Jimmy Carter wanted to run against Ronald Reagan. Having lost the support of the public over a miserable economy and the never-ending Iranian Hostage Crisis, he understood that his path to re-election depended on having an unacceptable opponent. In Reagan, it was as if Carter’s ideal foil had been sent by Central Casting. A movement conservative who had fronted for Barry Goldwater, Reagan’s ideas were too extreme, his warmongering too threatening, his intellect too shallow, his history as a third-rate film actor too easy to ridicule. America may have soured on the peanut farmer from Georgia, but there was little chance it would turn to someone so bellicose, ignorant and out of the mainstream.
Little chance. Not the same thing as no chance.
Carter’s calculations were not wrong. The only way a deeply unpopular candidate wins is by convincing enough people that the alternative is worse. What Carter missed is that his problems went beyond his performance in office to the dilapidated state of the coalition that had placed him there. As I wrote previously, in 1976 Democrats were barely able to reassemble the New Deal coalition following the trauma of Watergate, and as a governing majority it was past its shelf life and unable to function. This gave Reagan latitude to campaign not just against Carter but against the Democratic Party itself, which he derided as a dysfunctional group of special interests out of touch with ordinary Americans. Significantly, he was able to persuade southern white evangelicals to switch sides, enabling him to cement the final piece of a coalition that would govern for years. Carter, a southern evangelical himself, won the White House by sweeping the South. Four years later the white evangelical vote was gone, the South was gone, and so was Carter and the New Deal coalition.
Donald Trump is making those same calculations today, with Elizabeth Warren potentially emerging from a large pack of contenders to play the role Reagan played forty years ago. Warren would be a satisfying opponent for Trump, whose deep unpopularity requires him to convince enough voters that the other side would be worse than him. He will call her offensive names to impugn her integrity, tar her as a “socialist” and play on conscious and unconscious biases against women in leadership positions. But like Reagan before her, Warren will respond by attacking a corrupt system of which Trump is the poster child, making the case for sweeping away an establishment that works for the wealthy and connected and a party that’s poised to acquit its leader for behavior it wouldn’t accept in anyone else. Her primary target will be educated white female voters, especially those in the suburbs who gave their votes to Democrats during the 2018 midterms. These voters are the white evangelicals of 2020, the group that would complete a political coalition which is ascendant but not yet strong enough to form a reliable majority.
Like Carter before him, Trump is pushing these voters to the other side. Conventional wisdom sees them as averse to higher taxes and likely to recoil at some of Warren’s more radical ideas, like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. But the 1980 election provides a model for how it might not play out this way. When we undergo a political paradigm shift, the whole of a candidacy rises above the sum of its parts. You would be hard pressed to find majority support for supply side economics in 1980 (what George H.W. Bush, before he was Reagan’s running mate, dubbed “voodoo economics”) or for a belligerent posture toward the Soviet Union. The fact that Reagan took these out-of-the-mainstream positions bolstered his winning message that the system is broken and we need bold thinking to fix it — or what in 2020 might be labeled big structural change.
This is not to say that Warren will be the Democratic nominee, but it is to argue that her nomination would not automatically doom the party as some Democrats fear. Whichever candidate emerges from this ridiculously large field will do so by assembling a broad enough coalition to satisfy the far-flung demands of an unwieldy party, and this will give them a chance to win. And remember, politics is a system and events do not occur in isolation. It is hardly surprising that Warren’s rise to the top of the pack has occurred as Trump is melting down and his corrupt behaviors have begun receiving scrutiny. Both a symbol and product of the regime he now leads, Trump is giving Warren a big target in the form of a bankrupt Republican Party that is unable to call out behaviors in its own leader they know to be offensive and dangerous — and she has been making the most of it.
This is how Reagan unseated an incumbent — by taking aim at a spent coalition and promising a radical change of direction at a time when the public had given up on the status quo and the party coalitions were in flux. Sure, Warren will be subjected to withering attacks, but that will be the case for any nominee, and she is formulating a counterargument that rises to this disruptive moment. Democrats should not be afraid of her.