Two observations in the wake of last evening's first Democratic debate, followed by a hypothesis:
(1) Hillary Clinton is her party's presumptive presidential nominee, leading the field by a comfortable double-digit margin. Democrats know that she's neither beloved nor trusted by the overall electorate. They're aware of her enduring ethical problems. They've seen her notably soft general election numbers. They recognize that she's the ultimate Beltway insider -- a walking embodiment of the cozy, privileged, arrogant, loathed political class. Even her loyalists concede that she's not a stellar candidate. And yet she remains the odds-on favorite to secure the nomination in a walk.
(2) The party's left-wing base adores Bernie Sanders, an unreformed Socialist and class warrior who honeymooned in the Soviet Union and believes American consumers have too many choices in footwear and deodorant. They are enraptured at his rallies, cheering their lungs out as he rails against the evil rich, "casino capitalists," and corporations. His rejection of capitalism and warm embrace of confiscatory 90 percent tax rates are applause lines. His rambling, disheveled, shouting delivery is overlooked and chalked up to his "authentic" charm (though prevailing political winds occasionally require him to shed some authenticity). The pesky math exposing his debt-exploding Unicorns Agenda is similarly disregarded. The rich will pay for it via "fare shares," you see, even if they can't and won't. Not especially satisfied with their own inevitable standard-bearer, Sanders is -- pardon the expression -- the Democratic Party's spirit animal in this race.
Beyond the party's small, weak presidential field lurks another spirit animal-in-waiting who consciously declined the opportunity to blossom into a full-blown icon: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Warren is every bit as female as Hillary Clinton, yet lacks the lingering odor of cronyism and corruption. Yes, she carries some baggage that could hurt her in a general election, but concocting one's own exotic origin story for cynical personal gain doesn't match the gravity of compromising national security in furtherance of one's political career. Or presiding over an ocean of undisclosed cash, much of it foreign, from wealthy influence-seekers while running America's foreign policy. Yes, Warren's hardcore Statist ideology strains the Overton Window of modern American politics, even in the age of Obama, but so does Sanders'. Unlike the Vermonter, her rhetorical style, grating as it may be, doesn't immediately call to mind that slightly batty great uncle the family politely humors each Thanksgiving. She is Hillary Clinton without the sordid history and entrenched image deficiencies. She is Bernie Sanders without the rumpled, shabby packaging. Hillary's command of foreign policy details would surpass hers, but muttering about "smart power" and denouncing Bush seems to satisfy most Democratic base voters these days. Bernie's true-believer zeal would outshine hers, but Democrats are manifestly quite comfortable electing hardened ideologues who market themselves as center-Left 'pragmatic progressives,' out of necessity. Her populism is much more believable than Clinton's; her plausibility as a primetime performer outpaces Sanders' by a long shot. If Warren had entered this race early in the cycle -- raising big money from fawning small donors while seeding her message -- there's a strong chance she'd have marginalized Sanders long ago, boxed out Joe Biden, and overtaken Clinton by now, as the latter's relentless drumbeat of scandal thumps on. Her philosophy and tone reflect the essence of today's Democratic Party. I'll leave you with Warren's original harangue that laid the specious intellectual groundwork for President Obama's "you didn't build that" ode to collectivism. Ah, what might have been, Democrats:
Parting thought: What am I missing here, and what evidence cuts against this thesis? Here’s a start: Even when her name was in the thick of the 2016 conversation early on, Warren’s polling position never really budged beyond the low single-digits. But wasn’t that a product of low name recognition, combined with her oft-repeated demurrals? Maybe some Democrats would’ve been spooked by nominating another “Massachusetts liberal.” Then again, aren’t many of eagerly supporting a Vermont Socialist?