Against the Grain

Warren, Booker Making Rookie Blunders in Their 2020 Preparations

Both are assuming the way to win the Democratic nomination is by pandering to progressive interest groups. They’re misreading the political moment.

Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren at a news conference on July 11, 2017
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Jan. 2, 2019, 8 p.m.

As the first leading contender to announce her intent to run for president, Elizabeth Warren has drawn ample scrutiny over her decisions. From publicizing the results of a much-mocked DNA test showing a trace of Native American ancestry to announcing her candidacy before the New Year when few were paying attention, there’s plenty to second-guess.

But more consequential than these tactical decisions is the big-picture strategy that a candidate adopts. And Warren, in the run-up to her announcement, has concluded that she can’t deviate from an agenda embraced by the party’s progressive activists. When moderates (and conservative Democrats) make up over half of the Democratic electorate, and in a prospective field filled with progressive candidates, such down-the-line liberal orthodoxy threatens to be a major political blunder.

Warren already boasts a sterling record with progressive populists for her record challenging the entrenched power of big businesses, the theme around which she is centering her campaign. That deep-seated credibility should give her room to maneuver on other issues where she could demonstrate electability, such as national security or avoiding the pitfalls of identity politics.

But Warren, after taking heat for promoting her Native American ancestry, chose to redouble her focus on winning over the leftward wing of the party. In November, she gave a foreign policy speech at American University that advocated reining in American involvement overseas—including a full withdrawal from Afghanistan—slammed American efforts to export capitalism abroad, and attacked President Trump’s new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada from the left. Sprinkled in the 4,000-word address was a call for renewed arms control, an issue from the 1980s that’s not particularly relevant in an age of international terrorism and rising authoritarianism.

This wasn’t an address designed to demonstrate commander-in-chief credentials. It was a concession to the isolationists and anti-trade populists to prove that she was a true-blue believer.

Or consider her pre-holiday address at Morgan State University, a historically African-American college in Maryland. To the group of graduates, Warren offered a pessimistic note that the power system is “rigged” against them by the country’s elite. She argued that the country “systematically discriminated against black people”—a sharp contrast from the optimistic racial rhetoric that President Obama advanced in his campaign. It was quite the pander for a candidate who recognizes that she needs to expand her appeal with African-American voters in the run-up to the Democratic primaries.

Good presidential candidates know their strengths and work around their weaknesses. Warren, as a wonky academic, faces major hurdles in winning over African-American voters, especially running against candidates such as Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. Her core constituency, like those of similarly situated contenders such as Howard Dean and Bernie Sanders, will be upscale white liberal professionals. With a field crowded with progressives, the key for success will be those who break from the ideological pack, not those who pander and come across as inauthentic.

Warren isn’t the only candidate hewing to the conventional wisdom that the nominee will be the most progressive in the field. Booker’s record as a charismatic centrist mayor of Newark lends itself to a compelling campaign message without the need to check every liberal box.

But instead, he’s been doubling down on the base, evolving from a neoliberal reformer into a progressive crusader. Last January, he cowrote an op-ed in The New York Times that called for an American withdrawal of troops from Syria—advancing a similar proposal to the one that Trump is getting slammed over. Despite his longtime chumminess with corporate America, he was one of the most prominent Democrats to embrace the “Green New Deal” agenda championed by the Far Left. He was one of (just) 16 Senate Democrats signing onto legislation championed by Bernie Sanders guaranteeing Medicare-for-all.

It’s enough to make your head spin: Who’s the real Cory Booker? And he’s squandering valuable political capital he built up in his career for a short-term boost. It would be much smarter for him to run as an independent-minded maverick, appealing to many moderate New Hampshire voters, while also focusing on winning African-Americans in South Carolina.

As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie correctly notes, “Black candidates may have the strategic advantage—not because they’ll automatically win black voters but because they won’t have to demonstrate the same social solidarity” on race. With solid backing from African-American voters as a base, Booker has more room to build a broad multiracial coalition with white moderates.

Both Warren and Booker demonstrate how a narrow-minded focus on ideology is short-sighted. They haven’t been paying enough attention to the successful strategies of incoming swing-district congressional freshmen, who downplayed progressive credibility to focus on getting things done in Washington. A candidate who’s able to excite nonwhite voters while striking a pragmatic note will be potent in this large field. It’s precisely why Beto O’Rourke, who has avoided defining himself ideologically, has suddenly captured so much attention despite his thin résumé.

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