In observing the Democratic nomination contest over the last couple weeks, one wonders whether we’ve hit an inflection point. Has the trajectory of the race sharply changed, or is it just a pause, mere statistical noise, before it resumes its previous course?
In early summer, Elizabeth Warren’s poll numbers were on the rise in both Iowa and New Hampshire. By mid- to late-September, national polling started moving in the same direction. But over the last couple of weeks, her numbers have flattened and even dropped.
Meanwhile, in the other, less-progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Michael Bloomberg submitted papers on Friday to run in the Alabama presidential primary on Super Tuesday (its deadline for filing was last Friday, the earliest in the country). Was it the first sign of a serious campaign, or was merely a trial balloon to gauge the response?
Warren’s rise occurred at a time when she had little, if any, criticism leveled in her direction. There is no question that she is the most able candidate in the Democratic field. I watched her last Monday at a town hall in Grinnell, Iowa, and just as in previous appearances in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in August, and Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, in September, she connected with audiences in a very impactful way. Her organization seems vastly better than those of her rivals. She had encountered very little critical scrutiny in the media. It was open-field running.
Suddenly, as Warren surged even or ahead of Joe Biden in many polls, most notably in Iowa and New Hampshire, many in the media as well as many Democratic leaders and activists began declaring her the presumptive front-runner.
That’s when she started drawing fire. It began with criticism of her Medicare-for-all program that would end private, employer-provided health insurance. Kaiser Family Foundation polling in 2018 and 2019 has indicated that 39 percent of Democratic voters between 18 and 64 years of age have private coverage. It’s an especially sore subject with many union members who had bargained away wage increases in order to get more generous health care coverage. While many people are not in love with their health insurance carrier, polls show that most are reasonably satisfied and do not want to risk losing what they currently have.
These concerns built on fears that if nominated, her ambitious and very expensive domestic-spending proposals would open her up to charges that she would inevitably need to raise taxes on the middle class. Democratic voters are neither antitax nor against big spending. But they are very much against President Trump’s reelection. Thus they’re suspicious of anything that may help him achieve that. Warren is up front in saying that she seeks fundamental change in both our economic and political systems. But is what she is pushing an acceptable level of change, or is it too much? What is Democrats’ risk tolerance with Trump in the White House?
Then there is Bloomberg. In an era of heightened concern over income and wealth disparities, Democratic voters are hardly pining for another billionaire to run for president. Arguably, the Democratic Party is less business-friendly than it has been in decades, certainly less than in the 1990s when Al From and Bill Clinton created the centrist, business-friendly Democratic Leadership Council. One wonders whether someone who has ever started or run a business would have any more of a chance to win a Democratic presidential nomination than a labor leader would have in capturing a Republican presidential nod (when Ronald Reagan was elected and reelected president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s and 1950s, we might as well have had dinosaurs roaming the Earth). Finally, there are Bloomberg’s problems with African-American voters, chiefly stemming from the New York City Police Department’s “stop and frisk” policy when he was mayor.
At the same time, Bloomberg has long worried about the consequences of Democrats nominating either Warren or Bernie Sanders, expecting that either would likely lose to Trump in a general election. If neither Warren nor Sanders were doing well in this race, would Bloomberg be talking about running? Probably not. If Biden or another center-left contender looked likely to cinch the Democratic nomination and beat Trump in a general election, would Bloomberg be looking at this? Probably not. It is likely that Bloomberg senses a vacuum on the not-so-progressive side of the party.
Spending about an hour with him over coffee at Gracie Mansion when he was mayor a decade ago, I left feeling that he was one of the most impressive people I had ever met, every bit up to the challenges of the presidency. There is a lot to be said for a candidate who can spend an unlimited amount of money without spending any time raising it, and for someone known for hiring very able people and letting them do their jobs.
I am still skeptical whether Bloomberg will actually get in, and if he did, that he could win the nomination, but after what we saw happen in both the contests for the Republican nomination in 2016 and the general election that followed, who can be sure of anything?