The dead heat among Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination is reason to celebrate another female front-runner for president! And: reason to worry.
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After eight long, frustrating months, here it is: The Democratic primary appears to be anyone’s game. According to a new poll from Monmouth, Joe Biden’s once-formidable lead has turned into a three-way tie with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. In fact, the word “tie” is a little misleading; Biden stands in third place, at 19 percent, with Sanders and Warren both pulling 20 percent.
It’s important to remember that this is just one poll, and that other polls still show Biden with a commanding lead. But Biden’s disintegration would be far from shocking. He has never been a good presidential candidate, but in 2019, he’s been an abysmally bad one; in recent weeks, he’s made racist gaffes during speeches (“poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids”), been eaten alive at both debates, and repeatedly, publicly forgotten which years he served as vice-president. (He twice said he was visited in the White House by the survivors of the Parkland shooting; this would be tough, given that he left the White House in 2017, over a year before the shooting took place.) You could write off any one of those as an understandable slip-up, but put them all together, and you have a portrait of a man who may not be lucid or mentally agile enough to serve as president.
Voters have noticed. Biden’s politics are also out of step with what voters want. The two candidates out in front of him—Sanders and Warren—have made names for themselves by calling for big, utopian policies and large-scale overhauls of the system. Biden brags about his friendships with Republicans and promises a return to “normalcy.” While the other front-runners are painting a picture of the glorious future, Biden is refusing to disavow even his most regressive stances because “I’m not sorry for anything that I have ever done.”
The question is, what will come of this newly open field? Because, above and beyond the facts of their different policies or campaigning styles, there is the elephant in the room: We have three first-place candidates. One of them is a woman. The other two aren’t. And the remaining field includes at least two viable female candidates in Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, whose rankings shift week-to-week. It’s not exactly an open field, but we’re going to see a woman go head-to-head with one of these two men. And given how ugly things got the last time the Democratic Party had a female front-runner, it is reasonable to feel dread. This is the moment when we can expect both leading male candidates—and, God help us, their supporters—to fire up whatever sexist attacks they’ve been holding in reserve. A whole lot of good, respectable, “feminist” progressives are likely to make predictable pacts with the Devil right about now, deploying misogyny as a tactical weapon to accomplish their short-term goals, heedless of any long-term damage to women they may inflict. The question is whether—having already seen that strategy play out disastrously in 2016—voters will be canny enough to resist it now. If you have ever uttered the phrase “a woman, but not this woman” within the last five years, now is the time to pay up.
This could all go very wrong very soon. There is substantial evidence that lots of Democratic voters just want a white man to win the nomination, and that they care less about that white man’s policies or beliefs than his identity. There’s also evidence that those people make up a substantial chunk of Biden’s and/or Sanders’s support. Though the typical narrative around Biden and Sanders focuses on their contrasts—Sanders being cast the wild-eyed radical to Biden’s steady hand, or Biden as the decrepit and corrupt Establishment to Sanders’s purifying fire—Sanders is the most popular second choice for Biden’s voters, and Biden is the most popular second choice for Sanders. It’s not all that hard to tell what these guys have in common.
It’s particularly easy because Warren does, in fact, share a lot of ideological territory with Sanders. They’re both focused on enhancing the social safety net, using government as a tool to redistribute resources, and breaking up the concentration of wealth among the top one percent. The differences are less a matter of principle than of strategy and style. Sanders works in broad strokes and emotional appeals; he can effectively popularize big ideas like free college or Medicare for All, and he can certainly incite some, uh, passionate responses. Yet his plans often seem slapdash upon closer inspection. Warren is teacherly, detail-oriented, the woman who Has A Plan For That and who assumes the American public is smart and invested enough to care about the precise ins and outs of a public housing plan or proposed anti-monopoly legislation. So far, she seems to be right.
Yet Warren is not the second choice for most Sanders voters. Biden is. Warren and Sanders are dancing around the question of rivalry; they notably refused to attack each other at the debates, preferring to focus their fire on the candidates to their right, and Warren has stressed her long friendship with Sanders when asked about him. Yet there are signs that the attacks will heat up as the race gets closer. Sanders staffers, including Briahna Joy Gray and David Sirota, have publicly carped about positive press coverage of Warren; Gray evidently agrees that televised praise of Warren constitutes “a free TV ad” and “growing propaganda masquerading as news,” and Sirota is very touchy about any reports of a polling surge. Sanders surrogate Susan Sarandon has publicly thrown jabs about “candidates who used to be Republican,” clearly referencing Warren, who famously switched party alliances in 1996 after performing a study on American bankruptcy. One of Sanders’s key grassroots assets, the DSA, has declared that it will not endorse Warren even if she should secure the nomination. You can understand a refusal to endorse Biden—I would rather burn my own face off with a blow torch—but to place Warren outside the circle of progressive solidarity and support is more concerning, signifying that for all the surface friendliness, taking her down to size remains a priority.
The terms between Biden and Warren are clearer: She despises him, and he’s too stupid to notice or respond. But if and when he does, it would not be remotely surprising for him to inveigh on her in sexist terms; to invoke ideas of her as uppity, preachy, strident, unstable, dishonest, or any of the other not-too-subtle attack lines already employed against Warren on a regular basis by the Republicans with whom Joe has so much in common. Biden’s appeal has always been to a certain sort of good old boy, a romanticized “working-class” white guy who would appreciate some minor economic uplift, on the condition that he gets to deny those benefits to everyone else; when he needs to fight for his life, which he will soon, he will likely begin calling on their inner ugliness to do his dirty work. (Remember that this is the man who summarized Barack Obama’s appeal, in 2008, as being “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean.”) Sanders and Warren may be too united by their shared progressive commitments to wage open warfare, but Joe Biden has no such problem, and it may be from him that the ugliness is worst of all.
Can Warren survive this? Can I survive watching her go through it? I have no firm answer to either question; the 2016 election presented us with a massive eruption of misogyny across the political spectrum, and I don’t think that kind of thing disappears within three to four years. Yet Warren has so far proven to be a stronger and more resilient candidate than anyone expected. She was written off on the basis of her DNA test debacle before she ever started, yet here she stands. While Biden and Sanders both exploded onto the scene as frontrunners, only to find themselves holding stagnant or slipping behind, Warren has quietly climbed the polls, plan by plan by plan. Much has already been levied against her; much more will be. I do not expect her to drop out before every last option has been exhausted. I expect her to have many more surprises up her sleeve. Remember: She’s the woman who persisted. May she persist still.
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