As Bernie runs away with the race, new Elizabeth Warren ad hits … Bloomberg

I understand why she’s doing this. I can probably even be talked into believing it’s the right strategy, as counterintuitive as it may seem to hold fire on a guy who just swept the first three states.

But it reminds me a bit of Ted Cruz’s run for president in 2016. Others have made the comparison recently between Warren this year and Cruz that year: Each of them jumped into the race hoping to consolidate the populist vote only to find themselves overshadowed by an “outsider” candidate with a rabid fan base. And each of them decided, at least for awhile, to go easy on that outsider in the hope that either he would collapse or that the rest of the field would, leaving a one-on-one race that favored the (relative) “insider.” Cruz hugged Trump for months in 2015, patiently waiting for grassroots Republicans to decide that Trump was too deviant ideologically and abandon him. Eventually he discerned that they wouldn’t and finally began attacking, believing that as the field winnowed to a “Trump vs. Cruz” race the majority of Republicans would switch to the known quantity.

Warren’s strategy is similar in some respects. Warren hugged Bernie all last year, never doing much more to distinguish herself from him than emphasizing that she believed in markets. It looked in October like it would pay off, with Warren rising briefly to first in the polls as progressives warmed to her “I’ve got a plan for that” shtick. She seemed like a somewhat more mainstream version of Sanders. But then the trend began to reverse, partly because Warren couldn’t convince anyone that her plan to pay for Medicare for All would actually pay for it. When you sell yourself as a wonk, your math needs to be right; when you sell yourself as a revolutionary and a visionary, as Bernie does, that’s less true. Where Warren departs from Cruz’s trajectory (apart from her not even getting close to actually winning an early state) is that she’s never gone into attack mode on Bernie. Instead we get … this, at a moment when Sanders is poised to pull an upset in South Carolina and seal the race seven days from now. Watch, then read on.

Why isn’t she hitting Sanders? Three possibilities, I think.

1. Her attack on Bloomberg at last week’s debate was the first sign of life her campaign’s had in months. She got tons of flattering press and she hauled in oceans of cash online after struggling with finances. Bloomberg is a much, much better villain than Bernie is too. Sanders is highly popular within the Democratic Party and grudgingly respected even by his ideological enemies for having the courage of his convictions. His fans are as fanatic as Trump’s, if not more so. Bloomberg, has no natural constituency. He’s a bloodless technocrat who’s managed to insert himself into the primary through the sheer blunt force of historic ad spending. Warren’s first step back from the brink is to boost her popularity. She’ll get a lot more bang for her buck that way making an enemy of Bloomy rather than Bernie.

2. The race is already effectively over and she knows it. Certainly it’s over for her, at least. Her salience as a politician after she drops out will depend on her willingness and ability to be a loyal surrogate for Bernie Sanders, both on the trail this year and as a key ally in the Senate next year if he’s elected president. She might be willing to blow up her standing with the left by attacking Bernie as Cruz was ultimately willing to risk his standing with righty populists by going hard at Trump if she had a credible path to victory. But she doesn’t. She didn’t win Iowa or Wisconsin or several other states, as Cruz did; and with Bloomberg capable of running forever and Buttigieg and maybe even Biden ready to stick around past Super Tuesday, there’s no obvious way to maneuver Bernie into a “Sanders vs. Warren” race the way we (belatedly) ended up with a “Trump vs. Cruz” race in 2016.

So, from Warren’s perspective, why destroy years of goodwill that she’s earned with the left only to squander it now on what’s effectively a Hail Mary from her own 20-yard-line? If she plays nice with the socialists, she could be VP. Or a cabinet member. Or President Bernie’s very favorite senator, a key power broker if/when legislation like Medicare for All comes to the floor.

3. There *is* one verrrrrrrry long longshot scenario in which that Hail Mary results in a touchdown. But it depends on not making the left angry.

Toward the end of the debate, Warren joined the others on the stage, except Sanders, in pledging to use the Democratic National Convention’s rules to pick the nominee. She would not abide by Sanders’s request to give the nomination to whichever candidate has the most delegates even if that candidate is short of the required 1,991 to win the nomination outright.

This very well may be Warren’s play at the nomination.

Warren’s rally in Washington suggests she’s looking at the long-game and likely won’t ditch the campaign after Super Tuesday. There’s a growing belief that the Democratic convention will be brokered, with Sanders with a clear delegate lead but not able to win outright. And while Bloomberg is quietly navigating his brokered convention strategy, Warren appears to be setting herself up as the compromise candidate.

Right, I think that’s the play. I don’t know if she’ll keep running after Super Tuesday — she’ll run out of money at some point if she’s pulling five percent in state after state — but if Bloomberg grinds Bernie down in primaries with ad spending all spring, taking enough delegates from him to hold him well under a majority, then we end up in a contested convention in which progressives will adamantly refuse to accept Bloomberg (or any other centrist, probably) while centrists dig in to block the socialist from being nominated. The party will be desperate to resolve the conflict in a mutually agreeable way lest it fracture before the general election. Warren would be the obvious “not too commie, not too capitalist” option — provided she hasn’t made enemies of the Berniebros with a last-ditch effort right now to damage him before South Carolina.

But I stress: That’s the longest of longshots. Lots of Bernie zombies would reject her as a palatable substitute; there’s no such thing as a “substitute” for a cult leader. If anything, they’d demand that Warren publicly refuse to be drafted in order to put pressure on the delegates to suck it up and nominate Bernie instead. Meanwhile, even to arrive at this scenario would require Mike Bloomberg to continue to plow money into a series of elections in which he’s finishing second most of the time *and* would require Democratic voters to continue to give Bloomberg a sizable chunk of the vote in race after race knowing that it will result in a messy contested convention. The first part of that equation is plausible, the second is not. Forced to choose between nominating the populist outsider with the fanatic base and a plurality of the delegates versus boosting the second-place guy in the name of guaranteeing a floor fight at the convention that would probably wreck the party’s chances in the general election, Democrats will do what Republicans did once the “Trump vs. Cruz” race finally emerged. They’ll grit their teeth and roll the dice on the outsider.

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