Do voters long for a policy wonk? Elizabeth Warren hopes so
NEW YORK — More than 1,000 people packed a New York concert venue for an act that wasn’t on guitar and drums. It was Elizabeth Warren, vocalizing hard numbers.
The Massachusetts Democratic senator wove data points into a stump speech that riffed on the policy proposals she’s rolled out in her month-old presidential candidacy. “I love that you want to get into more detail about the 2 percent wealth tax,” she said to a man asking whether her economic plan would drive the wealthy to move overseas.
Warren’s policy-heavy performance Friday was a hit with her crowd. And that’s something she’s counting on heavily in her campaign. She has laid down significant markers in a half-dozen different policy areas since the year began, putting pressure on other 2020 presidential contenders while keeping her campaign in the public eye without having to spend a dollar on ads.
But Warren’s approach is built on a risky bet: that voters will respond to her detail-driven effort when other Democrats are appealing to hearts as much as their minds and after a 2016 presidential campaign in which Hillary Clinton’s policy portfolio wilted in the face of Donald Trump’s personal attacks.
While she’s successfully forced some of her rivals to respond to her agenda, particularly her two-part plan last week to curb the growing consolidation of the biggest tech companies, other 2020 hopefuls who have rolled out fewer new policy proposals — California Sen. Kamala Harris and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — are outpacing Warren in early polls and bested her in their initial fundraising hauls after making their first moves for the presidency.
The contrast between Warren’s ambitious agenda-setting and the less wonky paths of other candidates underscores what Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright described as the party’s “diversity of strategy.” In a crowded field, Democrats don’t just have a historically diverse field for 2020 — they are field-testing different theories of connection with voters.
“The first thing every candidate should do is allow themselves to be introduced to voters and allow voters to find who they are,” Seawright said. “Sometimes people are not moved by policy. Sometimes people are moved by your personal story.”
Warren doesn’t ignore personal narrative in her pitch, bolstering her universal child care plan by recalling her struggle to secure dependable care for her two children. And neither Harris nor Sen. Cory Booker, another Democratic presidential contender whose rhetoric is imbued with emotion and optimism, scrimps on substance when touting their signature policy proposals.
But it’s clear that Warren is angling to be known as the idea woman in the field.
She’s put out plans for a new tax designed to raise more than $2.5 trillion from the nation’s wealthiest 75,000 households, on top of her child care proposal, her bid to rein in big tech companies like Facebook and her commitment to swear off high-dollar fundraisers. Warren leapt into another issue this week, calling for U.S. aviation regulators to follow European counterparts in grounding the Boeing airplane model involved in Sunday’s deadly Ethiopian Airlines crash.
Warren is building a “policy-first agenda that’s about more than just policy” and making a “cohesive argument about what is broken in America and how she would fix it,” said Jesse Lehrich, a longtime Democratic aide who worked on Clinton’s 2016 campaign and is not aligned with any 2020 campaign.
Referring to other 2020 candidates who have offered fewer specifics, Lehrich noted that “it’s less obvious what their answer to that question is: Why me and not someone else?”
Clinton’s campaign is something of a cautionary tale for Warren. In 2016, Clinton put out piles of white papers, but her general election opponent hardly engaged in the policy debate.
“In 2016, we were boxing against Jell-O,” recalled Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist who also worked on the Clinton campaign. “Donald Trump would say he agreed with anything or disagreed with anything, without regard to what he believed or what he’d said the day prior.”
Ferguson believes things may be different this time around now that Trump has a record in office.
But in 2020, Ferguson said, Democrats can contrast their plans with “what he has actually tried to do as president. He can’t run away from his own policy agenda anymore because he’s actually tried to enact it.”
While Clinton struggled to get some voters to warm to her personally in 2016, polls show none of the Democrats running in 2020 carrying the same high negative ratings.
Longtime Democratic strategist Jess O’Connell, also a veteran of Clinton’s 2016 campaign, lauded Warren for front-loading some of her attention-getting policy ideas before the 2020 primary hits its peak, when Trump is likely to engage more intensely with Democratic candidates and try to knock his potential opponents off course.
“Ultimately, everyone is going to have to do both” policy fluency and personal narrative, O’Connell said, but Warren is “taking advantage of the news cycle” to release some of her big ideas early.
While she’s scored early by shaping the Democratic debate on several issues, not all of Warren’s forays have taken off. She vowed not to pardon anyone connected to investigations into Trump on the same day the president’s former lawyer testified in Congress last month, but the move drew little response from Democratic rivals. She acknowledged even as she swore off high-dollar fundraising that she “will be outraised by other candidates,” and the $11 million she already had in the bank before entering the race may not be enough to vault her past Sanders in the battle for progressives’ support.
Warren’s evident command of the issues resonated in deep-blue New York City. Nearly a dozen voters said after the Massachusetts senator’s event that her intellectual chops were a central part of her appeal to them.
“Soaring rhetoric is not what we need now. We need active policy prescriptions,” said Davin Hatsengate, 44, a New York City resident who attended Warren’s Friday event and lauded her recent pledge to treat all her donors equally, regardless of the effect on her campaign’s bottom line.
Emily Price, a 30-something mother of three who also came out to see Warren on Friday, praised Warren for saying more than “what maybe sounds right and feels good in our hearts.”
“It’s one thing to say nice things and make me feel excited, but to have a plan makes me feel … a lot more secure,” Price said.
Still, even one of Warren’s strong supporters acknowledged the challenge in her policy-centric approach.
“Hard facts are something that most of America doesn’t deal with,” said Madeline Moch, who attended the New York event. “They like things sort of abbreviated and put into a nutshell. And that’s how (Trump) got elected.”