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Arguing the world

Walter Shapiro

Over the past four decades, the American political landscape has been littered with the wreckage of booster rockets from eagerly anticipated presidential campaigns that failed to successfully take off.

Begin with John Glenn, whom I profiled on the cover of Newsweek in 1983 just after the release of the film version of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. 'Can a Movie Help Make a President?' the piece’s cover line asked—and, as is the general rule with most questions posed in a headline, the correct answer was 'No.' Nebraska Senator and Vietnam veteran Bob Kerrey was considered a major 1992 challenger to Bill Clinton—until he ran. Basketball star Bill Bradley never got a clear shot against Al Gore in 2000. And then there was a celebrated also-ran named Joe Biden in 2008.

On the Republican side, the names alone provoke giggles. Rudy Giuliani had a hefty lead for the Republican nomination in all the Gallup polls in 2007. And maybe you remember Jeb Bush and his spendthrift ability to blow through $160 million in both campaign and Super PAC money without winning a single state—together with the woeful campaign-trail appeal that the candidate all but mumbled from beneath all that sunken cash: “Please clap.” Or take Jeb’s erstwhile Florida protégé, who was supposed to be the charismatic standard-bearer of a fearless new brand of Tea Party-inspired leadership: Marco Rubio, who is now best known for quoting Bible verses on Twitter between half-hearted defenses of President Trump’s agenda.

During the winter and early spring, it looked as if Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren would be the next entry in this parade of presidential pratfalls. But now that Warren again has as plausible a path as any candidate to the nomination, it’s worth remembering the way that the political railbirds and TV talking heads seized on her missteps (real and perceived) in the early going.

A cringeworthy New Year’s Eve livestream on Instagram featured the former Harvard law professor in her kitchen announcing out of nowhere, 'Hold on a sec, I’m gonna get me a beer.' (The folksy outburst was as heavy-handed as the patrician George H.W. Bush stressing his love of pork rinds during the 1988 campaign.)

Since her first 2012 campaign to become a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, Warren has been grappling—none too successfully—with her prior claims of Native American ancestry. In an effort to still Donald Trump’s mockery of her as 'Pocahontas' from his endless string of rally podiums, Warren in October 2018 released the results of a DNA test that showed her with a smidge of Native American ancestry dating back, at minimum, six generations. On her first trip to Iowa as a candidate in early January, Warren was pointedly asked by a voter in Sioux City (an apt locale), 'Why did you undergo the DNA testing and give Donald Trump more fodder to be a bully?' By February, Warren was apologizing to the Cherokee Nation for implying that she was a member of the tribe based solely on the exceedingly thin DNA evidence.

Then there were Warren’s early strategic miscues. With her fierce opposition to Wall Street, she was never going to be fawned over at fund-raisers in Park Avenue living rooms and at Greenwich estates. Making a virtue of necessity in late February, she pledged to supporters in an email that she would be holding 'no fancy receptions or big money fund-raisers only with people who can write the big checks.' This high-minded decision prompted in fairly short order the resignation of her finance director. Beltway insiders also derided the ban on big donors as a critical setback for Warren in the 'money primary'—the crucial first scrum for candidates in an epically crowded Democratic field to realize maximum financial advantage. Politico called it 'voluntary disarmament—a major risk that could send precious dollars to competing campaigns.'

It certainly looked that way, at first. By the end of March, Warren had raised about as much in the entire first quarter of 2019 ($6 million, not counting transfers from her 2018 Senate reelection) as Beto O’Rourke had collected during his first day in the race. And with a heavy initial investment in staff in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, Warren was burning money almost as fast it came in. These kinds of spending sprees normally occur much later in a primary cycle, as candidates begin springing for a heavy rotation of TV ads.

Her disappointing first-quarter fund-raising numbers solidified the orthodox judgment among campaign mavens that Warren’s moment had passed—that, if she ever had an opportunity, it was probably back in 2016. In April, the emerging conventional wisdom was that Warren faced a still formidable Bernie Sanders on her left flank, and she seemed a bit shopworn compared to flashy new figures like Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg.

If this were a typical political comeback story (the kinds that are immortalized in best-selling campaign books that later become HBO docudramas), Warren would rescue her campaign at this critical juncture with a dramatic gesture or bold decision. You could imagine the overheated prose: 'Elizabeth Warren was angry. Her White House dreams were as bankrupt as her campaign treasury. In just a few hours, she....'

The ensuing campaign narratives could take any number of forms. Here’s a brief hypothetical sample: Maybe Warren would use the first debate to puncture the pretensions of a pesky rival, as Walter Mondale did in 1984 when he belittled Gary Hart’s 'new ideas' with a line stolen from a hamburger-chain commercial: 'Where’s the beef?' Or Warren might emulate a floundering Bill Clinton in 1992 by placing an unorthodox figure like James Carville in charge of every aspect of the campaign. She could even go the full John McCain route—jettisoning, as he did in 2007, the entire structure of his consultant-heavy operation to run a bare-bones, seat-of-the-pants campaign for the nomination.

But now for the dramatic revelation: Absolutely nothing changed with the Warren campaign. Like a sailboat caught in a summer squall, the good ship Liz’s Luck righted itself as soon as the winds died down. During the second quarter, Warren raised an impressive $19.1 million, narrowly topped only by Pete Buttigieg ($24.8 million) and Joe Biden ($21.5 million).

As Kristen Orthman, Warren’s communications director, put it, 'We’re slow and steady—never too high, never too low. There’s going to be ups and downs. I think anyone who has ever worked in a presidential campaign will tell you that.' Yes, this sounds suspiciously like the baseball locker-room clichés mocked in Bull Durham. All that was missing was Orthman saying, 'I’m just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ball club.'

But there’s also a good deal of truth in Orthman’s anodyne comments. David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, who is neutral in the current presidential race, told me, 'Since the Pocahontas thing, they’ve run a very smart campaign.'


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