The Warren What-If

The Senator from Massachusetts ran the most compelling presidential campaign in years, and failing to make her the Democratic nominee and meet this moment is a real missed opportunity

The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

By Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America - Elizabeth Warren, CC BY-SA 2.0

Elizabeth Warren has ended her campaign, and this is a sad moment. 

She was the smartest, most qualified, candidate in the primary. She brought forth the strongest, most creative policy proposals of the campaign, and delivered them with the type of elegant simplicity needed to make complexity relatable on the campaign trail. Her plans for what she could do when in office went beyond comprehensive. She was consistently a top performer on the debate stage. Her spirit was unyielding. She was passionate and compassionate. She was fearless. She would have been a terrific president. 

Failing to nominate that person is a missed opportunity for the Democratic Party, and not just for all the reasons just mentioned. There’s so much more to the Warren What-If.

This discussion can’t begin without talking about the fact that Elizabeth Warren is a woman, and women — in America, in politics, everywhere — are still not treated with the same level of respect as men. 

It’s difficult to calculate the damage done by the ever-present sexism and misogyny that exists in the media and on the campaign trail, but it would be irresponsibly naive to suggest that her campaign did not face a steeper uphill climb than her male counterparts in the campaign. There’s been an out pouring of words from women since it became clear that Warren’s campaign was at its end, and of course, they’ll make this point better than I ever could

And as the father of a young daughter, (that’s not what it should take for men to have more respect for women, but speaking as a girl dad: we can’t help ourselves), I left the polls in 2016 thinking about how my one-month-old girl was going to grow up in a country where a woman could always be president. And now, like the little girls all over the country that Sen. Warren made pinky promises with in her famous selfie line, she’s going to have to wait a few more years for that to be a reality.

So this is where the missed opportunity starts, with the opportunity for a woman to finally become president and to break that glass ceiling and to show girls around the country that that’s what girls do. 

Nevertheless, the missed opportunity goes beyond that. Women make up the majority of Democratic voters, and it’s been women who have powered Democratic victories, and it’s been women who have led the most important fights against the chaos and cruelty of the Trump administration. To counter the Trump presidency by nominating a woman to defeat him would have carried such great importance. 

And now, after more than a year of the big tent primary, we’re left with a version of the same left-or-center choice that nearly ripped the party apart four years ago. It’s again Bernie Sanders on the left and this time, Joe Biden in the center. The 2016 Democratic primary never really ended, after all. 

Warren was the candidate with the best chance at bridging the two warring factions of the Democratic Party. 

She brought the type of progressive policy proposals that are often supported by the Sanders camp. She’s stood for real “structural change,” on issues like child care, health care, student debt, wage increases, climate change, racial justice, LGBT rights, women’s rights, gun violence prevention, and so much more, instead of offering squishy centrist alternatives that don’t go far enough and fail to meet the moment we’re in. 

She also is not a socialist, and that’s a word and an ideology that presents a real problem for many. And she’s shown a willingness to be flexible with her progressive policies that keep her open to compromise if it means making real progress (like with her vote for the USMCA). 

The center-left never seemed to realize that its only non-Sanders chance of reaching young voters is with Warren. They could run the very real risk of losing to Trump with younger voters in swing states like Wisconsin. At the same time, Sanders voters saw that Warren could be able to deliver much of what Bernie has fought for without alienating more moderate voters. It would have been a compromise, to be sure. But maybe the data to support that assertion of compromise just isn’t there. And maybe the DNA test issue was just a bridge too far for some voters. There are reasons she lost, of course.

One of the great fears going into the Democratic primary was that it would end with a choice much the same as 2016. And though no one thing caused the Trump victory in November — everything had to happen in exactly the way that it happened to produce that result — the fraying of the Democratic Party certainly contributed to its inability to truly coalesce around Hilary Clinton as the nominee. With Biden and Sanders out front in the polls from the jump, it seemed like the 2016 redux was the most likely result. But more than any other candidate, it felt as if Warren was going to be the one to bridge the party’s existential divide and offer real progressive policies with an openness to centrist compromise, all with enthusiasm and passion and intelligence that trumps anything the president could possibly bring in the general election campaign. 

But now we’re left with 78-year-old Bernie Sanders and 77-year-old Joe Biden, two old white men to lead a young, diverse, majority-women party. 

And that’s fine, I suppose. In all honesty, each could be a terrific president. I have a preference between the two, but that’s not the point right now. 

The point is that without working to bridge the Democratic Party’s divide with a candidate like Warren, there are huge risks, both short and long term. And as this primary hurtles toward this undesirable binary choice, there will be time to take a closer look at Biden vs. Sanders. But regardless of who becomes Democrats’ choice to take on Trump, a loss in November will make The Warren What-If loom especially large.

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To me, she ran the most compelling presidential campaign since Barack Obama in 2008. During one of the recent debates, she spoke about a policy so deeply personal to me in such a specific way, and she spoke with understanding and intelligence and heart, that I was moved to tears. I imagine other Warren supporters out there share much the same story. Her campaign was looking into every corner of American life and seeking ways to impact it for the better. 

She was running for all of us. I wish I could have voted for her in the Wisconsin primary next month, and I regret not saying and doing more to support this brilliant, once-in-a-generation campaign. 

I will support whoever wins the Democratic nomination, but I won’t be as excited as I would have been to support Elizabeth Warren for president.


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