The Danger of Elizabeth Warren

Even if she wins the presidency — hardly a sure bet — she may jeopardize Democrats in the House and the Senate.By Thomas B. EdsallMr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C. on politics, demographics and inequality.Nov. 20, 2019Elizabeth Warren at an event in Nevada on Sunday.Credit…David Becker/Getty ImagesUnder pressure, Elizabeth Warren has retreated…

The Danger of Elizabeth Warren

Even if she wins the presidency — hardly a sure bet — she may jeopardize Democrats in the House and the Senate.

Thomas B. Edsall

Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C. on politics, demographics and inequality.

Credit…David Becker/Getty Images

Under pressure, Elizabeth Warren has retreated from the idea of immediate implementation of Medicare for All, but she remains committed to the progressive core of her candidacy.

As she put it in a speech to Iowa Democrats on Nov. 1:

If we’re going to meet the challenges of our time, we need big ideas. Big ideas to inspire people and get them out to caucus and get them out to vote. Big ideas to be the lifeblood of our party and show the world who and what Democrats will fight for.

In rhetoric that drew enthusiastic applause from her supporters at the Liberty and Justice Dinner in Des Moines, Warren declared that the nation is at

a time of crisis, and media pundits, Washington insiders, even some people in our own party don’t want to admit it. They think that running some vague campaign that nibbles around the edges is somehow safe.

Democrats will win, she continued,

when we offer solutions big enough to touch the problems that are in people’s lives. Fear and complacency does not win elections; hope and courage wins elections.

There is evidence, however, that Warren’s strategy could generate a backlash leading to the re-election of Tweety McTreason.

Andrew Hall and Daniel Thompson, political scientists at Stanford, examined “the link between the ideology of congressional candidates and the turnout of their parties’ bases in US House races, 2006—2014” in their 2018 paper “Who Punishes Extremist Nominees? Candidate Ideology and Turning Out the Base in US Elections.”

In contrast to moderate candidates, Hall and Thompson found:

Extremist candidates do worse, because, contrary to rhetoric, they fail to galvanize their own base and instead encourage the opposing party’s base to turn out more, on average.

In other words, polarizing candidates diminish turnout in their own party while boosting turnout among opposing partisans.

Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory, analyzed the pattern of Democratic victories in 2018 House races and found that “those who supported Medicare for All performed worse than those who did not, even when controlling for other factors.”

In an article he published last week, “Medicare for All a Vote Loser in 2018 U.S. House Elections,” Abramowitz concluded:

These findings are not encouraging to supporters of Medicare for All. They indicate that candidates in competitive races who take positions to the left of the median voter could get punished at the polls. Democratic presidential candidates would do well to take heed of these results.

The analyses by Hall, Thompson and Abramowitz do not preclude the possibility that Warren could beat Trump in 2020. Whoever the Democratic nominee is will be able to capitalize on widespread hostility to Trump, a motivated Democratic electorate and the party’s continuing gains in formerly Republican suburbs across the nation.

The broad scope of the Warren agenda is partially reflected in proposals to provide universal health care; to increase Social Security benefits by $200 a month; to “end Washington corruption;” to achieve 100 percent clean energy; a “fair and welcoming immigration system;” free public college; the breakup of Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple; cancellation of student debt; “guaranteed high-quality child care and early education for every child in America;” a 2 percent tax on every dollar of net worth above $50 million and a higher tax on every dollar of net worth above $1 billion; and a $1 trillion program of environmental justice for poor and minority communities.

In addition, Warren would decriminalize illegal border crossing — the “criminal provision is totally unnecessary for border security” — and her Medicare proposal would include coverage of undocumented immigrants.

In January, Warren announced that she had abandoned her opposition to taxpayer-financed gender reassignment surgery for prison inmates, announcing in a statement:

Senator Warren supports access to medically necessary services, including transition-related surgeries. This includes procedures taking place at the VA, in the military, or at correctional facilities.

An underlying premise of the campaigns of both Warren and Bernie Sanders is that taking radically progressive stands will motivate, enlarge and turn out the Democratic base, including minorities, the young and the poor; and that such positions are necessary to restore Democratic support among those who voted for third party candidates in 2016.

“The path to victory is energizing and delivering to the base,” according to Justice Democrats, a group that backs progressive candidates, including those challenging Democratic incumbents: “Far too often, Democratic campaigns are designed to win over mushy milquetoast (and mythical) moderates, rather than excite the base.”

The group — which has strong ties to Bernie Sanders but more broadly backs candidates taking very progressive stands — argues that

Democratic primary voters support a populist progressive agenda that ties racial justice to progressive economic populism. The days are long gone when a message proclaiming ‘the end of big government as we know it,’ could win a Democratic primary.

As much as the Warren program has mobilized many Democratic primary voters, polls show that significant numbers of swing voters — wavering Republicans repelled by Tweety McTreason and moderate to conservative Democrats — do not share Warren’s appetite for major structural change, preferring incremental change and the repair of existing programs, like Obamacare.

Strategically, if Warren wins the Democratic nomination, the election would become not only a referendum on Trump — favorable terrain for Democrats — but also a referendum on Warren’s program, a far less certain proposition.

A presidential campaign based on the set of proposals Warren has put forward faces not only an assault from the right, but a mixed reception from the extensive network of Democratic policy mavens, including a number of economists.

“Many of Senator Warren’s proposals are indeed radical and could have unintended consequences,” Jeffrey Frankel, an economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a member of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton administration, wrote by email. He added:

I fear that by far the worst of the unintended consequences of making these proposals during the campaign is to get Tweety McTreason re-elected.

Larry Summers is a former secretary of the Treasury, director of the national economic council and president of Harvard. The Warren program, Summers wrote by email, “dwarfs the errors, economic and political, of George McGovern.”

In a Nov. 5 Washington Post op-ed, Summers argued that:

Warren’s plan will discourage hiring, particularly of low-skilled workers, by firms that currently provide generous benefits. These firms will face the most burdensome taxes when they increase hiring and will gain the greatest cost savings by laying off workers.

Summers acknowledged that “the case for more tax progressivity is compelling, and each of the Warren measures can be defended in isolation,” but, he continued, “there is the concern that their cumulative impact may be excessive should, as the Warren campaign repeatedly claims, they be borne only by the very wealthy.”

Last week, in an effort to mute criticism that her agenda would be not only difficult to enact in toto but also highly disruptive if it became law, Warren announced a significant modification of her version of Medicare for All. Instead of trying to immediately pass a complete government takeover of health care that would eliminate private insurance plans, she proposed “a true Medicare for All option,” or what has generally been described as a public option — and that has strong support among voters of all stripes.

Warren’s plan would be “free for children under the age of 18 and for families making at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $51,000 for a family of four)” and provide “every person in America the choice to get coverage through a true Medicare for All option.”

On Nov. 15, Warren announced that if elected, she would wait until her third year in office to “fight to pass legislation that would complete the transition to full Medicare for All.”

Warren’s new stance appears to be an acknowledgment of the fact that her proposal to replace all health private coverage with Medicare for All does not carry majority support even among Democratic primary voters, a liberal constituency, much less the general electorate.

In a survey released on Oct. 19, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that

more Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents would prefer voting for a candidate who wants to build on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in order to expand coverage and reduce costs rather than replace the ACA with a national Medicare-for-all plan.

In addition, Kaiser

found broad support for proposals that expand the role of public programs like Medicare and Medicaid as well as a government-administered public option. And while partisans are divided on a Medicare-for-all national health plan, there is robust support among Democrats, and even support among Republicans, for an expansion of the Medicare program through a Medicare buy-in or a Medicaid buy-in proposal.

While Democratic economists like Frankel and Summers are sharply critical of Warren’s approach, other liberal economists are more sympathetic, especially toward Warren’s efforts to shift the tax burden from the middle class to the rich.

Justin Wolfers, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan, wrote:

It’s possible — likely, even — that there will be negative consequences from the various Warren plans. It’s also possible — likely, even — that there will be positive consequences. The big question is whether the positive outweigh the negatives, and I’ve been a bit dismayed to note that much of the popular discussion so far has dodged this question. Instead, we’ve had a lot of gotchas that something bad could happen. Obviously that’s true. It’s also not the point.

Gabriel Zucman, an economist at Berkeley, who has advised the Warren campaign on wealth taxation, looks favorably on proposals to significantly raise taxes on high income earners and the rich, and foresees positive consequences if such hikes are enacted:

The United States has taxed the rich heavily in the past. From 1950 to 1980, the top marginal income tax rate averaged 80 percent, the corporate tax rate averaged 50 percent, and the top estate tax rate averaged 76 percent.” Yet, Zucman continued, “over that thirty-year period of time, GDP per adult grew at a high average annual rate of 2.2 percent.

That stands in contrast to

the last 30 years, the period from 1990 to 2020. Over that period of time, the top marginal income tax rate averaged 37 percent, the corporate tax rate averaged 34 percent, the top estate tax rate averaged 47 percent (and effective tax rates for the rich fell a lot). Yet GDP per adult grew at an average annual rate of 1.3 percent.

Progressive taxation can adversely affect innovation and growth, Zucman noted,

but the effect is likely to be very small compared to the many other factors, such as the quality of higher education, public investment in fundamental research, the quality of infrastructure, etc., that affect innovation and all of which require tax revenue.

While liberal economists have mixed views of Warren’s agenda, a number of political observers warn that candidates for the House and Senate would face a steeper climb to victory with Warren at the top of the ticket.

“It would be tough to run under Elizabeth Warren,” David Wasserman, who studies House races for the Cook Report, said in an interview. “As of now, she runs the weakest against Trump in battleground areas and her proposals are not broadly popular.”

The worst case scenario, Wasserman argued, “would be to have Elizabeth Warren at the top of ticket with a plausible chance to win.” He argued that swing voters worried about a Warren presidency would vote in support of a Republican Congress to act as a check on her.

“The key to winning the House and Senate seats in marginal districts and states will be appealing to Republican women, particularly those in the suburbs, as well as younger Republicans and college educated Republicans,” Joe Trippi, a liberal Democratic consultant who has worked on campaigns from Edward Kennedy’s 1980 presidential bid to Doug Jones’s 2018 Alabama Senate campaign, wrote by email.

“Anyone at the top of the ticket who repels these Republicans will make it more difficult to win the key House and Senate seats Democrats have targeted,” Trippi said.

“A polarized left vs. right election may win the presidency,” in Trippi’s view, “but the more polarizing the presidential nominee is the tougher it will be for House and Senate candidates to win.”

Republican pollsters’ assessments of a Warren nomination were similar to those of Wasserman and Trippi.

Bill McInturff, a founder of Public Opinion Strategies, wrote that any Democratic candidate running on “forgive all student loans; free health care to people not in the country legally; take away all private health insurance; and stopping fracking” is “going to nationalize the election around a set of positions that is going to make it very difficult for Democrats in any swing seat in the country.”

Whit Ayres, president of North Star Opinion Research, was outspoken: “Elizabeth Warren is God’s gift to Tweety McTreason and Republican candidates.”

“Well-educated suburban voters, especially women,” Ayres continued, “are uncomfortable with Tweety McTreason,” but, he added,

they are not going to vote for a candidate who wants to take away their private health insurance, decriminalize the border, increase government spending by 50 percent, and ban fracking, especially in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado.

Wariness toward the kind of disruptive structural change Warren is calling for can be seen among Democratic voters in six battleground states — Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona and Florida — as a New York Times/Siena College survey conducted Oct. 13-26 demonstrated.

By 62 to 33, these Democrats said they would prefer a candidates who promises “to find common ground with Republicans” to one who promises “to fight for a bold progressive agenda;” by 55 to 36 a candidate who is more “moderate than most Democrats” to one who is “more liberal than most Democrats;” and by 49 to 45 a candidate who promises “to bring politics in Washington back to normal” to a candidate who promises “to bring fundamental, systematic change to American society.”

The same Times/Siena College survey identified 596 undecided or “persuadable” voters in these six states, with relatively strong views as described by of my colleague, Nate Cohn. They are

fairly clear about what they would like from a Democrat. They prefer, by 82 percent to 11 percent, one who promises to find common ground over one who promises to fight for a progressive agenda; and they prefer a moderate over a liberal, 75 percent to 19 percent.

Looking toward 2020, Cohn wrote,

They support Mr. Biden over the president, 38 percent to 27 percent, but prefer the president to Ms. Warren, 37 to 20. Mr. Sanders is in between, with the president leading him, 34 percent to 32 percent.

One of the most pointed critiques of the Warren candidacy was written this October in The Hill by Krystal Ball, a former MSNBC host who supports Bernie Sanders:

Warren’s upper-crust fan base is, in itself, a cause for concern. The higher you go on the income scale and the education scale, the more support you find for Warren. Her coalition also is the whitest of the major candidates. Warren’s coalition points to a doubling down of the professional-class coalition within the Democratic Party. That means more sidelining of the working class, more embracing the tastes and priorities of wealthy liberals, more of the white, working-class finding a home in the racist populism of the right.

Richard North Patterson, the novelist and former chairman of Common Cause, contends, in an article in The Bulwark, that “Elizabeth Warren Is Trapped. And She Did It To Herself: “Not long ago, Elizabeth Warren seemed blessedly unencumbered: She was an increasingly skilled campaigner whose litany of policy proposals made her sui generis. But that was an illusion.”

“To win the nomination, Warren must pilfer some of Bernie Sanders’ acolytes and pacify the rest. And so, fatefully — and it seemed, reluctantly — she vamped on Sanders’ single-payer proposal,” Patterson wrote:

Now she’s stuck with it. Her dilemma encapsulates the Darwinian dynamics of the Democratic field: Four top-tier candidates drawn into an ever-tightening circular firing squad which, by the end, may grievously wound its sole survivor.

Patterson’s analysis points to the larger question that looms constantly over the nomination fight: Is the progressive wing of the Democratic primary electorate, and its demand that the nominee take stands on health care, energy and immigration well to the left of the electorate at large, the main obstacle to Democratic victory in 2020?

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