From David French: How Warren Blew Her Moment and Why It Matters

Plus, the troubling worldwide decline in fertility and a mini-review of The Mandalorian.

This is actually, believe it or not, an impeachment-free newsletter. There are two other important topics that are worth a closer look. First, I’ll return to my least favorite Democrat. With momentum on her side Elizabeth Warren choked, and the New York Times sent a pair of torpedoes straight into her waterline. Then, let’s talk babies. Why aren’t we having kids? We’ll end with a mini-review of The Mandalorian—and, of course, the obligatory GOAT highlight. Today’s lineup:

  1. Plans, polls, and the New York Times are halting Elizabeth Warren’s momentum.

  1. Moving life to the right.

  1. A show with Tatooine’s soul faces the Ewok temptation

Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare for All millstone is dragging her down.

Yes, I know it’s still early—at least for normal, healthy people who are perhaps only just now thinking about tuning in to presidential politics—but there’s a clear shift in Elizabeth Warren’s polling momentum. She was surging in Iowa. Now, she’s not. She was surging nationally. Now, her momentum seems to have stalled. The polling in New Hampshire is still all over the place, but one post-November 1 poll has Joe Biden back in the lead.

Why did I single out November 1? Because that’s the date she released her Medicare for All funding plan. And November is the month when the New York Times splashed the cold water of reality into the faces of the Democratic primary electorate. 

No, I’m not saying that the New York Times took actual aim at Warren—it’s written a number of flattering stories about her—but it reported facts, and those facts are not good for one of progressive America’s favorite candidates. 

Let’s first talk numbers. The single most gruesome story about Warren’s extraordinary promises and plans came from, you guessed it, the Times. It landed on November 6, and (complete with sobering graphics) it asked, “How would Elizabeth Warren pay for her sweeping policy plans?” It tallied up the cost of her promises—$3 trillion to fight climate change, $2.9 trillion in additional education spending, $3.1 trillion for increased Social Security benefits, and a whopping (though still low-balled) $20.5 trillion for Medicare for All—and declared it an “agenda of monumental scale.” 

How monumental? The Times piece put it in context:

The federal government is projected to spend about $58 trillion over the next decade. Ms. Warren would need to persuade Congress to approve her plans, a difficult feat for any one of her expansive proposals, let alone her entire agenda. If she succeeded, she would increase federal spending by roughly 50 percent. (Emphasis in original.)

To get a sense of the sheer scale of Warren’s spending, here’s the graphic that accompanied that paragraph. Each dot represents $40 billion: 

But the impact of this bit of wonkery paled in comparison to the truly damaging viral story—Nate Cohn’s November 4 blockbuster that put in stark terms Warren’s challenges in the swing states that elected Donald Trump. Here’s a graphic most of us remember:

You might be thinking, “Old news David. Give us something new.” Yes, the news is old, but the effect is new. Here’s one new effect—it looks like Pete Buttigieg is leading in Iowa. Here’s another—Deval Patrick has jumped into the race. He’s not only trying to provide Democrats with another electable alternative to Warren, he complicates her New Hampshire firewall. He’s also from Massachusetts, and that means (based in part on the way New Hampshire media markets work) that he starts with a name recognition advantage in the state next door. 

Oh, and there are some new indications that Warren herself might be uncomfortable with her Medicare for All funding rollout. She announced a transition plan—she pledges first to pass a public option (the Buttigieg plan), then three years later, pass true Medicare for All. Make no mistake, this is a thinly disguised climbdown. Slate’s Jordan Weismann put it well:

The cynical, and I think more convincing, way to read Warren’s promise is that it’s really just a tacit admission on her part that single payer isn’t going to happen without a miracle. Presidents usually have their biggest legislative successes early on, and their parties tend to lose seats during the midterms. “No later than year three,” therefore, might as well mean the 12th of never—which is certainly how many on the socialist left have taken it. As the Week writer Ryan Cooper tweeted, “any idiot can see if you get majorities in 2020 they are 90% likely to be gone in 2022.” Fundamentally, she seems to be falling back on the same approach to health care reform as Pete Buttigieg, who has also framed the public option in his “Medicare for All who want it” proposal as a potential “transition” to single payer.

And then, to emphasize the climbdown, where do we turn? Yes of course, back to the New York Times. This weekend Margot Sanger-Katz wrote about Warren’s “backup plan”—a collection of small-ball health care regulations that would be designed to reverse the Trump administration’s small-ball reforms. Many of those regulations would be immediately challenged in court, of course, and none of them would fundamentally change American health care.

There’s still time for Warren to reverse her momentum, but she went from the verge of dominating the field through the vast scope of her grand ambition to doing her best Kamala Harris impersonation (“If Congress doesn’t act, I will”) in three short weeks. The Harvard professor, senator, and mother of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is staring up at the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, in the crucial first caucus state, and she only has herself (and the Times) to blame. 

Moving life to the right.

Speaking of the New York Times, I’d urge everyone to read this extended piece by Annie Louie Sussman grappling with declining fertility across the developed world. Nations with different cultures, religious traditions, and very different welfare systems and workplace policies are all experiencing declining fertility. Human beings from every tongue, tribe, and nation are choosing to have fewer babies.

There are few areas of public life subject to more intense wonkery than the question of why fertility is declining. But here in the United States, it’s plain that we’re moving adulthood to the right—in other words, shifting it rightward on our personal timeline—and when we do, it’s virtually inevitable that we’ll have fewer children. 

While I fully recognize that the plural of anecdote isn’t “data,” let me share two personal anecdotes that are illustrative of the trend—about my parents and my oldest daughter. 

I was born in 1969 in Opelika, Alabama, just outside of Auburn University. Both my parents were students. My mom was still an undergrad, and my father was getting his master’s degree in mathematics. They lived in a tiny apartment with cinder block walls in Auburn’s married student housing. They had so little money that my mother and father stretched real milk by mixing in powdered milk—that was the only way they could afford to give me real milk every day. 

While they were certainly not the norm in the student body, their situation was hardly unusual. Young marriage was common, especially in the South. Couples grew up together. And when they got married, they had kids—usually shortly after the nuptials. There was far less hand-wringing about paving a yellow brick road for you and your children. You got married, you had kids, and you rolled with the punches. 

Fast forward almost 40 years. In early 2018, my 19-year-old daughter and her 20-year-old boyfriend asked my wife and I if they could get married. She was a college freshman. He was a sophomore. They are both Christian people with a mature faith for their age. They were high school sweethearts. 

We happily said yes. 

I knew that they were being countercultural. I knew that the average age of marriage had been moving steadily older for generations. What I didn’t anticipate is the way that people would react with a sense of immediate and urgent alarm at the idea that two Christian young people would get married that early. What about their future? What about their educations? What about their careers? Shouldn’t they get “established”? 

This urgent concern was often voiced even by Christians—people who believe that young couples should delay sex until marriage and read Bibles that still contain 1 Corinthians 7:9, which states in part that “it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

My response was simple—they’ll do all that together. And, by the way, they’ll do it with far more security and comfort than my parents 40 years before. Their apartment is bigger and far more luxurious (no cinder block walls, and unlike my parents they have ample air conditioning). Their part-time jobs pay more. Financial aid is extraordinarily generous. She intends to go to law school. He intends to go to seminary. They’re backstopped by two loving, intact families. They’ll be fine.

And yet they faced on occasion outright scorn at their choice. 

Why bring up my own daughter? Because the resistance to her choice—in the face of a level of privilege and support that would be the envy of virtually every human generation that came before hers—suggests exactly how deeply our culture has changed. Even in Evangelical America, we’ve bought half of the modern formula—the culture (officially, at least) rejects sex before marriage, but it endorses marriage only after a subjective line of educational or career attainment.

This is not a culture change that’s terribly susceptible to transformation through public policy tweaks or governmental efforts to make child-rearing easier. In fact, I wrote recently how a landmark study of California’s Paid Family Leave Act had demonstrated that the policy apparently contributed to a decrease in fertility.

Across nations and cultures, the most prosperous slice of humanity has decided that it wants to have (and keep) more before it has children—more money, more success, more stability, and more time. The extraordinary growth in human prosperity and material abundance means that when people (by the countless millions) want more, they tend to get more. But in one vital area, “more” has meant less, and it will keep meaning less the more we seek to remove the risk and uncertainty and even adventure of two young people growing up together. 

Can The Mandalorian Resist the Ewok Temptation?

I’m going to start with two scenes from the original trilogy—one that I love, and one that I hate with a hot, burning passion. First, I love the scene below. It’s iconic, from the music to the visuals, to Luke’s (slightly petulant) longing to leave, to do something that matters:

Then there’s this—an atrocity so vile that it just might be the “abomination that causes desolation” foretold in the book of Daniel:

Yep, that’s the infamous “Yub Nub” song from Return of the Jedi. We shall not speak of it again. But at its best, Star Wars has that Tatooine soul—at once both so recognizable (the longing for adventure and the quest for greatness) and so exotic (the binary stars tell us immediately that this world is not like our own). At its worst, it gives into the Ewok temptation. Look! A cute and marketable species for the toy aisle!

So far, at least, The Mandalorian is far more Tatooine than Ewok, and that makes it very good. I’m not going to give away too many plot points (there’s a twist at the end of the first episode), but this show is rekindling my love for the Star Wars franchise, a love that grew cold after The Last Jedi. Pedro Pascal as the title character is excellent—no mean feat for a man who’s acting behind a steel helmet and speaks precious few words.

I’ll save a full review for the full season, but two episodes in, I can heartily endorse. But, and I won’t say more, the Ewok temptation does lurk. The (cute) seeds of the show’s potential destruction are right before our eyes.

One final thing ... 

You might notice that this newsletter is a bit shorter than previous, novel-length additions. That’s because I’m ramping up the frequency, from twice to four times a week. So expect The French Press (yep, that’s the name) on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, with a special Sunday edition that will typically (though not always) focus on matters of faith.

In the meantime, I leave you with this. And as you watch it, remember, this is the GOAT’s 17th season in the NBA: