Monday morning, on the last day of 2018, Elizabeth Warren announced that she’s launching an “exploratory committee” for president, which means she’s running. You can watch the video here:
From a progressive standpoint, this video was good. If we were grading on the letter system, it would be a solid B+ for the way it mentions wealth inequality, union-busting, and the Republican habit of selling the middle class for parts while they cut their own taxes. And it highlights Warren’s own best accomplishment, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was one of the few legitimate financial accountability measures to come out of the Obama years.
Now, you can’t mention Warren in 2018 (or 2019) without mentioning the thing she is most widely known for in America, which is the controversy over her Native American ancestry. The fact that it’s her defining characteristic in the eyes of most Americans who know her name is her own fault, and stems from a disastrous ploy to outmaneuver Trump in October by releasing DNA results showing that yes, there is, um, possibly some Cherokee blood in her family. Not only did she manage to transform this issue from a weird but marginal Republican fixation into a national issue and delight the Republicans she was trying to pre-emptively silence, but it also pissed off the Cherokee Nation for some very good reasons and highlighted that what she did at Harvard Law actually was pretty shady. At the time, I found it disqualifying, and I stand by that—it shows some really bad political instincts, and was a grim preview of what we might expect when she has to face Trump.
That said, today’s video was a small step in the right direction, and the fact is that Warren remains the most progressive candidate in the race outside of Sanders. The one area where she fell short in the announcement, and where she’s going to have to distinguish herself quickly, is specifics. The opening line, “if you work hard and play by the rules, you ought to be able to take care of yourself and the people you love,” is just vague enough to sound like the soaring-but-ultimately-empty-rhetoric of Democratic candidates from the past three decades—Democrats who didn’t support free healthcare, or free public education, or real financial reform, or robust climate initiatives. The corporate-aligned centrists, in other words, who have played as big a role as Republicans in pushing America inexorably to the right.
Now, Warren already has better credentials than someone like Hillary Clinton or Obama, and I don’t necessarily expect her to come out guns blazing in the short video accompanying her initial announcement. But she can’t wait long—progressives who are looking for a candidate to support already have someone in Bernie Sanders whose message is utterly concrete, to the point that he doesn’t even seem to bother with inspiration or metaphor. If Warren wants to strip support from him, or to win the votes of progressives who think he’s too old or divisive, she needs to prove her bona fides fast or her appeal will wither on the vine—there are already many progressives who will remember her silence during the Sanders-Clinton primary and wonder where exactly she stands. And if her plan is “be everything to everybody” in the Obama mold, she’ll lose progressives and ultimately get out-vagued by someone like Joe Biden or Beto O’Rourke.
The reason Sanders captured so much attention in 2015 and 2016 is that he spoke his mind at a time when the electorate was very ready to hear his message. A different political climate, and he would have faded from view. But Warren can’t forget that other part of his success—his unwillingness to shy from his core values or to make choices out of political expediency. America hates a phony, and Warren’s authenticity is not, at the moment, her strong suit. Until she can fix that by coming out in favor of real progressive proposals—and not tepid half-measures designed to fizzle on the campaign trail—she’s not a viable candidate.