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Opinion | John Ellis

How Elizabeth Warren can win

Mario Tama/Getty Images/Getty Images

If you want to know why Senator Elizabeth Warren is all but certain to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee and has at least a 50-50 chance of being the 46th president of the United States, look no further than Kareem Serageldin.

Five years ago, The New York Times reported: “After the savings-and-loan scandals of the 1980s, 1,100 people were prosecuted, including top executives at many of the largest failed banks. In the ’90s and early aughts, when the bursting of the Nasdaq bubble revealed widespread corporate accounting scandals, top executives from WorldCom, Enron, Qwest, and Tyco, among others, went to prison.”


In the aftermath of the global financial crisis that began in 2007, only one top banker went to jail, Kareem Serageldin. He worked at Credit Suisse. He was guilty of approving the concealment of hundreds of millions in losses in Credit Suisse’s mortgage-backed securities portfolio. The notion that he alone crossed over the line of legality during the greatest financial scandal in the nation’s history is preposterous.

The aftermath of the global financial crisis, unlike its predecessors, came and went without a reckoning. What gives Warren her political power is the perception that she will be the reckoning. Her unyielding insistence that Wall Street be brought to heel is what makes her formidable (and Wall Street’s attacks on her make her more formidable still).

The nomination of Warren would give the Trump campaign plenty of ammunition for the general election campaign. She’s vulnerable on a number of fronts. Medicare for All is a general election loser; the majority of the roughly 140 million people who have private health care like it. She is well to the left of the electorate on immigration. She has embraced a disruptive Green New Deal program to address climate change. And she celebrates what might be called “woke” cultural values, which many older Americans view with dismay if not disdain.


Warren is not given to backing down, and she should not trim her sails on Wall Street or her promise to eliminate student debt. Wall Street is President Trump’s Achilles heel. He couldn’t even close the carried-interest loophole, and his major initiative of 2017 was a corporate tax cut.

The student debt issue is a no-brainer: A wealth tax pays for it, millennials are suddenly unburdened, and every single one of them will have thousands upon thousands of reasons to show up at the polls and vote for Warren.

But she will have to trim her sails on immigration, Medicare, and climate change. She can do so by embracing former president Barack Obama’s admonition to the Democratic field earlier this year: “We have to be careful in balancing big dreams and bold ideas with also recognizing that, typically, change happens in steps.’’

All that said, 2020 will not hinge on specific issues or policy questions. The overriding issue is an almost visceral anxiety, which many swing voters (female swing voters in particular) experience firsthand and on a regular basis, courtesy of the president’s Twitter account.

The president’s political advisers know that there’s nothing they can do to keep Trump’s fingers off his mobile device. His current acting chief of staff has given up and describes his role as letting “Trump be Trump.” So their job will be to make voters more anxious about a Warren White House than about a second-term Trump administration.


And they’ll have the wherewithal. Trump’s campaign has already spent more than $500 million prepping for the general election campaign. It will certainly spend at least that much finishing the job.

To win the election, Warren needs to get ahead of that coming onslaught by assuring swing voters that a Warren presidency will be steady, competent, and prepared to do battle with the nation’s enemies if need be.

How does she say “don’t worry” in eight words or fewer? The surest way would be to choose a retired general or admiral as her running mate. Ideally, she would choose either former secretary of defense Jim Mattis, a retired Marine general, or retired admiral William McRaven, former head of US Special Operations Command, two of the nation’s smartest and most able military leaders. But there are plenty of other great military men to choose from who would welcome the chance to serve their country.

With a military person as a running mate, Warren could campaign on the promise of preparedness; she would assume office with a strong command of matters of national security. And she would take charge with the grateful support of both the military and intelligence communities.

The base of the Democratic primary electorate wouldn’t be happy with this arrangement, but who cares what they think, really? By the time Warren made the announcement, she’d have the nomination well in hand. And she would have a ready answer to cries of betrayal and Twitter snark: It makes victory more likely. One or two Rachel Maddow shows later, the appointment would be hailed across mainstream media as a masterstroke.


Warren’s political advisers will almost certainly argue that she needs a running mate who accomplishes certain goals: helps win a swing state, increases turnout in certain communities, or gives her cover with this or that faction of the Democratic coalition. She doesn’t need any of those; Trump renders them all moot. Turnout will not be an issue.

What she needs is a warrior, to reassure an edgy electorate and menace America’s enemies. Swing voters will look at her differently the moment she announces that her running mate is a highly decorated military officer. They won’t see Liz Warren, wacky Massachusetts liberal. They’ll see someone worthy of the office she seeks.

John Ellis, a former Globe columnist, is editor of News Items.