The attempt to pile on Elizabeth Warren has begun.
The senator from Massachusetts, who has firmly joined Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe Biden in the Democratic presidential field’s top tier, has faced a barrage of critiques in recent days from campaigns who often claim she has received a free pass from the media.
Many of these attacks happen without ever mentioning Warren’s name. Candidates ― including Biden, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana ― often talk about how Democrats need to have more than Warren’s signature policy plans in order to win. A staffer for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) suggested Warren hadn’t done enough to help Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterms. (She donated $11 million to other candidates and progressive causes.)
Others have been more direct: The always-colorful, oft-quoted former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Biden surrogate, attacked Warren as a “hypocrite” for touting her decision not to hold high-dollar fundraisers after holding them in the past.
But the attacks that could land the most damage focus on Warren’s trustworthiness on health care, the No. 1 issue for voters in both the Democratic primary and in the general election, according to polling. Though Warren has rolled her out own detailed policy plans on everything from gun control to child care to rural economic development, she is the only leading candidate to avoid releasing her own health care plan, instead endorsing Sanders’ “Medicare for All” legislation while saying she remains open to alternatives.
The position has left her vulnerable to attacks from Sanders supporters as well as from opponents of Medicare for All, which would eliminate private health insurance and require the government to pay for Americans’ health coverage. Warren’s steady rise in the Democratic primary has come, in large part, from her ability to appeal to both the party’s mainstream and left-wing branches, but health care is an issue that could turn chunks of both groups against her and undercut her central image as a candidate with a brilliant idea for every problem.
“I support Medicare for All. I think it’s a good plan,” Warren told CBS after the Sept. 12 Democratic debate in Houston when asked if she would roll out her own health care plan. But she quickly added: “I support a lot of plans, other things that people have come up with it. When they’re good plans, let’s do it. This isn’t some kind of contest, ‘I got to think of mine first.’ It’s about what’s best for the American people.”
Buttigieg, appearing on CNN on Thursday, noted that Warren has avoided explicitly stating if she would support higher taxes on middle-income earners of the kind needed to fund a single-payer system. Two days earlier, during an appearance on “The Late Show,” Stephen Colbert was unable to pin Warren down on the need for higher taxes to fund Medicare for All. Warren instead stuck to her formulation that under her plan net “costs” would go down for the vast majority of Americans because of the elimination of out-of-pocket expenses.
“Sen. Warren is known for being straightforward and was extremely evasive when asked that question, and we’ve seen that repeatedly,” Buttigieg said of Warren’s refusal to directly answer Colbert’s questions. “I think that if you are proud of your plan and it’s the right plan, you should defend it in straightforward terms.”
(Buttigieg, who rolled out his own health care plan on Thursday, has said only that he would fund an expansion of health care coverage by closing corporate tax loopholes, without further details.)
Biden echoed this line of attack during a Friday event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, suggesting Warren and Sanders were hiding the effect of Medicare for All. “You can’t beat Trump by not being straightforward about what it’s going to do,” he told a voter who questioned why he wasn’t supporting Medicare for All.
Buttigieg, along with Biden and other moderate Democrats, has long argued that Sanders’ and Warren’s stated preference for Medicare for All is politically unwise and would cause chaos for tens of millions of Americans with private health insurance. But the recent attacks have focused squarely on the question of tax increases.
“It’s fundamentally dishonest, because for people’s pocketbooks, Medicare for All will be a tax decrease, and the people saying this know that,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and a prominent Warren backer. “It’s an insurance company and Republican talking point.”
Green also claimed Warren’s “refusal to take the bait” was helping her with Democrats. “Republicans will inevitably make unfair attacks in the general election. We can’t live in fear of that. But we don’t need to give them Democratic validators.”
Warren is a relatively recent convert to single-payer, signing on to Sanders’ legislation only in September 2017. Since then, she has continued to work on interim fixes to the private health insurance system. In March 2018, she backed legislation ― co-sponsored by Sanders ― designed to tighten regulations on private insurers and keep them in the Affordable Care Act exchanges. When she first began running for president, she discussed protecting Medicaid more than pushing for single-payer.
But at the first Democratic debate on June 27, she made her stance clear: She was “with Bernie on Medicare for All,” including the elimination of private health insurance. Warren reiterated her stance in the two subsequent debates and an interview released earlier this month with dying progressive activist Ady Barkan. Barkan, who has his used his struggles with ALS to help illustrate the need for single-payer health care, specifically pressed her to explain her greater reluctance on the topic closer to the start of her campaign.
“There are areas where markets just don’t work and a big part of health care is one of those,” Warren told Barkan. “So the idea that we could get a couple of regulations in place and it will sort itself out is just not true with health care.”
One advantage for Warren is that the National Nurses United union, a major institutional backer of Medicare for All that endorsed Sanders in the 2016 cycle, has not yet endorsed in the 2020 presidential primary. Asked whether the union considered Warren’s stance adequate, NNU spokesperson Chuck Idelson would not respond directly, instead saying that if the union decides to endorse in the race, it will “certainly explain” how the endorsement is “consonant” with its priorities.
But Warren’s remarks have failed to assuage left-wing Sanders supporters ― many of whom are associated with the Democratic Socialists of America or Jacobin magazine ― who don’t think they can count on her to enact a policy they believe is the bedrock of a robust, contemporary welfare state. They point to small signals from Warren ― her failure to give the plan a prominent place on her campaign website or to give it more than a passing mention in most of her speeches ― as reasons to be skeptical.
“The idea that we could get a couple of regulations in place and it will sort itself out is just not true with health care.”
Natalie Shure, a leading Medicare for All advocate and dues-paying member of the Boston chapter of the DSA, argued Thursday on the popular left-wing YouTube show “The Majority Report” that Warren was not willing to “fight tooth and nail for a robust, single-payer, Medicare for All health care system.”
In a follow-up interview with HuffPost, Shure said that Warren’s unwillingness to explicitly embrace the need for middle-class tax hikes to fund Medicare for All is emblematic of her tepidness on the matter.
“She’s simultaneously trying to tap into the activist energy and enthusiasm that activists have spent years building for single-payer and Medicare for All … without forfeiting any of the plausible deniability or the support of people who wouldn’t want to go that far,” Shure said.
That’s a distinction from Sanders, who has staked his presidential run on the ability to galvanize a social movement ― a “political revolution” ― capable of at least generating momentum behind Medicare for All, according to Shure.
“She looks at her role differently than a Sanders presidency would look at his role,” Shure said. “He would lead a movement to get it, which I think is necessary for anyone who wants it. I don’t think she’d veto it if it came to her desk. She might even whip votes for it. But I don’t think she is going to reach outside of electoral politics for it.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a Sanders stalwart who carried the single-payer bill in the House, put it more gently.
Warren “hasn’t eased up on it. She hasn’t wavered, gotten weak in the knees,” he said, referring to Warren’s recent remarks affirming her support for the policy. “But I think it means something that Bernie carried the bill, wrote the bill and has been fighting for it even before it was a popular thing.”