Tonight's Democratic debate features a dozen candidates, but all eyes will be on Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.). Over the past few weeks, she has almost caught up in many polls with former Vice President Joe Biden, who can't stop reminding people that he's older than Methuselah (whose eyes seemed less likely to fill with blood and whose dentures fitted more snugly), and shaken loose from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.), whose heart attack underscored the Vermont socialist's age (it didn't help that his campaign prevaricated on what exactly happened). None of the lower-polling candidates on stage have anything resembling upward momentum.
This is Warren's night to shine and her entire run may well hinge on how well she does. From a libertarian perspective, there is virtually nothing appealing about a Warren presidency. For every feint toward something halfway decent (say, a vague "openness" to decriminalizing sex work), there's a half-dozen budget-busting policies and regulatory promises such as Medicare for All; free college; breaking up Facebook, Twitter, and other "tech giants" for the sin of being too big; reparations for married gay and lesbian couples who couldn't take tax breaks; and "economic patriotism" that is every bit as protectionist and overbearing as anything Donald "the Tariff Man" Trump has so far put into play.
Warren would pay for all this and more through an unworkable (and probably unconstitutional) "wealth tax" that has been tried and abandoned by virtually all other advanced economies. Even if implemented as promised, the revenue from Warren's tax won't begin to cover all the new and increased spending she's proposed. It doesn't help that she steadfastly refuses to admit the obvious: Massive increases in federal spending would obviously lead to tax hikes not just for "the ultra-rich" but the middle class as well.
As Reason's Peter Suderman has argued convincingly, Warren's entire worldview seems predicated on the idea that the federal government should in one way or another be involved in virtually every transaction any two people make in America. "Elizabeth Warren has a plan for you" isn't just a campaign slogan, it's a threat. All financial contracts, including mortgages, should be standardized and kept to a couple of pages. Health care should be regulated even more by the government than it already is and doled out accordingly. Child care will be universal and free, which is to say, even more expensive and shoddy.
Warren is selling more than a chicken in every pot; she's promising to give us all the pot and the stove on which to cook the bird. By studiously avoiding how to pay for such largess, she may well woo enough Democratic primary voters to take home the nomination from Joe Biden, whose body is breaking down like Ratso Rizzo's in Midnight Cowboy. In fact, she may even go pretty far in the general election. As Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown has noted, by at least some measures, enthusiasm for more and bigger government is at a record-high in the post-war era, with nearly 70 percent of voters indicating they're into the sorts of expansions of state power that Warren is promising.
During tonight's debate, Warren will be in the hot seat in a way she hasn't been yet. She will face tough questions and barbs from her fellow Democrats about the mystery financing and overreach of her neo-New Deal programs (expect Joe Biden especially to hammer this theme) and somebody will surely call her out on her sometimes-sketchy resume details (including her challenged claim that she lost a teaching job for being pregnant). How she handles intra-party attacks will be as important as the content of her rejoinders, especially since Warren has a bad habit of impugning the motives of anyone who disagrees with her. "There are no good-faith disagreements with Elizabeth Warren," according to Todd Zywicki, a George Mason Law professor and longtime critic of the senator. "Anybody who doesn't agree with her is a shill." That sort of counterattack can work well against Donald Trump or Republicans, but may well backfire against fellow Dems.
Warren's penchant for arch dismissiveness was evident in her response to a question about same-sex marriage at last week's CNN town hall on LGBTQ issues.
Warren's response was as caustic as it was funny, so it's no surprise it went viral. But beyond the perfect timing and delivery is a deeper question of speaking to people who are undecided or not already on board. The 2020 election will be won or lost on two fronts: First, which candidate turns out his or her base most fully (the reason Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump is that she failed to motivate traditional Democratic constituencies in big-enough numbers). Second, which candidate can speak to the plurality of voters (38 percent in the most recent Gallup survey) who identify as independent. Any Democratic or Republican candidate can bank on about 30 percent of the vote before the first general election speech is given.
The 2020 winner will be the person who appeals most to the less tribalistic voters among us. Warren's thorough roasting of (presumably) male Christian incels will fire up her base but it also may alienate independents who are looking for a more-inclusive alternative to Donald Trump, whose every utterance works to divide people into mutually exclusive camps. Warren's policy agenda is already extreme in its scope and cost; she may not be able to afford a temperament that's equally dismissive and harsh (if funny) toward her ideological opponents. After all, the country's already getting that from the incumbent.
So tonight's debate drama won't just involve the Democratic candidates on the stage. The really important participants are the folks out there in the dark, who have yet to figure out which option they can live with.