Sen. Elizabeth Warren was somebody just a few months ago. Then, under pressure, she put out the price tag—$21 trillion and counting—for her Medicare for All plan, which she would transition to over three years. Immediately, her momentum, fundraising, and poll numbers slipped.
The pure M4A candidate, Bernie Sanders, always low on details and high on dudgeon, stayed true to his plan, which would take away private health-care insurance—but without all of her exhausting details.
Thus started his dramatic rise in the polls to first place in Iowa and New Hampshire (seven percentage points ahead of Warren), and to second place nationally behind former Vice President Joe Biden, according to the RealClear Politics polling average.
Sanders, it turns out, is the one Democrat (although he’s not a Democrat, which no one ever seems to mention for some reason) who could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose one supporter. Warren is the classic character who goes with Sanders into the car wash with the top down, and only she gets wet.
Nothing, and no one, so far touches him. The oldest candidate in the primaries had a heart attack in a coronary artery known as the “widow-maker” and at the first debate after his operation, wearing two stents in his 78-year-old chest, he wished that everyone could have health care as good as his, thanked folks for their thoughts and prayers, and that was that.
Fast forward and imagine what Trump would do with that. With nothing, he turned the health of the younger Hillary Clinton, who stumbled trying to get into her SUV, into a far bigger issue than that of an obese 76-year-old whose major food group was cheeseburgers.
Although Warren has suffered most, it’s not just Warren who’s imperiled. Having pushed her out of the left lane onto the shoulder of the road, Sanders is consolidating the progressive vote. He just won a crucial endorsement from the 600,000-member Center for Popular Democracy Action. Warren just picked up the backing of Julian Castro, whose support rarely exceeded 2 percent when he was running himself.
There’s a temptation among Democrats to think of Sanders as a fringe candidate and just let him hang out there preaching to his believers. But a November Quinnipiac poll found that while nearly two-thirds of Democrats might switch from their current candidate to another, 49 percent of Sanders voters said they would not. And astonishingly, Sanders has a 75 percent favorability rating.
That’s before Trump and Republicans have a go at him. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent portraying Bernie as a cranky, ineffective senator who’s accomplished little, has a broken ticker, and comes not to mend capitalism but to end it. He will bankrupt the average working person, hollow out their 401(K)s, and crater one-third of the economy by immediately taking away private health-care insurance and converting it to M4A whether they like it or not.
After that, suburban moms and swing voters will be so scared of what he’ll do that they’ll either stay home or vote for Trump, as hard as it is to fathom anyone casting a ballot for a president who upended the Middle East on a whim and then lied that our embassy, take your pick which one, was about to be leveled to justify assassinating Iran’s Qassem Solemani at the Baghdad Airport. That’s the equivalent of taking out General Jim Mattis at La Guardia and then threatening to destroy Arlington Cemetery.
Sanders hasn’t always been taken as seriously as Warren, and it’s easy to underestimate his appeal and staying power. Both want to reverse the income inequality of the current Gilded Age by raising the minimum wage, strengthening the safety net, and getting the wealthy to pay for it by raising tax rates at least above that levied on Warren Buffett’s secretary.
How they will do it is the difference. Warren is the best student in class with plans galore. Sanders asserts positions, as if any old body can restructure the economy in their garage on the weekends. Warren is labeled the uncompromising elitist from Massachusetts and Bernie of Vermont a man of the people, even though he can’t leave his rallies fast enough to avoid shaking hands with an actual voter.
For her trouble, Warren gets headlines in The Wall Street Journal like “Warren Loves Billionaire Tears” and “Elizabeth Warren’s Tax Plan Would Bring Rates Over 100% for Some.” Mayor Pete, of the $900 bottles of Pinot Noir in a wine cave, takes after her for purity tests, what he calls her “my way or the highway” approach as if “fighting were her purpose.” Biden calls her “angry” and “unyielding.” Really? Compared to what and to whom? Even Stephen Colbert wondered why Warren didn’t own up to the price tag for expanding Medicare.
Admittedly, it’s dangerous to criticize Sanders. He’s the Larry David of campaigning, snide and dismissive. In the Senate, where he’s too impatient to compromise, his major accomplishment is a bill to help veterans as ranking member on the relevant committee led by the late John McCain. It’s a bill a fence post could have passed.
What scares the other candidates most is that if you offend Bernie and his bros, who are as blindly in thrall to him as any Trumper in a MAGA hat, they will leave you to die in November by voting for 2020’s Jill Stein.
There’s time for Warren to differentiate herself from Bernie as the safer choice, one who can excite the left without scaring independents. She is—forgive the word—likable. She’s more Oklahoma than Boston with a gift for gab, bonding with fans in selfie lines that last for hours. And she’s reasonable. She doesn’t believe that to fix capitalism you must first destroy it.
And now that Sanders has violated their quiet non-aggression pact, so could she. A script from his campaign reportedly told volunteers contacting her voters to tell them that she attracts only the affluent, highly educated wing of the party and cannot make the critical inroads into other groups that he can. And on top of that, who reportedly doesn't think that Warren — or any woman — can be president.
It’s hard to imagine a Democrat voting for Trump after observing him for four years, no matter who the party nominates. But in 1972 my parents, die-hard Democrats of the Dorothy Day sort, with a picture of JFK on the piano, left the party. Their lives were filled with Friday night bingo parties in the parish hall, with the proceeds going to Steelton, where the mills were closing. They led every kind of collection—for winter coats, sports equipment, canned goods—yet never thought private efforts should replace government assistance.
And boy did they dislike Nixon, a Protestant and a Republican, for hating Helen Gahagan Douglas, a Catholic and a Democrat who had served with him in Congress. But when Democrats nominated Sen. George McGovern over the moderate Hubert Humphrey, they were troubled by the party’s perceived shift to “acid, amnesty, and abortion” and a $1,000-per-person giveaway.
I was shocked, but that’s how a pair of Nixon Democrats were born. McGovern lost every state but Massachusetts to an incumbent who would go on to resign in disgrace. Nominate Sanders, and I see Trump Democrats slinking to the polls come November. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.