Moderate Democrats’ Surprising Embrace of Elizabeth Warren at the Democratic Debate
There was a time, only six or seven years ago, when one might have expected the group of mostly wealthy, centrist Democrats at the Aspen Ideas Festival to be a difficult crowd for Elizabeth Warren, who was greeted as a political figure by columns warning Democrats against populism. But a lifetime and a half in politics has passed since 2012, when Warren won her Massachusetts Senate seat. Bernie Sanders has pulled many of the Party’s rising stars to the left, and it seems that a good number of the crowd that gathered at Aspen’s Hotel Jerome to watch the first Democratic primary debate, on Wednesday, have followed them at least part of the way. There was broad applause for Warren’s first remarks of the evening, which amounted to a mission statement for her campaign.
“Who is this economy really working for?” she asked. “It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. It’s doing great for giant drug companies. It’s just not doing great for people who are trying to get a prescription filled. It’s doing great for people who want to invest in private prisons, just not for the African-Americans and the Latinxs whose families are torn apart, whose lives are destroyed, and whose communities are ruined. It’s doing great for giant oil companies that want to drill everywhere, just not for the rest of us who are watching climate change bear down upon us. When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple. We need to call it out. We need to attack it head on, and we need to make structural change.”
Warren made policy news in declaring her support for a major structural change that she had previously shied away from addressing. In response to a general question, asking all of the candidates whether they would be willing, like Bernie Sanders, to eliminate private health insurance in the creation of a national single-payer program, Warren raised her hand—again, to some applause in Aspen, but less than before.
“Yes, I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All, and let me tell you why,” she said. “I’ve spent a big chunk of my life studying why families go broke. And one of the No. 1 reasons is the cost of health care, Medicare bills. And that’s not just for people who don’t have insurance. It’s for people who have insurance. Look at the business model of an insurance company—it’s to bring in as many dollars as they can in premiums and to pay out as few dollars as possible for your health care.”
The attendees of Aspen don’t represent a meaningful proportion of Democratic primary voters, of course. But there are party donors and influencers among them, who tend to be wary of the Party’s left and warm to candidates like Amy Klobuchar—another one of the room’s favorites—who have explicitly framed themselves as centrists. And yet Klobuchar and her fellow-moderates Tim Ryan and John Delaney failed to build the same enthusiasm as Warren, who was asked, midway through the debate, “You got a plan to deal with Mitch McConnell?”
“I do,” she replied to applause.
“I want to see us get a Democratic majority in the Senate,” she continued. “But, short of a Democratic majority in the Senate, you better understand that the fight still goes on. It starts in the White House, and it means that everybody we energize in 2020 stays on the front lines come January, 2021. We have to push from the outside, have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”
This is all very similar to what Sanders says about pushing for his goals, even absent filibuster-proof control of Congress, with the support of a revolutionary grassroots. Somehow, the same idea from Warren can read to Democratic moderates—Warren’s bitterest enemies upon her arrival in the Senate—as an acceptable blend of hard-nosed pragmatism and derring-do. It seems possible that they would be less generous without the possibility that the Party might nominate Sanders, a man who wants to be seen as the hard edge of progressive politics. In any case, Warren acquitted herself well tonight—in a hall in Miami, in a plush hotel ballroom in Aspen, and very likely in living rooms across America.