WASHINGTON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Elizabeth Warren's latest book reads like a marker for a 2020 White House campaign. In "This Fight is Our Fight," the U.S. senator from Massachusetts blasts familiar targets like lobbyists and Wall Street, plus a new foe: President Donald Trump. Tales of struggling Americans are engagingly woven into the outrage. Still, her rote views limit her appeal.
In just four years in the Senate, Warren’s national profile has risen quickly. Her impassioned speeches criticizing bankers made her a darling among liberals. That vitriol is on stark display in the book. She also lists the mistakes the Democratic Party made in 2016. However, her solutions are more like empty campaign slogans: demand democracy, build opportunity and fight.
Towards the end of the book, Warren reveals she contemplated running for the presidency in 2016 and discussed it with her husband - a Harvard professor, as she used to be. He warned that a presidential campaign would be "a lot worse" than her 2012 Senate race, when she was ridiculed for claiming Native American heritage. "Talking with Bruce and asking the question out loud had settled it," Warren writes. "I wanted to stay buckled down and keep doing my job."
Trump’s improbable victory and chaotic first months have added urgency to the search for a candidate capable of challenging him in 2020. The TV tycoon mused in April that Warren might be his next rival. She has what Hillary Clinton lacked: the ability to rally the Democratic base. As she writes, “I now start every day by reminding myself that Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by nearly three million votes.”
But Warren’s strengths may prove a drawback when it comes to appealing to voters across America. It’s doubtful that she would have Clinton’s ability to win over moderate Republicans. She would also risk turning off so-called “Goldman Sachs Democrats” – traditional party supporters skeptical of her anti-finance and pro-regulation stance. In a February poll conducted by Morning Consult for Politico, voters favored a generic Democratic candidate over Trump by 8 percentage points, but Warren trailed the president by 6 points.
The main lesson Warren appears to have learned from the 2016 campaign is to double down on her anger. She doesn’t present any new or unexpected ideas. Indeed, the most surprising disclosure comes on the book’s first page, where Warren reveals that she and her husband spent election night watching “Ballers,” an HBO comedy starring Dwayne Johnson, the actor and former wrestler known as The Rock.
The rest of “This Fight is Our Fight” is classic Warren, attacking corporations and the rich who fight for tax loopholes and less regulation at the expense of average Americans. She illustrates those struggles with tales of everyday hardship.
There is Gina, a North Carolina resident who got a business degree and worked as a sales representative while her husband was a roofer. Later on, Gina is working at Wal-Mart while her husband’s assignments are spotty. Their income is cut in half. “What happened?...Nothing. No crisis. No accident. No tale of woe,” Warren writes. “Just the grinding wear and tear of an economy that doesn’t work any more for families like Gina’s.” Warren rightly points out that growing GDP and rising stocks don’t necessarily mean prosperity for ordinary citizens. But to blame Gina’s woes on a bubbly equity market seems disingenuous. It’s the kind of zero-sum rationale that Trump has embraced. If China and other countries are doing better, it must be at the expense of the United States.
Warren criticizes wealthy Republican donors like the Koch brothers, but not Democrat-supporting hedge fund billionaires such as Tom Steyer and George Soros. She also reiterates her ill-advised scorn for former Lazard banker Antonio Weiss, who withdrew from a Senate-confirmed job in President Barack Obama's administration after Warren opposed him. Though the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington has its drawbacks, financial experience is helpful in some government positions.
Democrats have a chance to recapture the White House in 2020. The popular backlash to the planned repeal of Obama’s healthcare reforms could cost Trump votes in many states that backed him last November. Probes into his campaign’s links with Russia could delay a promised tax overhaul and infrastructure spending. The president’s erratic and questionable actions, like his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, seem certain to further undermine his approval ratings.
During the 2016 campaign, Warren proved she could get under Trump’s skin with tweet storms that matched the president’s own. Her fans love her persistence and tough talk. But to take the White House as a Democrat she will have to win over a broader base of supporters. The broken-record rhetoric in this book will do little to entice them.