How do you solve a problem like Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign team is trying to figure that out with an effort that can best be described at the moment as “throwing a forest full of mud at the wall and seeing what sticks.” Which is fine this far from the election, especially with Clinton’s opponent in the Democratic primary still out there campaigning hard for the nomination despite the math being against him. For Team Clinton, there is nothing wrong at the moment with trying out some different lines of attack on Trump, finding those that resonate, and then fine-tuning them.
But until either the campaign finishes fine-tuning or figures out a way to beam these moments from the 2011 White House Correspondent’s Dinner speech directly into voters’ brains 24/7 for the next six months, they have Elizabeth Warren. The senator from Massachusetts is already showing herself to be the most effective Clinton surrogate out there. This is partly by default, as there are not a whole lot of high-profile Democrats yet making the case against Trump. But does anyone think Harry Reid can make a more persuasive case to motivate voters to turn out in November?
It is hard to understate how smartly Warren is playing this game, even if you cynically assume her recent attacks on Trump are solely about positioning herself to become the leading candidate to run as Clinton’s vice president. (Which is not an assumption I’m making.) But so far, she is doing a better job of drawing a contrast between what the two parties stand for, or at least could stand for in terms of fighting for economic justice for working- and middle-class Americans, than any other public figure. Including Bernie Sanders, whose campaign in recent days seems to have devolved mostly into arguments about process and flipping superdelegates at the convention in Philadelphia this summer.
Warren’s genius lies in her ability to take big concepts and distil them down into simple goals for Americans, such as being able to buy their own homes, send their kids to college, and participate in what used to quaintly be called the American Dream. She’s not stoking anger in service of demanding we overturn the established order. What the people want, she seems to say, is their own share, for which they have worked and saved and fought. What they want is their own little corner within the system, with reasonable economic security and access to the tools that help make that possible.
Donald Trump can still have his penthouse in Trump Tower and his estate in Florida and who cares? Just so long as he’s abiding by the implicit social contract the nation has long followed, which says that we empower policies that ensure future generations can have it just as good, or even better, than we do.
She seems incredulous that anyone could want otherwise. As she told the crowd in a speech at a gala honoring the Center for Popular Democracy on Tuesday:
Donald Trump was drooling over the idea of a housing meltdown because it meant he could buy up a bunch more property on the cheap. What kind of a man does that? Root for people to get thrown out on the street? Root for people to lose their jobs? Root for people to lose their pensions? Root for two little girls in Clark County, Nevada, to end up living in a van? What kind of a man does that?
Watch the speech and you can nearly see the contempt dripping from her lips and splattering on the lectern.
This could be a remarkably effective counter to Trump’s jingoistic, chest-pounding promises to “make America great again,” which explicitly tend to exclude certain groups and elide the fact that many of his policies, such as upper-end-heavy tax cuts and repealing the Dodd-Frank banking reforms, would really only make America great again for people in a certain racial and economic strata that have quickly recovered their equilibrium after the financial upheavals of the last decade and a half. It’s a call for community and justice that does not actually demonize any citizens except one: Donald J. Trump.
Of course, Warren will want to be careful, to dole this stuff out in small bursts and avoid over-exposure. But she can weave the story of America’s economically left behind into a morality play that takes aim at the villain nominated by the GOP, and do so without demagogy better than anyone else on the Democrats’ shallow bench right now. Better than Sanders or Clinton or the Big Dog, or maybe even Joe Biden, who is going to stay on the sidelines until later in the summer anyway. She’s the party’s best weapon for harnessing the energy of the left wing and the disaffection of average citizens, if it can keep using her effectively.