To Run for President, Sen. Warren Needs to Hone Her Message

Senator Warren is currently promoting her book, “This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class.” Because of that, she’s doing a lot of interviews and is sounding like someone who is considering a run for president in 2020. For a lot of people, that would be good news.

But lately she’s been making some mistakes. As I mentioned last week, she said she was “troubled” about the speaking fee former President Obama is reported to have accepted from Cantor Fitzgerald for a talk on health care. Yesterday, the Guardian posted an interview with her under the headline, “Elizabeth Warren calls out Obama and Democrats for losing way on economy.” The story was picked up by a couple of other major news outlets.

As I’ve written before, Democrats need to wrestle with what unites, rather than divides them. These kinds of headlines tend to deepen the divide rather than bring people together.

The truth is, Sen. Warren is a better politician than these headlines indicate. When talking about Obama’s speaking fee, she didn’t directly say that he was undermining democracy. She left herself plenty of room for plausible deniability on that charge – while hinting at a conclusion that some on the left want to hear from her. The same thing is true of what she said during the Guardian interview.

“I think President Obama, like many others in both parties, talk about a set of big national statistics that look shiny and great but increasingly have giant blind spots,” she told the Guardian. “That GDP, unemployment, no longer reflect the lived experiences of most Americans.

“And the lived experiences of most Americans is that they are being left behind in this economy. Worse than being left behind, they’re getting kicked in the teeth.”

The senator went on take a swipe at members of her own party while describing the collapse of old distinctions between left and right. “I think there are real differences between the Republicans and the Democrats here in the United States,” she said. “The Republicans have clearly thrown their lot in with the rich and the powerful, but so have a lot of Democrats.”

She didn’t directly say that Obama threw his lot in with the rich and powerful. But that is certainly what some people will take away from the interview. She also didn’t say, as the headlines above suggest, that Obama is out of touch with most Americans or that he abandoned working-class voters. If necessary, Warren can point to her words and deny that is what she said. But she’s also smart enough to know what signals she’s sending, and she’s doing so on purpose.

To the extent that Warren is positioning herself for a run in 2020, it is clear that she has decided that the best path is to distance herself from the achievements of President Obama. If she were to face a primary challenge, that would not be a good strategy, as both Governor O’Malley and Senator Sanders learned in 2016. Obama has extremely high favorable ratings among Democrats and some, primarily African Americans, are fiercely loyal to him.  Al Giordano summed it up well on twitter.

In a general election, any candidate that makes the case about how “elites” like Obama aren’t in touch with “real Americans” is simply going to validate Donald Trump’s message (if he runs for re-election), to the detriment of all other Democrats.

This is not to say, as Warren suggested in her interview with the Guardian, that any Democrat is, or should be, content with the progress made during the Obama years. Even the former president himself would say that there is an awful lot of work to be done. Sen. Warren is someone who can effectively make that case. So if she wants to run for president, she should hone her message in on how she would fight to make a difference for America’s middle class. If/when the topic of the previous Democratic administration comes up, she should take a page out of Jesse Lee’s book.

…I’m optimistic for the future of progressives and the Democratic Party.  As contentious as things can sometimes seem within our side, I think there’s remarkable consensus on the kind of progressive change we need, captured in great detail through the hard work of the unified Democratic platform…

But part of progress is having to defend that progress, sooner or later, with your back against the wall.  That time came sooner than expected, but it was always going to come.  And reversing it is going to be a lot harder than Republicans advertised, because the benefits are just so damned real.

As we all continue to grapple with the election’s aftermath, there’s one critique that I’ve heard from the media, from some supporters of the incoming Administration, and from some folks on the left who I truly respect, that I want to take on — namely that the Democratic Party and/or Obama “didn’t fight for working people.”

That I can’t abide.

There is a case to be made for unity among the various coalitions of the resistance by a candidate of the future.  That could be Senator Warren’s road to travel. But if she’s interested, she needs to hone her message. She has some time to do that…but not much.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.