Opinion

If the Democrats have any spine, they'll nominate Elizabeth Warren to take on Trump: Neil Macdonald

Warren offers the lovely prospect of intelligence, unbending principle and policy — versus vulgar boorishness.

Donald Trump poses as a populist, while rewarding the rich. Warren is the real thing

Warren offers the lovely prospect of intelligence, unbending principle and policy — versus vulgar boorishness. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

It's easy to feel the Democrats' obsession with electability, even from this distance. Put up the wrong candidate, and you get four more years of the big boorish boob.

But then U.S. President Donald Trump himself blew the notion of electability to smithereens three years ago. It was foolish, in retrospect, to confidently predict, just because he behaved like a coarse, bragging, race-baiting serial liar and misogynist, that he would lose.

It is just as foolish right now to assume that someone too far to the left, or a woman, or a woman on the left, cannot pull off the same feat Trump managed.

That sort of thinking inevitably leads to only one place: Joe Biden. And sorry, fellow aging white men, but that amounts to offering up one rather conservative septuagenarian with surgically created hair to replace another. This is 2019.

I've seen former vice president, and now Democratic leadership candidate Joe Biden up close. He seemed a pleasant fellow. But I'm damned if I can remember anything he said, besides how much he loves everybody. He says that a lot, when he isn't reassuring rich donors that he won't really change the system.

Biden is currently leading the pack of Democratic leadership hopefuls. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

I've also seen Senator Elizabeth Warren up close. It was in a union hall in Kentucky in 2014. She was stumping for Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat who was trying to unseat Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, but Grimes might as well not have been in the room once Warren — the tiny, intense former Harvard professor — took the stage.

Elizabeth Warren fully intends to change the system, and says so.

When she said how good it felt to be with working people in a workers' hall, you knew it wasn't a platitude. When she talked about taking on the venality of corporate America, you knew she meant it. As she talked, plainly and without the usual dumbed-down patronizing, the small talk in the crowd died. People stared. When she finished, they roared. 

The only speaker I have ever seen hold a crowd like that was Lucien Bouchard, speaking to audiences of Quebecers in 1990 about the betrayal of the Meech Lake Accord.

Both politicians burned with intelligence, and radiated principle. Neither gave a toss for political triangulation. Both left their listeners convinced they meant what they said and would do it, and that to them, only the people mattered.

It didn't work out for Bouchard; Quebec remains in confederation. But Elizabeth Warren is ascendant, and watching her at centre stage in last night's Democratic debate, it was impossible not to imagine and relish the prospect of Warren versus Trump in 2020.

Yes, there were nine other accomplished candidates on stage with her. And there will be another 10 tonight, Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders included.

But Warren is the standout, and one suspects Trump recognized that a long time ago. Why else would he have singled her out, tagging her with one of his juvenile nicknames, "Pocahontas," long before she'd declared any interest in running for president?

Actually, he suckered her into responding. It was foolish of her to have had her DNA tested to prove her tiny sliver of Indigenous ancestry. She played into Trump's sweaty little hands, and it's a safe bet she won't do it again.

In fact, Warren has assiduously avoided talking about Trump, denying him the oxygen he derives from small-minded bickering. (When she has talked about him, it's mostly been to say that U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should proceed with impeachment, now).

Rather, she's stuck to policies. Her campaign has outlined 23 detailed policy proposals so far this year. 

'A plan for that'

Warren's approach is to "have a plan for that" — which has become her catchphrase — and trust that Americans want substance. It's paid off; she now effectively shares second place with Sanders, with only Biden, the dedicated triangulator, out ahead.

Warren would reduce the size of the U.S. military. She would break up mega-companies and monopolies. She would strengthen antitrust enforcement. She would prosecute senior managers of companies that violate the law. She would extend Medicare to all Americans, and banish private health insurance.

"People go broke," she told the debate last night, because of the private-insurance business model: "They bring in as many dollars as they can in premiums, and pay out as little as possible in benefits."

It's impossible to argue with that formulation. Like many of Warren's arguments, it is populist, which is why Trump almost certainly fears her. He poses as a populist, while rewarding the rich. She's the real thing.

While Trump, and, yes, Biden spend time with wealthy donors, Warren refuses big money. She also refused to participate in a Fox News town hall, wanting nothing to do with what she calls Fox's "hate for profit" business plan. She is unafraid to name her enemies.

And while her poll numbers rise, Trump's are flat. It's a lovely thing to see intelligent argument, unbending principle and policy go up against demagoguery, nativism and vulgar name-calling. To see a seriously brainy woman go toe to toe with a self-proclaimed "stable genius."

One suspects Trump recognized Warren as the standout a long time ago. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

And those Democrats still worried about the things Warren might not bring to the race, should not worry that integrity will be one of them:

Warren has not been accused of sexual misconduct and rape by 16 men. Nor has she bragged about being so famous she can grab penises without asking;

She has not watched one former staffer after another head off to prison for lying to investigators and other assorted crimes. 

Nor has a former director of the FBI effectively said, in a roundabout way, she's obstructed justice;

She is not responsible for locking up children in filthy cells without proper sanitation or medical care, and has not dispatched lawyers to court to argue that the government has no obligation to provide them with toothpaste or soap;

And she's posted a decade's worth of her tax returns online. (There has been no credible reporting that she's engaged in complicated tax evasion schemes).

President Barack Obama preached bridge-building and hope. In vain, as it turned out. Warren, refreshingly, doesn't bother with talk about reconciliation. She wants to fight.

Yes, she is prickly. But Trump obliterated any notion that a polarizing candidate cannot win. They will be natural opponents, if Democrats can find some spine. 


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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