If you’re a progressive, take yourself back to Feb. 19, 2019, more than a year ago, to the day that Elizabeth Warren declared her candidacy for president. Remember how optimistic everything felt? How the left of the Democratic party had not one, but two potential winners who might carry the flag into the general election against Trump? How, for the first time, there was a realistic shot at actually seeing one of ours in the oval office? How if Bernie Sanders lost but Warren won, or vice versa, it would all be gravy? Imagine going back to that hopeful day, and being told the following:
In one year, after the first four primaries, Bernie Sanders will be the frontrunner for the nomination, and his chief enemy—the person doing everything in her power to stop him—will be Elizabeth Warren.
It’s a heel turn unlike anything we’ve seen in American politics for at least a generation, with staggering new developments seeming to arrive every day. To explain the situation as it stands now is not hard, necessarily, just baffling.
First and foremost, for context, we need to talk about Warren’s results. After peaking in the polls last October, it’s been a downard trajectory ever since, and from Iowa through South Carolina, she finished third, fourth, fifth, and fifth. She hasn’t earned a single delegate since Iowa, and she was a distant fourth in overall delegates until Pete Buttigieg dropped out Sunday night (more on that in a moment). Her polling is so bad in Super Tuesday states that it appears she’ll lose Massachusetts, her home state, to Bernie Sanders. She has absolutely no shot to carry a majority or plurality of delegates into the national convention in Milwaukee.
Instead, some of her supporters are deluding themselves into thinking she can be a “compromise candidate” in a brokered convention. For all I know, Warren may be deluding herself with the same notion. It’s a preposterous idea, that Joe Biden and Sanders would take the lion’s share of the delegates into the convention, yet somehow accept a result that saw the nod go to Warren…a person who will likely, by then, not have won a single state. If it transpired, it would guarantee a fractured party and a victory for Donald Trump. Of all the political fantasies we’ve heard this year, this ranks among the most far-fetched.
Meanwhile, the practical effect of Warren’s continued presence in the race is that she’s stripping votes from Bernie Sanders. Recent polling has found that roughly 40 percent of her supporters say Bernie Sanders is a second choice, more than double the nearest competitor:
Now, it's fair to say that if Warren actually cared about progressive ideals, she might consider dropping out to ensure that the candidate with the agenda closest to hers has a better chance of winning. The Massachusetts primary on Super Tuesday is a great example—Warren will either beat Sanders narrowly or come in a close second in her home state, but either way she will cost him delegates.
Then again, it's also fair to say that every candidate should have the right to play out the primary string, as Sanders did in 2016 (the big difference being that his agenda and Hillary Clinton's were quite far apart). But Warren's shocking opposition to Sanders goes beyond mere lingering…aside from her broadsides against Michael Bloomberg in one debate, Warren has trained most of her fire on her erstwhile progressive ally. It began with her insistence that Sanders had told her a woman couldn't win the election, and since then it's been one brutal attack after another. Listen to her address Sanders after South Carolina:
She did the same thing after New Hampshire, attacking Sanders without using his name and essentially accusing him of being an egomaniac who wants to burn down the party:
For two candidates who seemed to be on friendly terms and had an unspoken non-aggression pact for much of the campaign, the change is dramatic. And if you doubted that Sanders is the primary focus of her attacks, take it from a source close to the campaign, who said the quiet part aloud:
“Tonight is about blunting the momentum for Bernie Sanders.”
Again, politics is competitive and nobody expected an easy path for any candidate, but for Warren to train her fire specifically on Sanders is a puzzle that, from an ideological perspective, makes very little sense. Earlier on, when there was relative peace, it might have made sense. They theoretically draw from the same pool, and a big part of this primary was going to pivot on who could dominate the left lane. But now, when Warren has been thoroughly out-maneuvered in that demographic, conducting this war with such fervency is deeply counter-productive, and has started to seem almost personal.
A good counter-example is Pete Buttigieg, who dropped out of the race Sunday night. He probably recognized that he was at his strongest leverage point at this exact moment, when Biden desperately needs to stave off disaster on Super Tuesday and Pete owns some of his votes. Maybe there were even promises made. But on a more basic level, Pete Buttigieg does not like Bernie Sanders, and he realized that by staying in the race, he makes it more likely for Sanders to win. That was a big motivation for the drop-out, and his campaign didn't try to hide it:
This makes good logical sense: If you're a moderate like Mayor Pete and you don't want Sanders to win, you drop out so you don't strip votes from Biden, the leading moderate.
Likewise, if you're a progressive like Warren and you don't want Joe Biden to win, you drop out so you don't strip votes from Sanders, the leading progredssive.
So what is she doing?
Well, for one thing, she's taking big super PAC money to continue an impossible fight:
The super PAC, known as Persist PAC, announced late on Thursday night that it was buying $9 million in television and digital ads across nine expensive media markets in three Super Tuesday states: California, Texas and Massachusetts. The reservation is in addition to another $3.25 million previously announced that covers seven other states, plus California…Because the super PAC was formed so late — it launched days before the Nevada caucuses — the group can keep its donors secret from the millions of Americans who will be voting in the coming weeks. A representative for the group said it would not disclose its donors until legally required, on March 20.
This, frankly, is the most amazing heel turn of all. For Warren to take dark money goes against the beliefs she stated this very campaign. And not only that, it's the biggest super PAC in the whole field!! This represents a complete compromise of her stated ideals. Here she is on the topic of super PACs last February, leaving absolutely no doubt where she stood:
How do you go from that to having the biggest super PAC in the campaign? Life comes at you fast, indeed! Here she is trying to explain it to Chris Hayes—it goes as badly as you might think:
Even more importantly, why don't we know who's behind this super PAC? What if it's just Biden supporters, or anti-Bernie donors in general, using Warren to keep their least favorite Democratic-Socialist out of office? That would make complete sense—way more sense, in fact, than someone giving a doomed campaign $14 million. Michael Tracey is absolutely right here:
Nor is there any chance she's going to drop out after Super Tuesday, per her campaign:
1. She can’t win, either on her own merits or at a brokered convention.
2. She’s staying in, and people close to her have said it’s about “blunting” the Sanders momentum.
3. She’s publicly attacking Sanders after every primary.
4. She’s taking dark super PAC money that may be coming from anti-Bernie sources.
5. She won’t drop out even if she bombs on Super Tuesday.
When you look at the overwhelming evidence, how can you reach any conclusion but the most obvious one? Elizabeth Warren, having failed to run a successful campaign, is now out to prevent Bernie Sanders from winning. Somewhere, Joe Biden is smiling.