The Corner


The Upshot on Sanders, Warren, Harris, and Biden

Potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren (D, Mass.) speaks at an Organizing Event in Manchester, N.H., January 12, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

A couple readers have asked what’s the upshot or conclusion from those long lists of things you should know about Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Joe Biden.

It’s a free country! Draw your own conclusions! That having been said . . .

Bernie Sanders is exactly what he appears to be — a very old radical with dreams of large-scale political revolution. For a long time, he was nearly as hostile to the Democratic party for being timid as he was to the Republicans, and he made a lot of enemies among Democratic officials. He’s hard-Left but old-school Left, and not quite in rhythm with the more identity-politics-focused younger progressives of today. He’s got bold plans for sweeping changes to the entire United States economy that would require a huge political mandate that he’s not likely to ever win.

Like many second-time candidates, Sanders appears to be pursuing a strategy of offering pretty much the same thing for a second time and hoping that the voters conclude that they made a terrible mistake by passing on him the first time. He may be in for a rude awakening. Sure, Sanders was the surprise of 2016, but maybe that just reflected that a lot of Democrats were looking for a non-Hillary option, and Sanders was just better than chumps like Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee.

Elizabeth Warren could have been a much more broadly popular populist figure in American politics if she had taken just a few different turns along the way. There was a time when she and Lou Dobbs were largely aligned, denouncing greedy companies and insider politicians for taking advantage of the middle class through predatory, fraudulent, and generally unethical behavior. She offered some mild criticism for feminists and school choice opponents. She barely hid her hostility to high-ranking Democrats with deep connections to Wall Street. But as Warren rose through the ranks of the party, her deviations from orthodoxy grew rarer.

Warren became more like the rest of the Democrats, and the rest of the Democrats became more like Warren in a broad-spectrum hostility to the financial industry and business as a whole. The result is that she doesn’t stand out as much as she used to — she’s still pretty populist, a trade skeptic, an Occupy Wall Street philosophy in the schoolmarm-ish law professor package. The comparisons to Hillary Clinton are wildly off the mark. In her wonkiness, stiffness, and gobs of (disputed) research in a once-obscure policy topic that suddenly became hot, she’s much more like . . .  Al Gore.

Kamala Harris is, by most measures, the Democratic party’s dream “progressive prosecutor.” But that second word means her record’s are a little more pro-law-enforcement than ideal for the post-Ferguson era. Your average progressive activist or Democratic primary voter probably isn’t a big fan of civil asset forfeiture, criminal prosecutions for parents of truant children, or perhaps the police going through ancestry databases looking for familial DNA matches. In a Democratic primary, she’ll get grief for choosing not to prosecute Steven Mnuchin and his bank. And she’s going to try to simultaneously campaign on a “tough prosecutor” image and de facto amnesty positions, insisting that “an undocumented immigrant is not a criminal.” She’ll be the president who rigorously enforces the laws she likes and ignores the ones she doesn’t like.

Out of the four candidates I’ve written lists about, there’s been by far the most interest in Harris — suggesting to me that even a lot of people who follow politics feel like they don’t really know that much about her yet. Her public image is still being shaped right now — which is a great opportunity for her, and a window of opportunity for any of her rivals.

Joe Biden may very well end up being the most “centrist”/least-leftist/old-fashioned/least-radical Democratic option in the field. This is not because he’s particularly centrist or often defies the will of his party, but he’s been around long enough that he’s got the voting record and residual attitudes from a time when Democrats supported the death penalty, stiffer penalties for drug possession, some abortion restrictions, government surveillance, and so on. He’s open about his Catholic faith and uses language that is far from politically correct. He’s also not on board with some current trendy progressive ideas like universal basic income.

In a general election, those aspects of Biden would represent a real danger for Trump. But first Biden’s got to get there, and his whole persona and worldview will be tough to sell when the Democratic party’s grassroots are feeling angry and leftist and radical. It’s also a really open question as to how the party’s primary voters feel about Biden’s inherent . . .  Joe Biden-ness, for lack of a better term. Biden got a lot of forgiveness for his gaffes from being Obama’s vice president, and today’s average online progressive is primed to go ballistic over statements that sound racist, sexist, or generally insensitive.

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