramatic reversal, Warren was already finished. She had by that time been deprived of any plausible path to the nomination and was never going to do well enough on Super Tuesday to forge a new one. Indeed, her prospects had not looked great since the end of October, when her polling started to dive.

It’s worth looking at some of the decisions Warren made as her presidential run floundered, however, and exploring why those efforts largely failed to save her campaign. After her dismal fifth-place finish in South Carolina, Warren attacked her rivals, including Bernie Sanders, at her election night rally. Warren referred to Sanders as “a senator who has good ideas but whose 30-year track record shows he consistently calls for things he fails to get done and consistently opposes things he nevertheless fails to stop.”

It’s understandable that a candidate would attack her rivals as she sought to try and win a primary. But this particular attack was never going to land, because it undermines an argument that underpinned her candidacy, at least at first: that she, unlike others, is a candidate who stands for things. Over time, she shifted from a candidate who said she would fight for the middle class (though rarely the working class) to a candidate who would deride the notion of fighting lonely fights on the side of justice. She went from the candidate who would fight, to the superstar candidate with plans, to the unity candidate who would Get Things Done.

This argument—that only she can translate progressive or left policy priorities into real action—was not only poorly supported but also was undermined by dint of the fact that it sounded like the pat bromides that Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and even Joe Biden deploy to describe their own candidacies. Pete Buttigieg, for example, repeatedly claimed he would be the “most progressive nominee in the party’s history.” It’s the go-to lie of the mainstream Democrat, almost their raison d’être: Sure, of course they want the same things you do—of course we all want universal health care and to slow climate change and to make college affordable—we just have to be honest about how to get there. It landed a little flat to hear the tawdry verse of the conventional Democrat being sung by the candidate who started out talking about Big Structural Change.

Her wavering on Medicare for All is well documented at this point. It’s fair to say that, in trying to square how she would pay for the program with the typical skepticism that the elite media reserves for liberal policy projects, she took damage both from voters who sensed her inability to stick to principle on the issue and from moderates, who were spooked by the negative media coverage of questions about how the plan would be funded. The effort she undertook to mitigate the fallout from that decision compounded the problem by undermining her reason for being in the race at all.

After the Culinary Union 226 in Nevada sent out fliers attacking Bernie Sanders over Medicare for All and then claimed unnamed Bernie supporters leveled unspecified attacks against them (presumably the ever-present Mean Tweets that have haunted the Democratic primaries since 2016), Warren appeared to support them, tweeting: “No one should attack @Culinary226 and its members for fighting hard for themselves and their families.” The attacks were, of course, on a policy she had claimed to support and endured all manner of political hell in defending. It’s the sort of baffling knot she has tied herself in repeatedly—claiming critics of her own plan are just trying to fight for their families, which just implies she’s among those threatening those families.

On money in politics, the other issue that arguably defined her major rival’s message in both 2020 and 2016, she again abandoned principle. In February, after some subpar early primary results, Warren refused to disavow a super PAC that had been spending on her behalf, claiming that she was the only candidate who didn’t have one—and “it can’t be the case that a bunch of people keep them and only one or two don’t.” Her super PAC spent $14.8 million in just a few weeks, and its donors are still undisclosed.

This is clearly substantively different from the minor super PACs that have spent comparatively tiny sums supporting Sanders: a super PAC affiliated with the National Nurses United, for example. The threat of big money in politics—as previously articulated by candidates like Elizabeth Warren—comes from unaccountable elites using their vastly inflated resources to influence the political process, often avoiding disclosure and scrutiny. Nurses’ unions that are barely scraping together enough capital to be relevant aren’t the threat to democracy, unless you are a cynical centrist Democrat or a Republican. The issue of campaign finance is surely not something on which scoring technically correct but wildly misleading points is helpful to the progressive cause. Once again, Warren ended up making arguments that undermined her entire message, out of desperation.

The question for Elizabeth Warren is not so much whether she might have won had she not attacked Bernie Sanders from the right. She absolutely had the right to go after her rival; a primary is a competition, and criticism of other candidates itself is not only not beyond the pale, it’s an important part of the democratic process. It’s whether, as she faced the mounting evidence that her strategy was not working, Warren lost in a way she can be proud of, or whether she instead cut back against everything she had worked for during a long career in which she labored to prove that she was an unconventional figure in American politics. Whether or not she decides to endorse Bernie Sanders before the next primary in Michigan—or, perhaps, decides to wait until Joe Biden has already won to make her endorsement—will show whether she remembers why she was supposedly here in the first place.