Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Elle ne regrette rien

I got stuck in irritation at Jonathan Chait and his complaints last week ("Elizabeth Warren’s Book Shows She Has No Idea Why Her Campaign Failed") about Elizabeth Warren's memoir, Persist, which fails to be the book he wants to read, which will explain the thing he feels he already knows, which is that "progressive" Democrats in 2020 were so "disoriented" by the way the 2016 election had overturned all their assumptions about "electability" that they found themselves inside a "bubble" of believing the assumptions weren't true: 

Persist, Elizabeth Warren’s new memoir of her life and presidential campaign, is an excellent and informative account of how that bubble  formed. Her campaign was perhaps a prime case study in the delirious post-2016 atmosphere and the errors in political judgment it produced.

The problem is that she is so deep inside that bubble she seems not to recognize it for what it was. She can paint a compelling portrait of what the inside of the Democratic Party activist bubble looked like, but shows no awareness that there is anything outside of the bubble, or even that she was inside of one.

Excuse me, sir, this is an Arby's. Or, less metaphorically, a traditional inspirational text about the importance of persistence, and anything but a political operative's autopsy of a failed campaign. It opens not with the sorrow of her quitting the presidential campaign in March 2020 but the exhilaration of watching Biden and Harris winning in November, and eager anticipation of the hard work that must come next, and she remarks,

Chait was (like me) an early fan of Warren's campaign in 2019, and now he seems like he's asking for an apology for letting him down (that would be why he wants to hear her say the thing he's saying himself, to show she really means it). Instead, Warren doesn't even seem interested, as Danielle Kurtzleben wrote in her NPR review:

Persist is not primarily a 2020 campaign recap. The alleged comment from Bernie Sanders that a woman couldn't defeat Trump? She mentions it and then drops it, without delving into the controversy it stirred up.

Mayor Pete's wine-cave dinner? Again, a passing mention.

The attacks on Warren for not initially having a plan to pay for "Medicare for All"? That's there. The fact that she weathered far more criticism for it than Sanders (who penned the plan, without himself releasing detailed pay-fors until later)? Not really.

Lingering, gnawing bitterness at the fact that progressives lost the nomination to the centrist-running Biden? Nope.

And I don't see why she should be. She's a better hands-on politician than we had any reason to expect, with all those selfies and pinky promises, but she's not a horse race pundit. Let one of her operatives write the autopsy. Or let Chait write that book himself, if he's so anxious to read it. 

I have no intention of speaking for Warren, but I'd like to add that there's a case to be made that the Warren campaign didn't fail at all—far from it. Or if you prefer, that there's some fabulous lemonade getting made from the lemons she earned when she was busy not becoming president. The mistake pundits like Chait make is to confuse the outcome you want from a particular election with the person you choose to represent it. The outcome you wanted from a Warren victory last year is actually turning out to be far more likely under a Biden presidency, as I began thinking 12 or 13 months ago myself, than it would have done if she actually had won, not to mention that Biden had a much better chance of winning than she would have had if she had gotten the nomination.

Because the truth is, Biden had the best chances of any candidate of accomplishing the goals she set for her presidency. Neither Sanders nor Warren was going to become president—if we thought Warren had a better chance than Sanders because she said she was "a capitalist to her bones" or because she initially offered a really practicable health insurance transition to universal coverage instead of the vague and implausible Medicare For All proposal, we were reading the situation almost as wrongly as those who thought the best chance was with the Sanders approach of appealing to the people's unexpressed desire for a "political revolution". 

The best candidate was going to be the one with the broadest appeal to Black women, the new revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat as I keep saying, on the criteria of electability (they were unwilling to take any avoidable risk of a second Trump term), trustworthiness (they looked for someone with whom they felt a historical connection), and perceived empathy (they were interested in the greatest possible contrast with the selfish and heartless Trump Republicans). That was going to be Biden from the start, who they knew had the best reach among white voters, the personal connection with Obama, and the aura of his experience of family tragedy, and it should have been obvious from the South Carolina primary onwards that the nomination was his, and the election too, especially if he chose Kamala Harris as his running mate. The public kept trying out alternatives to Biden, Harris in July 2019, Warren in October, Buttigieg in December, Sanders at last apparently very strongly as the caucuses got  in February, but Biden was always overwhelmingly likeliest.


And the best thing Sanders and Warren could do for the ideas that animated them was to compete for influence over Biden, which they did in different ways, Sanders trading on his personal association with Biden, Warren by being stand-offish (in something of the same way as Sanders had done in 2016).

In that connection, Warren's outreach to the Black community, which looked embarrassingly wrong as a way to win votes, seems prescient:

The most painfully oblivious sections are when Warren describes her efforts to woo Black and Latino activists, whose endorsements she equates with wooing those communities as a whole. After one speech about racism, she exults, “the Washington Post said it was the speech Black activists had been waiting for.” The release of her cutting-edge progressive criminal-justice plan “got a good reception” from an activist, whose approving tweet she quotes with satisfaction. Her endorsement by “Black Womxn For” is a moment of triumph in the narrative.

Despite the extensive detail of her hard work to win over activists, she shows no measures of broader Black sentiment. In February 2020, New York Times reporter Astead Herndon detailed how Warren’s success with Black and Latino political activists had yielded barely any support among actual Black and Latino voters. Warren’s strategy, noted Herndon, revealed “the limits of using the language of progressive activists to speak to a Black community that is more ideologically diverse.”

She wasn't gathering votes, but she was gathering support for things she might be in a position to try to implement, as vice president, as cabinet officer, or even just as chair of the Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Growth in the Senate Finance Committee, as she is right now, and loving it, as she told Lawrence O'Donnell with evident sincerity

But what is it like for you to be on the committee where you could actually basically have the pen in hand marking up and writing possibly a wealth tax, and that's the committee where it would have to be written?

WARREN: I love it. I mean, I truly love it.

She and her economic advisers, my favorites, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, are exactly where I would wish them to be at this moment, with the best possible person to push her ideas through occupying the White House (we know he's not excited about a wealth tax, but the most important tax ideas he is backing on capital gains and estates, and on corporations, are effectively on wealth). Elizabeth Warren has persisted not in the pursuit of a singular career goal—defeated in her hope of running the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she designed, she ran for Senate instead; defeated in her bids for the presidency and for positions in the Biden administration, she's back in the Finance Committee but this time wielding a gavel—but in the pursuit of economic justice wherever she happens to land, and I'm glad. I don't see any reason for Chait to be bad-tempered about it. 

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