The Massachusetts senator failed to sustain her early momentum in the Democratic presidential race because she had no idea how beat Bernie Sanders.
The downfall of Elizabeth Warren, who announced on Thursday that she was suspending her campaign for president, can be traced back through the Democratic debates.
At the first debate in June, Warren proudly declared: “I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All.” She rose rapidly thereafter as the candidate of “big, structural change.” By the time the October debate rolled around, she was in first place in national polls. But then Mayor Pete Buttigieg hit her with what proved a devastating punch.
“Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this,” Buttigieg said at the debate, after Warren refused to explain how she would fund Medicare for All.
In the days that followed, she released a plan to fund her single-payer health-care proposal. Many critics pointed out that, even with drastic tax hikes, the numbers still didn’t add up. This put her in a bind: She didn’t want to bleed any more of her relatively moderate supporters to Buttigieg, and she realized she couldn’t get to the left of the avowedly socialist Sanders. In mid-November, she retreated on Medicare for All, pledging that she wouldn’t push the matter during her first two years in office, the time when a president typically has the most political capital to spend. By the end of the month, half of her supporters nationwide had abandoned her.
Warren remained in the running through the winter, but she had no idea how to win over the slice of Sanders’s supporters she needed by the time he became the Iowa front-runner. At the January Democratic debate, the last one before the Iowa caucuses, she made what was even at the time an obvious strategic mistake: Her lone premeditated attack on Sanders was an allegation that he had privately told her a woman couldn’t win the presidency. Sanders easily countered that he’d said no such thing, and that he had recruited Warren to run for president in 2015 before launching his own bid when she declined to run.
Was there any reason to think Warren’s identity-politics attack against Sanders would work? Her record of shading and embellishing the truth was one of her greatest weaknesses, while Sanders is known for being so honest that he will tell you what he really thinks of Fidel Castro and why he believes the Boston Marathon bomber should be able to vote from prison. I couldn’t find any voters in Iowa who were troubled by her allegation. At worst, they thought there might have been an honest misunderstanding between the two candidates.
And that makes perfect sense. With Sanders and Joe Biden left as the last two men in the race, Democratic primary voters appear a lot less woke than you might think if you spend all your time on Twitter. Julian Castro couldn’t get traction by talking about the need for transgender men to get abortions. Kamala Harris’s attack on Biden over busing backfired. Democratic voters weren’t going to abandon Sanders even if he had privately raised an un-PC concern many of them share following Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016.
Could Warren have hit Sanders more successfully some other way? Probably, given that Biden has rocketed past the Vermont senator by virtue of his perceived electability. Sanders’s Communist sympathizing, the questions about his health after he suffered a heart attack late last year, and any number of other weaknesses in his decades-long record were and remain ripe for the picking. But Warren, whether she just miscalculated or didn’t have the courage to risk going after Sanders more directly and forcefully, couldn’t beat him. And now her race is over.