Elizabeth Warren
Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Maybe the Boston Globe is right and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts missed her best chance to run for president in 2016, but she’s throwing her hat in the ring anyway. Making a New Year’s Eve announcement may not be the best calculated move to get the maximum amount of attention, but she will at least have a couple of news cycles to herself.  She even changed her Twitter handle from @elizabethforma to a @ewarren in order to lose its parochial flavor.

Naturally, her announcement was accompanied by a video heavy on biography and economic populism. If you’ve followed her career, you won’t be surprised by her messaging, although I don’t consider that a bad thing. Her messaging has been her biggest strength.  Where she has run into trouble is in allowing herself to be defined in the media by her adversaries.

I find it instructive to compare her to Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio who is also seriously considering a presidential run based on largely on economically populist ideas. Their images are almost diametrically different. Sen. Brown, with his gravelly voice, unkempt hair, and rumpled suits, is at risk of being typecast as the candidate of the white working class who doesn’t appeal to the more ethnically diverse Obama coalition or meet the identity politics/#MeToo Era-driven desire for nonwhite, non-male leadership. Sen. Warren, running with basically the same rationale, is at risk of being typecast as a divisive figure of the coastal elites and intellectual left who has no prayer of unifying the country.

Both of them desperately need to fight back against these narratives to be successful candidates in the primaries. In truth, both of them have the potential to excite the base with populist policies while also using their excellent communication skills to sell those ideas to enough white working class voters to deliver a thumping (and unifying) general election victory.

Sherrod Brown is in a bit of an unenviable position. In a midterm cycle where the Democrats generally did very well and made a big comeback in the Midwest, Ohio proved to a major exception. The Democrats were slaughtered up and down the ballot in the Buckeye State, and that made Sen. Brown’s comfortable reelection there look like proof that he has a magic touch with the exact kind of white working class voters that Trump poached to win his Electoral College miracle. But if he is perceived as the champion of that group of voters to the exclusion of the larger ethnically diverse coalition, it will doom him in the primaries.

Sen. Warren is being widely criticized for not doing better in her reelection campaign where she received fewer votes than Republican Governor Charlie Baker. The narrative suggests that she’s a weak vote-getter and maybe not even that popular with the voters who know her best. But it’s hard to see why it matters how well Warren runs in Massachusetts. She needs to run well in early states like New Hampshire and Nevada, and with California coming early in the 2020 cycle, she’ll need to do well there, too.

Most observers believe she bungled the “Pocahontas” controversy when she used a DNA test to argue that she was correct in saying that she has Native American heritage. Perhaps that didn’t turn out as she hoped, but the main vulnerability for her there would be in a general election where the issue could be used to drive a wedge with people who are fed up with identity-driven politics.  If that weakness has the potential to cause blowback in the primaries, it’s mainly by making it harder for her to convince people that she’ll be a strong general election candidate.

In the end, Warren needs to get to where Brown is starting out (by demonstrating that her message has real appeal with Obama-Trump voters) while Brown needs to play down that image and show that he will be a real champion for women and millennials and on civil rights.

It’s a shame to talk about these candidates like this because it’s all about image management rather than policy. Yet, when you look at who is sitting in the Oval Office today, it’s impossible to argue that policy is what will decide the winner of the next presidential election. Both Brown and Warren have some serious work to do on how they’re portrayed in the media because that creates a perception about who they are and who they seek to represent.

I’m pretty comfortable with Warren on who she’ll represent. As detailed by our executive editor Gilad Edelman in our November/December 2017 issue, she has been way ahead of the curve on taking on corporate concentration. To see what I mean, I also recommend reading the speech she gave at New America Foundation’s Open Markets Program (now its own entity, separate from the foundation) on June 29, 2016. Or you can watch the video:

If Warren focuses on these issues, she should be able to convincingly portray herself as a politician who will sincerely and credibly stand up for the small businessman, the entrepreneur, and the American worker. And that’s what a Democrat will need to do in 2020 to win a landslide victory.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com