A lot of perceptions about the 2020 race have shifted over the last couple weeks, whether the underlying reality has changed is another matter. To me though the biggest story isn’t Biden v Trump or Biden v Bernie or Biden v Warren. All the traction and energy and significance at the moment is the battle between Sanders and Warren, which among its other oddities is only implicitly being joined, at least from the Warren side.
Sanders’ campaign and especially his supporters have taken to attacking Warren over her ties to the Democratic establishment, alleged failures to adequately address health care policy issues and more. The key thing here is that Sanders’ campaign recognizes, accurately, that their real fight is with Warren. Hopefully for Democrats the great majority of every candidates’ supporters will eventually consolidate behind the nominee. But especially reduced to his more ideological supporters (around 15% support as opposed to near 25% support earlier in the spring) Sanders isn’t going to lose those people to Biden. The two are just running totally different kinds of campaigns ideologically, strategically and tonally. But he could lose a large chunk of them to Warren, who is running a distinct but still similar kind of campaign. There’s good evidence he already is. He will also need to reclaim a significant amount of support from Warren’s supporters to get back to something approximating a two person battle between him and Biden.
A couple months ago, Sanders was close to a tie with Biden, though usually a measurable margin behind. He’s now fallen dramatically while Warren has edged her way up to the point where he’s nearing a tie with her. What stands out most about Warren in recent months is her sheer indefatigability. She’s everywhere. Doing everything. Releasing plans on everything. The contrast with Biden and Sanders is striking. And slowly she seems to be clawing her way up the polling ladder.
There’s a big debate over how or whether Sanders and Warren are really different candidates — one engaged largely by interested parties. I think they are significantly different and understanding how they are provides important insight into how the coming months are likely to unfold.
I think Matt Yglesias said earlier this week that the fact that Sanders refuses to join the Democratic party, but rather run for its nomination as an independent, is something most voters don’t even know about let alone care about. I agree with that. But there’s a more substantive and pervasive issue that actually explains a lot of the support and opposition to Sanders.
Sanders whole movement portrays itself as trying to take over and in some ways supplant the Democratic party from the outside. It’s often phrased as the “Democratic establishment.” But this is clearly the “establishment” in the sense of including tens of millions of Democratic voters. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Many people on the left believe that Democrats are wedded to a right-leaning and ineffectual “neo-liberal” ideology that prevents any real and deep progressive change. But Sanders’ posture or stance is also one that is really by definition a hard sell to a lot and likely the majority of self-identifying Democrats.
There’s little doubt that if Sanders were to win the nomination the 2020 general election would be a campaign in part against Donald Trump and to some real degree against the existing Democratic party itself.
It’s critical to understand that this is both a critical driver of Sanders’ existing support and a hard, though not impenetrable, ceiling on his potential support.
Warren’s ideology and policy programs are in many ways quite similar to Sanders. The posture toward her party is quite different. Given her ideological similarities to Sanders, if she were the nominee it would be in effect a significant repudiation of quite a lot of Democratic policy making and politics going back to Bill Clinton and before – including a lot of Barack Obama’s presidency. But that’s all left implicit. Parties shift or reconfigure ideological directions all the time, the policy direction itself rather than that note of repudiation is central to her politics.
Warren actually became a Democrat — and assumed her current ideological posture — well into mid-life. But she’s closely bound into the institutional party. To the disappointment of many Sanders supporters and some of her own supporters, she declined to endorse Sanders in 2016. Instead, figuring Clinton would win, she decided she could exert more influence by supporting Clinton and influencing appointments and policy during her administration.
The other thing about Warren — not always clear from the outside — is that she’s very much a technocrat, a policy wonk and bureaucratic player. This is a different way than we normally use the word “technocrat.” But she’s very much an inside player, both in the sense of how to execute policies but also being grounded in the minutiae of the structures of government. That’s also quite different from Sanders more oppositionist stance.
There are obviously many other differences between the two candidates. But this is a key one. Biden’s still there and far out in the lead of course. But he looks like mainly a placeholder candidate. That’s not a criticism necessarily. He could very well be a placeholder nominee and placeholder president. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Biden’s stance is basically “I’m not crazy. I’ve done this before. And I can get elected.” It’s this Sanders-Warren battle where the future of the party is getting hashed out, even if it may not be defined as either of them as candidates.