CHARLESTON, S.C. — There was a time not so long ago when leading Democrats warned that Elizabeth Warren’s “fantasy-based blue-state populism” risked leading the party to ruin.
But in a revealing tell of how far her campaign has come since its early February launch, some unlikely voices in the center of the party are growing more comfortable with the idea of Warren as the nominee.
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It’s a sign of how the ideological lanes of the 2020 primary have blurred and overlapped and of the steady progress Warren is making as a candidate. But it’s also a statement on Bernie Sanders, Warren’s top rival for progressive votes. Sanders continues to face significant resistance from within the party — and nowhere more so than among the moderates and establishment players who blanch at his talk of democratic socialism.
Warren, on the other hand, is gaining traction among those who once rejected her muscular vision of liberalism. She’s drawn notice for her wide-ranging “I have a plan for that” policy playbook, which has just enough growth-and-opportunity, center-left measures to earn her a serious look from former detractors. The Massachusetts senator may be out of sync with party centrists, but she’s drawn at least one sharp line with Sanders that is resonating with prominent moderate voices as she surges into the top tier in national and early state polls.
“One is a Democratic capitalist narrative,” said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a centrist think tank that convened a conference of party insiders in South Carolina this week designed to warn about the risks of a nominee whose views are out of the political mainstream. “The other is a socialist narrative.”
Third Way, which isn’t backing a candidate, famously torpedoed Warren in a widely read 2013 op-ed that exposed the party’s ideological fissures on entitlements. “Nothing would be more disastrous for Democrats” than to adhere to Warren’s brand of economic populism, wrote two of the think tank’s leaders in a piece that drew condemnation from progressives.
Today, however, Third Way is learning to live with Warren even as it embarks on a mission to ensure the Democratic nominee doesn’t stray too far to the left.
Jim Kessler, one of the authors of the 2013 piece warning that Warren would lead the party off the populist cliff, raved about the senator’s performance last weekend at the Black Economic Alliance candidate forum in South Carolina.
“Elizabeth Warren kills it at @BlkEconAlliance candidate forum. Love her entrepreneurship fund,” the Third Way co-founder tweeted Saturday.
“I don’t agree with ‘Medicare for All.’ I don’t agree with free college, … [But] her consumer protection policies are great. I think she has a good infrastructure plan,” said self-described moderate Democrat Reagan Gray, a health care policy and political consultant attending the Third Way conference. “I absolutely know and believe people are taking a second look at her. She now seems to be getting herself away from the Bernie Sanders grouping. People are taking a second look at her and saying, ‘Hmm. Some of her policies are good. Maybe she isn’t like Bernie.’”
Establishment and moderate Democrats haven’t necessarily been won over to Warren’s camp yet — many still point to former Vice President Joe Biden as their preferred candidate. But the tensions that once marked Warren’s relationship with moderate Democrats have begun to dissipate as she methodically lays out her agenda and shows a folksier, more accessible side that wasn’t always apparent in her role as a blue-state senator and progressive icon.
With 99 town halls and 30,000 selfies under her belt, Warren has offered a level of access that has disarmed some critics. She’s also made a point of traveling to some of the reddest of red-state locales — Mississippi, Utah and West Virginia, among them.
Jen Psaki, who served as White House communications director in the Obama administration, said moderates who might have been turned off by Warren in the past are now giving her a chance.
“I think [there] was a perception — and I’m not saying that’s accurate — that she would only be able to speak to liberal parts of the country,” Psaki said. But skeptics now increasingly view Warren as “an alternative to Bernie Sanders on the progressive wing of the party and also someone, when you listen to her to policies, they’re palatable to people who wouldn’t have thought they were palatable to them.”
“I think she’s also learning how to campaign and how to speak to still keep her firebrand [persona], but also make people feel included in the conversation,” Psaki added.
That might explain why Donald Trump’s reelection campaign now views Warren as a threat after the president had dismissed her campaign just a few months ago as “finished.”
Polling suggests that at least one of Warren’s lightning-rod proposals — taxing the net worth of the wealthiest Americans — has support that extends beyond progressive circles. According to a recent Morning Consult survey, 61 percent of all voters favored her 2 percent wealth tax on households worth at least $50 million. Among Democrats, 74 percent favored the plan.
“What Warren has tapped into is that to most Democrats, it’s not about ideology [or] liberalism, it’s about the economy’s out of balance. Nibbling around the edges and offering stale, old Democratic ideas of raising the minimum wage and shoring up Medicare and Social Security are just insufficient to dealing with the scale and scope of the problems we’re facing in our economy,” said Dan Gerstein, who worked as a speech writer on the presidential and vice presidential campaigns of former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. “But she’s doing it in a way that doesn’t necessarily demonize business, but talks about the bad actors in capitalism. And again, very much differentiating [herself] from Bernie.”
Gerstein said Warren is finding a way to speak to deep structural imbalances in the economy and the fact that many Americans feel the system is rigged against them, but without raising alarms that she’s far outside the mainstream.
“She’s doing it in a way that doesn’t suggest she’s a socialist or she wants to kind of blow up the economy,” he said.
For the Democratic establishment and many moderates, that’s code for Sanders — the one candidate they cannot abide as the nominee.
Like many centrists, Bennett, the Third Way co-founder, views Sanders as destined to lose against Trump. But Warren is a different story.
“We really like the idea of using government to rectify market failure. And that’s what she’s about,” Bennett said. “We don’t agree on everything, but she’s fundamentally rowing in the same direction.”