Elizabeth Warren’s best hope for 2020 is that Trump keeps making it personal

Let him make it about her.
Let him make it about her.
Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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We’re just a few days into 2019, yet Americans are already looking toward the November 2020 presidential race. Senators Elizabeth Warren (semi-officially) and Mitt Romney (unofficially) have joined a growing list of potential candidates.

These challengers could be good news for Donald Trump.Amid the government shutdown, recent high-profile departures from his administration, and the continuing investigation into his 2016 campaign’s possible connections to Russia, Trump now has high-profile enemies he can use to rally his supporters and define himself against (paywall), as he did with Hillary Clinton during the last presidential campaign.

But while Trump’s attack-dog strategy worked well for him last time, his opponents could use it to their benefit this time around—if they learn from the mistakes of candidates past.

Trump built much of his 2016 campaign around directing antagonism toward Clinton. But Clinton’s campaign was also, essentially, an anti-Trump campaign. Many of the Democrats’ ads and speeches sought to demonize Trump; the airwaves were filled with discussion of his personality and most recent foibles. In the end, the opposition’s obsession with attacking Trump rather than putting forth policy proposals turned out to be counterproductive.

Also working against Clinton was her positioning as the last candidate standing against Trump—the only viable option for the “never Trump” movement. That status diminished the intrinsic value of her candidacy as an experienced public servant and internationally respected leader. Similarly, during the Republican primaries, the politicians who put their opposition to Trump at the center of their campaigns helped lift him to the nomination—the motto “all against Trump” made none of them look the part of a winner.

But Trump’s 2020 challengers, particularly Warren, could benefit if he sticks to his usual script.

Trump likes to mock Warren with the nickname “Pocahontas.” Questions about her Native American heritage are just one point of attack for him. Asked by Fox News about formation of her exploratory committee for a 2020 run, Trump said he “would love” to run against her, adding that “you would have to ask her psychiatrist” if Warren actually thinks she can win. (Trump often stigmatizes mental health issues and considers mention of having a psychiatrist an offense.)

Warren could have an advantage if she resists the impulse to fight fire with fire and lash out at Trump on a personal note. So far, she has avoided the trap of framing her campaign as an anti-Trump crusade.

In the video announcing her intention to explore a run, she puts Trump in the context of a longer line of Republican leaders who worked together, according to her narrative, to steal rights and opportunities away from the American middle class. This narrative turns Trump into what he least likes: A member of a chorus, rather than a soloist. Warren extends responsibility for the current state of American politics beyond Trump, and frames herself as a candidate with a bold alternative vision.

Trump will seek to make the 2020 presidential race all about him and his opponents’ shortcomings. Warren can counter by presenting her candidacy as herself against those who stole the dream of America’s middle-class. That’s the kind of appeal that helped Trump win in 2016.