If you’re a centrist pundit who came of age during the Third Way era of the Democratic Party, and have spent your entire career being a megaphone for that wing of the party, how do you process an event like the 2016 presidential election? If New York writer Jonathan Chait is any indication, you just don’t. You pretend it was an aberration, and continue pumping out blogs about “electability” and how it shrinks the further left you move on a political scale.
Chait has a new column today which questions how “electable” Elizabeth Warren would be in a general election, now that Warren has firmly planted herself in the upper echelon of Democratic presidential candidates along with Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
Citing yours truly (among others), Chait argues that electability based on ideology is, in fact, real, and gives an analogy pulled straight out of the asshole of the worst sports talk radio host in your area to prove his point (emphasis mine):
How electable is she? The question can’t be broached without establishing a couple basic parameters. First, contrary to a fashionable view that has taken hold on the progressive left, electability is not a myth. Political science is extremely clear on this point: Some candidates are better at garnering votes than others. Swing voters are also very real.
At the same time, it’s obviously true that we have no certainty about a candidate’s strength. That doesn’t mean you can’t take it into account anyway; professional sports teams can’t know in advance which players will be stars, but it’s still worth scouting them and trying to select the prospects with the best chances. It would be stupid to decide that since No. 1 picks sometimes turn into busts, and undrafted nobodies develop into stars, you might as well just pick a prospect who seems cool.
Hillary Clinton = Kwame Brown? Some might say that.
Electability is a real concept, and Warren is not immune to concerns about how she’d perform against Trump. Warren has struggled thus far with black and Latinx voters (Biden and Sanders have commanded the most support so far from those demographics, respectively), and Biden and Sanders consistently enjoy the most support from poor and working class voters. You also tend to hear concerns about how a college professor like Warren would perform on a debate stage with the likes of Trump, which seem to me to be overblown but exist nonetheless.
The problem is that pundits like Chait who make the “electability” argument only ever engage with it as an extension of their own personal politics. They can only conceive of an electorate in which they’re either the median voter or to the left of the median voter. So it should be no shock to you—considering Chait’s entire body of work on Bernie Sanders—that Chait is skeptical that the Warren of the present could win a general election against Donald Trump for no reason other than the fact that she’s been pulled to the left in the primary.
Chait writes (emphasis mine):
When she began positioning her candidacy last year, Warren seemed to consciously aim for the broad mainstream of her own party. While she formally had endorsed the Bernie Sanders health-care plan, she was promising more limited measures, which seemed to insulate her from its unpopular aspects like higher middle-class taxes and forcing everybody off employer-based insurance. She was also distancing herself from Sanders by labeling herself “capitalist to my bones,” and even pitching her most radical proposal, the “Accountable Capitalism Act,” as good for business in the long run in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
And Warren seemed also to understand the political appeal of policies that imposed their costs on corporations — both through taxes and through regulation — than on the public through general taxation. Her focus on corruption and corporate governance was substantively ambitious, but also presented a narrow target for attack — most voters are happy to stick costs on corporate America if they don’t worry about paying for new programs themselves. A year ago, I thought Warren had found the perfect sweet spot.
Chait was wrong; Warren hadn’t found the sweet spot, at least with Democratic primary voters, and hung around the middle of the pack for the first several months after she announced her candidacy. He brushes this off, however, by attributing Warren’s struggles to “early media coverage fixating” on the issue of Warren’s DNA test.
The fact that Warren so thoroughly fucked up her handling of the DNA controversy has not changed, and yet she’s steadily climbed the polls over the last few months. What has changed? Warren’s posturing, which has shifted towards the left. Whereas Warren shied away from emphasizing proposals for expanding the welfare net made popular by Sanders in the early days of the race, she’s joined Sanders in forcefully defending Medicare for All during the presidential debates, and in championing the Green New Deal and the climate plan put forward by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
Chait passes off Warren’s move to the left and concurrent rise in the polls as essentially pandering to win over votes that mean something in the primary but would be inconsequential in the broader electorate. This ignores the fact that Warren’s move to the left has also been accompanied by her steadily gaining ground in hypothetical general election polling against Trump. This is not the most optimal measure we have of “electability,” but it’s the only one we have aside from how Warren has performed in her Senate elections, which indicates very, very little about how she’d perform in a national election at the top of a presidential ticket. (Amy Klobuchar’s wildly successful presidential campaign can attest to that.)
And so while Chait admits that a recession could push almost any Democrat into office, his most likely path to victory is—of course—a pivot back to the center.
One can imagine other steps Warren can take to shore up her vulnerabilities in the coming months. She could produce her own health-care plan, one that leaves the option of employer-sponsored insurance in place. She could promise not to raise middle-class taxes, and that such a promise would take priority over enacting the full panoply of her domestic agenda. And, without breaking faith with core liberal values, she could think of some conciliatory gestures toward social traditionalists of the sort that worked well for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (and which Hillary Clinton largely dispensed with).
In other words: target your campaign exactly at me.
Like so many of his ilk, Chait’s analysis of the Democratic Party is much more palatable (although not particularly correct) when he just comes out and admits that he believes that a push to the left and all it entails is simply a bad idea. It does no one any good, however, to pretend the electorate simply hasn’t changed since 1992 or 2008 or even 2016. It does even less good to pretend the electorate behaves exactly like Jonathan Chait.