Elizabeth Warren’s Visit and the Political Strategy that Could Set Her Apart from Sen. Sanders

Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren spoke at the Hanover Inn April 13th, exuding energy and anger for an American political system that she sees as only working for those at the very top. She opened with her childhood: her dad’s ever-changing jobs, the heart attack that forced him out of work, and the minimum wage job her mother got at Sears to rescue her family from an otherwise imminent poverty. She reminds us of the fact that it simply isn’t possible anymore to support a family on one minimum wage job. She didn’t do the numbers, but here they are: the federal minimum wage sits at $7.25 an hour, or just $15,080 annually; a family relying on that much to support them would be below the poverty line today. You could add disability insurance from her dad’s heart attack to the equation, but all of it would fall far short of an adequate lifestyle in Warren’s hometown of Oklahoma City today. Using her childhood as an example, she introduced what would be a theme for her speech: the system as set up by the government might have previously worked for families like hers, but now it only works for multinational corporations and the rich.

She moved on to talk about her adult life, how she had always wanted to be a public school teacher but had gotten sidetracked when she met her husband. She eventually got back on track, fulfilling her dream and becoming a public school special needs teacher. After a pregnancy and some time off work, she went to law school and then began teaching as a law professor. She failed to mention her conservatism through much of this time, but she did talk about how she began to see the problems she now fights against. As a law professor, Warren recalled teaching courses about money such as contract law and bankruptcy law, leading her to realize that Washington was only working for those at the top. She argued that uber-rich people like the Koch brothers can manipulate Washington to work for them through campaign donations, while the average American stands powerless against this corruption. Warren proposed three approaches for creating the type of systemic change necessary to eliminate the unfairness she sees in the United States.

1.      Attack corruption. Warren spoke of her bill, the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, saying it would “end lobbying as we know it,” “block the revolving door” between Wall Street and Washington, reform Supreme Court ethics, and require that all people running for federal office release their tax returns to the public.

2.     Structurally change the economy. Warren detailed how she could give more power to workers and increase taxes on the rich, especially via a wealth tax, which she claimed could pay for universal child care with $2 trillion left over (over 10 years).

3.     Rewrite the rules in politics to protect democracy. Warren intends to have a constitutional amendment protecting every citizen’s right to vote and to get that vote counted. In addition, she would repeal every single voter suppression law in the nation and manage overturn Citizens United v. FEC

The theme of the speech was clear: Warren wants to make the government work for the little guy.

A Q&A portion followed her speech. Before they arrived, each audience member was asked if they wanted to ask a question, and if they did, they would receive a raffle ticket. Each questioner was then chosen randomly from the raffle. The first question was from one of Warren’s constituents in Massachusetts, asking her what she could and would do right now as senator to address a litany of problems, including addiction. Warren described her bill, the Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency (CARE) Act that would meet addiction “head-on” by putting $100 billion over ten years towards fixing the problem.

The second question was from a senior at Dartmouth who has a job lined up in the tech industry. She asked Warren about her plan to break up big tech companies. Warren responded first by explaining why tech companies needed to be broken up in the first place. She detailed Amazon’s unethical practices, namely tracking which products sell well, manufacturing similar products, and then putting their own products at the top of their search query results above those previously popular products. Warren claimed that her initiative would mean Amazon could either be an aggregator of other companies’ goods or a seller of their own goods — they could not be both.

The third question was about race and reparations. Warren said she would address the racial wealth gap “head-on,” including by supporting a commission to investigate reparations. She said that it was time to address the “ugly stain” that slavery was on our country’s history, also going into detail about the causes and the severity of the racial wealth gap.

The student who asked the fourth question pushed Warren to explain why she was fixated on a minimum wage increase instead of using other mechanisms to shift the income of the poor, like earned income tax credits, that would avoid the economic shocks caused by minimum wage increases. Warren quickly answered that she is in support of earned income tax credits and is in the process of helping them get passed, failing to address the student’s point about the problems with sharp minimum wage increases. She quickly transitioned to a closer, which featured more of the same calls that the government work for everyone, not just those at the top.

Because this event was also covered by The Dartmouth, I am going to move on to some of my personal takeaways from attending the event. In my opinion, Warren could struggle to get support because she has almost the exact same political opinions as Senator Bernie Sanders, who has had those opinions much longer than she has. 

Sanders (or someone on his campaign staff) wrote via Instagram on April 14th, the day after Warren’s appearance at Dartmouth: “…What our campaign is about is saying: we are the wealthiest country in the world and we need a government that starts working for working people, not just Trump’s billionaire friends and massive corporations.” If I had not said the quote was from Sanders’ Instagram and had instead said it came from Warren’s speech, you would entirely believe me. Why wouldn’t you? That was the theme of Warren’s speech from start to finish: that the government works for those at the top, and not for the rest of us. These two candidates are running on the same message.

Not only are their messages very similar—their platforms are too. Elizabeth Warren’s main issues as listed in her website are the following:

  1. End Washington Corruption (new regulations on lobbying)
  2. Rebuild the Middle Class (close tax loopholes, give more power to workers, stricter antitrust enforcement, new and higher taxes for the rich)
  3. Strengthen Our Democracy (protect against voter suppression, end gerrymandering, overturn Citizens United)
  4. Equal Justice Under Law (criminal justice reform)
  5. Foreign Policy for All (make better trade deals for American workers, don’t wage endless war, bring some troops home, cut military budget)

For comparison, here’s where Bernie Sanders stands on Warren’s 5 key issues:

  1. Sanders does not have a part of his website dedicated to lobbying or corruption, but it is no secret he is strongly against corruption in Washington.
  2. Sanders has advocated more power to workers, and has a section of his website dedicated to higher taxes and fewer loopholes for the rich.
  3. Sanders website claims that he intends to end voter suppression, gerrymandering and overturn Citizens United, checking all of Warren’s boxes.
  4. Sanders has a section on his website about criminal justice reform, highlighting many of the same things Warren highlights: the elimination of private prisons, decriminalization of marijuana, and police department reforms, just to name a few.
  5. Sanders’ website says that trade policies must be made with the American workers in mind. On a different page, he makes clear his dislike for endless war and his desire to bring troops home. In addition, he has spoken of cutting the military budget.  

There is no central issue that Warren covers in her platform that Sanders does not cover in his. Even the sub-issues within those issues tend to be agreed upon.

Sanders and Warren are fundamentally running very similar campaigns, with very similar messages and very similar policies. Whatever differences exist between Warren and Sanders aren’t being focused on at the moment — not in Warren’s speech at Dartmouth, and not on Warren’s website — and the lack of differentiation is concerning. Here’s why:

As of August 9th, the New York Times has Warren and Sanders tied at 15% each, trailing Biden’s 30%. Biden, the clear frontrunner, is running a very different campaign than Warren and Sanders: he was caught telling a room full of rich donors that “nothing will fundamentally change” and “I need you very badly,” while Warren doesn’t even have such fundraisers and Sanders opts for in-person grassroots fundraisers where people of all incomes are present. Because Sanders and Warren are running such similar campaigns, it is fair to say they are splitting the same progressive voting bloc. Biden, on the other hand, is owning the moderate voting bloc. The next closest moderate in the polls is Amy Klobuchar, who is polling at an average of 1%. Together, Warren and Sanders have enough progressive support to beat or at least tie Biden in the polls, but splitting the progressive vote forever would only hand Biden the nomination. Progressives are going to have to choose one candidate, but Warren should fear losing this standoff with Sanders; this Democratic race has shown to be heavy on discussions of candidates’ records, and while Sanders has lifelong ideological consistency, Warren does not.

To avoid tying on all policy counts and then losing on the tiebreaker of consistency of record, Warren needs to highlight things that make her different than Bernie Sanders, but she should choose wisely. Here are all the major differences I have found between the two candidates, each one evaluated for how much Warren should focus on them: 

  • Focusing on the wealth tax. Sanders has proposed increases to estate taxes (taxes on inheritance), a kind of wealth tax, but he hasn’t gone so far as to support a tax on non-inherited fortunes, to my knowledge. I don’t really think this would be a good lane to attack Sanders in simply because if the wealth tax starts to make Warren very popular, Sanders could just say he is in support of it. He has always been fond of raising taxes and I don’t see why he’d die on this hill.
  • Being mean. Warren has called Trump a “small, insecure money-grubber,” a “loud, nasty, thin-skinned fraud” and “a large orange elephant.” While Sanders uses at least semi-political insults like calling Trump a racist, sexist bigot, he hasn’t gone so far as fat jokes. Maybe some voters will like this gritty, stoop-to-Trump’s level insults, but if they do, according to Warren herself, they’ll be missing out during the campaign. When I asked Warren one-on-one her thoughts behind these insults, she said she was largely doing them in response to the vile insults hurled at Hillary Clinton by Trump, and that she hasn’t done much of this low-blow type of insulting during this campaign. Maybe the insults could serve her well in the who-can-denounce-Trump-harder competition that is currently going on in the Democratic race, but I doubt it. Trump has caused the Democratic Party to be the generally more civil party, and I don’t think Democratic voters really want to hear fat jokes, if Warren does decide to bring them back (though she indicated she wouldn’t).
  • Slavery reparations. There is a clear difference here between Sanders and Warren, and it is not an issue Sanders can simply co-opt without appearing to flip-flop. Sanders has been clear that he is not in support of “writing a check” as reparations for slavery, while Warren has refused to say whether she supports a check-like plan for reparations. Both candidates have supported a bill that promises to study reparations, but if Warren were to come out in favor of direct monetary reparations, it would create some huge space between her and Sanders on the issue. However, reparations fundamentally aren’t popular (only 26% of Americans support them) so I’m not sure this is the right issue for her to focus on. Furthermore, only 58% of black people support them, which poses a difficult situation. Cash handouts, the kind of reparations Warren could support to create distance from Sanders, would cost around $3 trillion by one measure. Given the 58% number, cash reparations would mean giving around $1.26 trillion to people who don’t even want it. If I were Elizabeth Warren, I would distance myself from cash handout reparations, even if it would make precious ideological space between me and my main rival.
  • Calling it capitalism. Though Warren and Sanders have similar stances on economic policy, the two candidates frame their positions differently. Sanders calls himself a Democratic Socialist while Warren refuses to be called a socialist. To be completely honest, the capitalism-socialism dichotomy in America is awkward, tired and incorrect. The United States has a mixed economy. It doesn’t have complete, free and true capitalism, and it doesn’t have complete true socialism, either. I think many Democrats, including myself, would like to see this truth spoken by Democratic candidates when asked the question of which economic system they support, but that is unfortunately rare. Some of the lesser known candidates like Andrew Yang and John Hickenlooper have rebelled against the capitalism-socialism labels they’re always asked about, although both Yang and Hickenlooper have been willing to call themselves capitalists. However, if you’re not going to give this issue the explanation and clarification it deserves (that America has a mixed economy, that it’s had one for a long time, and that nobody is actually talking about changing that), I think most Democrats would rather have a candidate who says they’re capitalist than one who says they’re socialist. Donald Trump has spent huge amounts of time gathering hate for socialism, railing against it in his State of the Union address and at his 2020 campaign kickoff rally in Orlando. If only because of Donald Trump’s clear preparedness for going up against socialism, I think many Democrats could see a candidate’s avoidance of the term as a positive. If I were Elizabeth Warren, this is the issue I would focus on. Make it seem like Sanders is playing directly into Trump’s hands, and you could separate yourself using this difference.

These are the biggest things that make Warren different from Sanders that I could discern, and for the most part, they’re not all that big. These two candidates are very similar, and Sanders has the lifelong ideological consistency that Warren does not. Warren can stump all she wants, just like she did in Hanover, but if she continues to sound like a derivative of Bernie, I can’t see her winning the nomination. If she does, however, distinguish herself from Sanders, I do think it could  be on a rhetorical economic front. Despite having roughly the same opinions on everything, Warren could be the winner of this Sanders vs. Warren extra-progressive standoff if she focuses on her rhetorical differences, calling the progressive changes that she and Sanders agree on merely updates and improvements to capitalism, not hard left turns into the world of socialism, even if the dichotomy is wrong to begin with.