For years – and, really, decades – Democratic voters have asked their candidates to talk substance over style. Stop getting caught in a process fight about who can win in Iowa! Throw “electability” out the window! Ignore polls and the horse-race media! Just talk about issues that matter to the country in deep, serious and substantive ways!
Enter Elizabeth Warren, who has premised her 2020 presidential campaign on a simple idea – captured nicely by Time magazine in its cover story on the Massachusetts senator this week: ” ‘I have a plan for that’: Democrat Elizabeth Warren is betting Americans are ready for her big ideas.”
Writes Haley Sweetland Edwards of Warren:
“She has set herself apart in a Democratic field of more than 20 candidates by offering more than a dozen complex policy proposals designed to address an array of problems, from unaffordable housing and child care to the overwhelming burden of student debt. Her anticorruption initiative would target the Washington swamp, and her anti-trust measures would transform Silicon Valley. On May 8 she unveiled a $100 billion plan to fight the opioid crisis. This flurry of white papers, often rendered in fine detail, appears to suggest a technocratic approach to governing. But in fact, her vision, taken as a whole, is closer to a populist political revolution.”
So far, it’s been a bit of a slog. Warren struggled in the early days of her presidential campaign to get beyond the seemingly never-ending controversy over her Native American heritage claims. If you trust polling, she’s begun to recover from that initial hit – although, according to the Real Clear Politics average of national polling, she remains in third place – mired in single digits and well behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
To hear her supporters tell it, that (re)rise from Warren has been fueled by a willingness to lean into her intellectual wonkiness without apology.
“I’ve been a policy person for a long, long time,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper at a CNN-sponsored town hall last month. Later, asked to explain her theory of how a Democrat can beat President Donald Trump, she said this:
“We’re not going to win by just saying not Donald Trump. We’re not going to win by doing better name-calling than he does. The way we’re going to do this is we’re going to get out and talk about our vision and how it affects families all across this country, how it touches people personally.”
Warren’s strategy is riskier than you might think. Why? Because for all of the pleading from Democrats for their candidates to just talk policy, policy, policy, history suggests that elections – especially presidential ones – are won by charismatic candidates with very broad proposals (as opposed to laser-specific ones) on how to make the country better.
Look no further than the last Democratic president. Yes, Barack Obama talked policy some on the 2008 campaign trail. But “hope” and “change” are not specific policy prescriptions. And Obama didn’t win the nomination or the White House on the strength of his stack of policy papers; he won it on the promise of a new America – one in which a skinny kid named Barack Obama could be elected president. That’s not a policy. It’s a feeling. An emotion. More heart than head.
Or look to the biggest star to emerge out of the 2018 campaign: Beto O’Rourke. Quick: Name one policy that drove O’Rourke’s national celebrity among Democrats. You can’t! Because there wasn’t one. What O’Rourke was selling in Texas – and what he is selling now as a presidential candidate – isn’t policy. It’s charisma and energy and tone and good looks and a sense that maybe, just maybe, this young guy out of Texas can lead Democrats to a different and better place than they are right now.
Need one more example? Try South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He’s, without question, one of the hottest candidates in the race right now – soaring from nowhere into the top tier in the space of two months. What policy prescription has propelled Buttigieg to such great heights? There isn’t one. Instead Buttigieg’s surge has been fueled by a compelling personal story (a 37-year-old gay military veteran and Rhodes scholar) and a natural speaking ability and talent.
None of that is to say that these candidates – Obama, O’Rourke and Buttigieg – don’t talk policy. They do! But the roots of their appeal aren’t in those policies. Their appeal is more personality-driven.
Which brings me to a longtime reality in American electoral politics: For all the talk about the horrors of the horse race and the need for deep policy conversations, most people still wind up being attracted to a candidate more for who they believe him or her to be than the policies he or she backs. (Of course, who you are is often reflected in the policies you support.)
Now, Warren obviously also has charisma – as she demonstrated in the CNN town hall. But she’s working to make the campaign more about her ideas than about her, and that is a big difference from the way most candidates run. And this isn’t an either/or conversation. Candidates can be charismatic and have lots of policy ideas. But most put themselves at the front of the campaign rather than their ideas.
Warren’s candidacy is based on giving Democratic primary voters what they’ve always said they wanted. She’s calling their bluff. You said you wanted a policy-first campaign. I’m giving it to you. Now show you want it.
The early returns are somewhat encouraging for Warren. But when votes start being cast will being the “policy person” be compelling to Democratic voters?