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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Thinking About The Democratic Primary

One possible theory of what is going on.

Let me offer a theory about what is going on with the Democratic primary. It’s not necessarily the right theory. I am still trying to work out my guesses as to what is going on with the various participants in this election. But it’s worth considering.

The typical way of analyzing the Democratic primary is that there is a “progressive bloc” consisting of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and a “centrist bloc” of Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar. Warren might be somewhat to the right of Sanders on some things (like foreign policy), but she is much more with him than she is with them. I think many of the left have assumed that if Warren dropped out, she would endorse Sanders.

But what if we think of the Democratic Party instead as having a left, a center, and a right? 

If this better captures the distinctions between the candidates, it has important implications for those who consider themselves to be on the “left” of the Democratic party. It means that while Elizabeth Warren is indeed not the same as Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg, the distance between her and them is the same as the distance between her and us. The implication of which is: There’s no reason we should assume that if it came down to a choice between Biden and Sanders, Warren would choose Sanders. Indeed, in a race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Warren did not choose to endorse Sanders, even though her endorsement might have helped him with the nomination. Why, then, do we think she’s more closely aligned with Bernie than she is with the centrists? 

In fact, there is now good reason to think that Warren does not consider herself an ally of Sanders. She just launched an unprompted attack on him, branding him as a sexist who didn’t think a woman could be president. Sanders denied the claim, but extended his hand to Warren after the debate. Warren declined to take it, though she did shake Joe Biden’s hand

Notice something else: Elizabeth Warren has not attacked Joe Biden in the way we would expect her to if Figure 1 was correct. For most of her working life, Warren’s signature issue was bankruptcy, and she clashed with Joe Biden, who helped make it far more difficult for individuals to walk away from their debts. Warren has criticized Biden for his work, but she hasn’t attacked him very hard—last night, I can’t remember her even criticizing him directly at all, even though he is the frontrunner. Certainly, she has not burned any bridges with him. She did not call him out on a remark similar to Bernie’s supposed comment about how sexism might make it impossible for a woman to be president. And of course, Biden has plenty of his own misogynistic baggage, from inappropriate touching to his failure to support Anita Hill. Bernie is alleged only to have committed this one particular microaggression, during a private conversation between friends.

Let us say that Biden wins Iowa, and Warren does not do well. If she drops out after a few states, why would it be certain that she would throw her weight behind Bernie? In fact, after this most recent clash, I rather doubt she would. I don’t know that she would endorse Joe Biden, but she might well not endorse anyone. And from the perspective of pure political calculation, this makes sense: A Biden nomination might well be better for Elizabeth Warren personally than a Bernie nomination would be.

Think of it this way: Bernie Sanders is unlikely to pick Elizabeth Warren as his running mate, not after she torched their friendship and launched a destructive attack on his campaign. On the other hand, Joe Biden should be extremely grateful to Elizabeth Warren right now. By attacking the upstart instead of the frontrunner, she took attention away from his horrible record. Warren accused Bernie Sanders of being a sexist just as he was trying to escalate attacks on Biden in order to tear down the frontrunner. The effect is illustrated well in this meme:

If Biden wins the nomination, then—and remember, he is still the frontrunner, despite the Sanders Surge—it would make a decent amount of sense for him to pick Elizabeth Warren as his running mate. Not only has she shown a willingness to help him out by turning her fire on Bernie, but because so many people still hold the view portrayed in Explanatory Diagram A, a Biden-Warren ticket would appear to be “unifying the two wings of the party” even as it explicitly excludes the left.

A Biden presidency would be fantastic for Warren, should she become his vice president. Unlike Bernie, who wants to wield power to advance his political ends, Biden is a fuddy duddy who would do little. The vice presidency would be much more powerful; Warren could be Cheney to Biden’s Bush. And if a President Biden decided not to run again in 2024, Warren would be positioned to become president. 

Now, I don’t think a Biden presidency is going to happen, mainly because I think both Biden and Warren have colossal electoral weaknesses against Donald Trump, and the bitterness and disillusionment of the left would significantly hurt the party’s ability to turn out its base. But if we assume that Elizabeth Warren’s goal is to be president, and she has decided that her own campaign can’t get her there, right now she should be hoping that Joe Biden wins, and chooses her as VP. Now I don’t think it’s certain that Warren is angling to be Biden’s running mate—she could well want a cabinet post, or still believe she can win the primary outright. But in Warren’s current position—down in the polls, down in fundraising—this is one possible route to the presidency that does not require winning the primary.  

I think there has been a serious mistake made by those who have assumed that Elizabeth Warren’s politics lie closer to Bernie Sanders than Joe Biden. (I assumed this myself for a time.) They sort of do, but both Biden and Warren have made it clear that they oppose socialism. (In fact, Warren applauded Donald Trump’s statement that America would never be allowed to go socialist—meaning, if we take it seriously, that Bernie Sanders should not be president.) In These Times, a left magazine, just ran dueling cover stories touting both Sanders and Warren, on the theory that both of them are on the same side. But while Warren has certainly wanted to give that impression with her rhetoric—perhaps to avoid having Sanders voters criticize her long history of deception and betrayals of left causes—I don’t see evidence that it’s true. It seems like wishful thinking that has been projected onto Warren but is not supported by her record on issues like single-payer healthcare and curbing U.S. militarism. Because she is not in the “right” wing of the party, she does have a far more progressive record than someone like Biden, particularly on matters of finance and consumer protection, but that still leaves a giant gulf between her and the left. 

If it’s the case that Warren could ultimately side with the right of the Democratic Party instead of the left, it means that progressive leftists who have been working for Warren, or donating to her, or promoting her, might well have ultimately been working for their own enemy. Say the ultimate political alliances end up being like this: 

(Note: This is precisely the alignment we would expect if we accept a basic left class analysis.) 

In that case, there would have been plenty of people who are far more sympathetic to Sanders than they are to the right wing of the party, but who have ended up harming the possibility of the left taking over the party. By working for Warren, and splitting the energy and loyalty of progressives, they ultimately ensured—despite being on the left themselves—that the left would not win. They sat out the Sanders-Warren confrontation, or believed that either was as good as the other, because they assumed that Warren’s loyalties were with the left rather than the right. But that might misunderstand Warren completely, in which case they have been aiding a candidate who will ultimately betray them. In fact, it now seems that is exactly what has happened.

If progressive groups had all lined up behind Sanders early, it might have been far easier for him to challenge Joe Biden, especially with the right of the party split between multiple candidates. Instead, many got behind Elizabeth Warren instead, and it might have been a fatal mistake. What should be clear now, at least, is that every second of energy, every dollar of funding, that goes to Elizabeth Warren (who is very unlikely to win the primaries at this point), is helping Joe Biden beat Bernie Sanders. 

So far, I have explained Warren through the lens of political ideology: There is a left, center, and right in the Democratic Party. I have therefore assumed that Elizabeth Warren has some political beliefs, that these overlap somewhat with Bernie but also overlap somewhat with the others, and that therefore her ultimate loyalty to the left is not to be taken for granted. I have done this because I think most people are skeptical of explanations that simply treat politicians as self-interested career-advancers. Weirdly, even though we know this is frequently true about politicians, it is taken as very cynical to treat Elizabeth Warren as a person whose main belief is that Elizabeth Warren should be president. If you are that cynical, it’s quite easy to believe that Warren would stab an old friend in the back in order to marginally increase her own chances of winning or of getting the vice presidential slot after she helps the frontrunner (Biden) defeat the challenge from Bernie. But even if you’re not that cynical, and you think Warren is trying to advance a set of beliefs, if those beliefs are just as close to the right as they are to the left (remember, we’re talking about the right of the party here, not of American politics generally; Republicans are so far right that they’re off the damn chart), then Warren could still ally with either Bernie or Biden.

Let me add here that I think we have definitive proof that Warren doesn’t care much about a left presidency. If she did, she probably wouldn’t have run in the first place. Bernie Sanders had built an impressive coalition and was obviously going to try again in 2020. If everyone had gotten behind him early, he would have had a serious shot at becoming the frontrunner quickly. Warren’s candidacy made this impossible, and she continues to peel away progressives who would otherwise vote Bernie. She is probably not going to win, but she is certainly going to damage Bernie by taking away voters who would otherwise have gone to him. Why, if she valued a progressive presidency, would she do this?

Now, you can say: Well, why should the candidate be Bernie instead of her? And I would answer: because she had a chance before. That chance was in 2016, when Bernie offered to step aside so that she could run as the progressive candidate. If Warren had run against Hillary and lost in 2016, then she would have been the default “insurgent” against Biden this year. But she didn’t, and Bernie built a platform and an organization. Warren could have helped. Instead she has taken actions that threaten to destroy what he’s built. 

Among people who talk about politics, there is a strange reluctance to talk about politics. What I mean is: If you assume candidates’ actions are motivated by their attempts to increase their own relative power and diminish the power of others, you are seen as conspiratorial. Elizabeth Warren is seen as having a disagreement with Bernie Sanders when in fact, as Zaid Jilani pointed out, she is a political actor attempting to assassinate the candidacy of another political actor. Last night showed the folly of attributing upstanding motives to Warren. She very clearly wants to damage Sanders’ campaign—you don’t lob an accusation of outright sexism against an old friend otherwise, and not the day before a debate, and not three weeks before the first primary—and it is worth thinking about why. It might simply be a desperate and flailing attempt to save her candidacy. But it might also be the best way of ensuring that Joe Biden wins and that Elizabeth Warren either gets to be the head of a powerful department or the Dick Cheney, the more intelligent and powerful individual who sits behind the affable fool who exists to smile and shake hands. A Biden/Warren presidency could really be a Warren presidency. (Although I doubt it will ever come to pass, because Trump is strong and neither of them knows how to beat him.)

If we want to see a chance of a left presidency, every single progressive person needs to abandon Elizabeth Warren immediately and do everything they can to elect Bernie and defeat Biden. It’s clear that in critical areas such as foreign policy, Medicare for All, and climate change, Bernie is the more progressive candidate. Our focus should be on getting Bernie above Biden, and making sure that no progressives continue to be fooled into helping a dying Warren campaign peel away some people who would otherwise vote for Bernie. This close to the primaries, everything must be directed toward helping Bernie beat Biden.

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