These were not the voters Elizabeth Warren needed to reach. Yes, there were a lot of them: 20,000 people, the largest crowd of any Democratic primary campaign thus far, some of them devoted enough to wait four hours for a selfie with their candidate. Still, a great cry went up from this overwhelmingly white and generally young crowd when New York state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi asked if there were any NYU students present. In the hour before her speech in Washington Square Park, one could see people snacking on kimbap and ciabatta-based sandwiches and other semi-exotic foodstuffs that might be a bit harder to find in rural Pennsylvania. A young couple worked on a Rubik’s cube—he could solve it in under 30 seconds; her personal best topped out at three minutes. He said they wouldn’t get bored over the next hour and a half, as the crowd gathered amid gray skies and rain-forest-like humidity: “There’s an entire universe in the cube,” he assured me.
Then again, maybe these were exactly the voters Warren needed to reach. Unlike his mate, Mr. Rubik’s cube was a Bernie supporter. “Warren’s a progressive, but she’s still a capitalist,” a young woman with scarlet-dyed hair, also a Bernie fan, explained to me. She was keeping an open mind, however, which explained why she was bothering to attend a speech by someone she didn’t currently plan to vote for.
The path to the Democratic nomination arguably runs through people like her: soft Bernie’ites who want an unapologetic lefty who feels their pain and who will fight for them. During her speech Warren’s only statement aimed at her primary rivals was targeted at a much larger and more important group, namely voters who think an ideological progressive is unelectable and planned on voting for Joe Biden, a relative known quantity and and bulwark against the party’s growing leftism. “We can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else,” Warren said at the tail end of her speech, without mentioning Biden by name. “Democrats don’t win when we’re scared and looking backward.”
Warren’s value proposition has been her supposed policy chops, her multitude of workable and imaginative plans described in greater specificity than any of her rivals’ proposals. In the strongest moments in Warren’s speech, these plans receded entirely into the background. Warren proposed a theory of the country’s ills: “Our democracy is paralyzed,” she said. “Why? Because giant corporations have bought off our government.” As a result, “our federal government is unable to act” against climate change, gun violence, or a disastrous health care system, “unable to take the most basic steps to protect the American people.”
Corporate capture of American democracy had produced a system dripping with corruption and perverse incentives. These same dynamics of unfettered greed and rotting civic institutions that led to the deaths of scores of workers in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire not far from Washington Square, which Warren used as a rhetorical bookend for her speech, had taken hold of the country in our own day. “I know what’s broken, I have a plan to fix it, and that’s why I’m running for president of the United States,” Warren said.
This is a fine pitch. Biden is running for president to fend off the revisionist left in his party; Bernie is running to spark a socialist revolution and cancel the injustice of 2016. In this context; defeating corruption and reclaiming democracy is a compelling, coherent, and utterly selfless reason to seek the highest earthly power in existence. The diagnosis is also fairly shrewd, and seems to look beyond the primary. In Warren’s view, the real enemy isn’t Trump or his supporters, the latter of whom she did not mention even indirectly. She spoke of “big structural change” without inveighing against capitalism or using the word socialism or describing anything like it, and emphasized the benefits of her policies to disadvantaged communities without using the phrase “white supremacism.” Warren’s demon is larger than any party or demographic group or ideological clique—it afflicts everyone without morally implicating them. The latter aspect, that decision not to blame any of the electorate for the problems she describes, could prove to be important. Major culture war issues like abortion or immigration, the ones that tend to make Americans doubt the morality of their fellow citizen, received no mention during her speech.
Could Warren’s pragmatic, conciliatory populism win a general election? Over the course of what was often an engaging speech, one in which her delivery seemed to become louder and more fiercely assured, she also showed that there’s something missing for the time being. Warren stood beneath the Washington arch and but said nothing about our first president, and little about America or the larger American idea. “We’re not here because of famous arches or famous men,” she said. “In fact, we’re not here because of men at all,” she said before launching into a brutal description of the 1911 factory fire, complete with reference to workers “[hitting] the ground with a sickening thud … their blood run[ning] into the gutters.”
Perhaps Warren was playing to a liberal, New York audience that is generally and understandably ambivalent about the state of the country, prone to tuning out or wincing at any assertion of American righteousness, no matter how mild. But again: These are not the voters Warren will eventually need to reach.