Is there a bigger waste of time than speculating about Democrats’ likely presidential candidates in 2020? Put a gun to our heads, and we can think of a few. You could try getting off to the diagrams in a dessicated 1992 Volvo owner’s manual, for instance. You could dye two marshmallows purple and tell your significant other you’ve cooked filet mignon for dinner. But in liberal circles, neither of those has the fatal allure of dreamily picturing the return of Bernie Sanders, the coronation of Elizabeth Warren or the most far-fetched fantasy of all: Hillary’s revenge.
After initially joking that he might run (“What the hell, man?”), at least Joe Biden, bless him, has included himself out…for now. But Sanders hasn’t, and his recent attempts to make himself over as a Democratic Party leader after spending several feisty decades outside its apparatus could be a hint that his circulatory system isn’t quite clear yet of White House heroin. (Keith Richards, please buy this man a trip to Switzerland.) As for Clinton, she’d be mad as a hatter to try again. But there’s vagrant speculation she might anyway.
Wangling herself a seat on the Armed Services Committee is the surest sign so far that she’s planning on running in 2020.
The cure for the blue-state blues that’s been getting the most traction, though—well, at least since dazed Democrats clutched at the idea of inducing Michelle Obama to run next time around, which probably gave her hubby his jolliest laugh of the year—is an entranced murmur of “President-elect Elizabeth Warren.” For obvious reasons, this scenario has yet to come into any contact with political reality. Yet there could be a rude awakening once it does, because not much in Warren’s Senate curriculum vitae screams that she’d be an effective candidate at a national level. For that matter, her impressive skill set might not be totally suited to the presidency, either.
She’s an ace policy wonk and a first-rate moral scourge, two assets that make her infinitely valuable right where she is. Thanks in part to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, she’s also a feminist icon for the Donald Trump era, with a McConnell-gifted slogan (“Nevertheless, she persisted”) that redefined her overnight as Wall Street’s “Fearless Girl” statue for grown-ups. Unfortunately, that’s a long way from adding up to 270 electoral votes.
In the Senate, Warren can choose issues that play to her strengths. No matter how expert she is at it, her customized to-do lists are a far cry from the smorgasbord of random crap that presidents (and presidential candidates) not named Donald Trump presumably still have to master to pass muster, especially if they aren’t also a mister. In fact, wangling herself a seat on the Armed Services Committee last December is probably the surest sign so far that she’s planning on running in 2020. Defense and foreign policy have barely been blips on her legislative radar up until now.
The big catch-22 of “Warren for President” is that the integrity she’s rightly renowned for is likely to turn fungible the minute she announces. So far, her career has been diluted by very little of the straddling, compromising and outright pandering that comes with the territory once you’ve got your eyes on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Yet such ignoble maneuvering would horrify her purist base. Remember the say-it-ain’t-so-Saint-Elizabeth! outcry when she voted in committee to confirm Ben Carson as HUD Secretary, reversing herself only when the nomination went to the full Senate? That was just a teensy taste of what’ll be in store if she starts flip-flopping to make herself more palatable to centrist voters.
Right now, however, Warren’s fans aren’t picturing anything like the rough-and-tumble of an honest-to-gosh campaign, let alone how one might alter everybody’s perceptions of her (theirs included). She’s such a heroine to them that they’ve got a hard time imagining she might not look like one to say, Des Moines, let alone to gynophobes everywhere. They’ve also got a hard time imagining that people might just get tired of her once she’s in America’s face 24/7, because upbraiding the benighted will always come more naturally to her than making nice. In politics, one definition of the worst of both worlds is to try to pander and be bad at it, something you can easily envision in her case.
The integrity she’s rightly renowned for is likely to turn fungible the minute she announces [a run].
So long as it stays a fantasy, her candidacy is more like a magical fast-forward button: Warren becoming the nominee because she’s so obviously the best choice for the Democrats, Warren triumphing on Election Day because she’s so obviously the best choice for the country, Warren putting everything right by turning the entire Trump Administration into a bad dream the instant she says, “so help me God.” Even with Barack Obama’s often stymied, frustrating tenure as a cautionary tale, it’s always been a goody-goody liberal fallacy to believe that (a) just winning the presidency settles everything and (b) it can be won through superior virtue alone.
Naturally, we also have no idea what the political landscape will look like in three and a half years, or whether what Warren brings to the party (in both senses) will chime with the public’s priorities. But something we do know is that, on November 3, 2020, Warren will be 71 years old. (Granted, Bernie Sanders will be 79, Hillary will be 73, and Joe Biden will be 77, so she could emerge as the Youth Candidate yet. We aren’t betting on it, though.) Ever since John F. Kennedy, with Lyndon B. Johnson as the lone exception, Democrats have only won the White House when their candidate signals a new generation’s arrival on the presidential stage. Think Barack Obama in 2008 (47), Bill Clinton in 1992 (46), or even poor old Jimmy Carter in 1976 (52).
So we won’t be too surprised if, once the field of 2020 candidates shapes up, Warren ends up looking like yesteryear’s news, not the wave of the future. Sure, it’d be great to finally have a woman president. But the pioneers who fight equality’s battles almost never reap the electoral benefits, as both Hillary and Obama could tell you from different vantage points. Kamala Harris, anyone? Heck, we’ll settle for Amy Klochubar.