LAWRENCE, Mass. ― As Sen. Elizabeth Warren formally announced her presidential bid on Saturday, the core of her political identity was emblazoned on the lectern in front of her, instructing viewers to text the word “FIGHT” to receive updates on her campaign.
If there’s one thing the Massachusetts Democrat wants voters to know about her, it’s that she’s a fighter. The word “fight” is in the title of both of the books she’s written while in the Senate (A Fighting Chance and This Fight Is Our Fight). In the 40-minute speech she delivered Saturday, she used the word 28 times.
“This is the fight of our lives,” Warren said to the crowd of 3,500 who gathered at a historic mill in freezing temperatures here, after telling a story about immigrant women striking for better pay and working conditions. “The fight to build an America where dreams are possible, an America that works for everyone. I am in that fight all the way.”
Warren’s team and allies believe they’re adopting the combat-ready stance Democratic voters are craving, one focused on fighting and defeating the forces Warren sees as causing rampant economic inequality: Republicans, big banks, corporations and the lobbyists they employ.
At the same time, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) was delivering a very different pitch in Iowa, trying to convince the early caucus state’s voters to adopt a message aimed at uniting a country fractured along class, racial and gender lines, using a story of a white lawyer who was inspired by the March on Selma to help Booker’s parents outsmart a racist real estate agent. Over the course of two town halls lasting a little over two hours on Saturday, Booker used the word “love” two dozen times.
“You can’t be one about trash-talking and trolling or demeaning and degrading a fellow American,” he said at one point, addressing a packed town hall in Des Moines. “Patriotism is love of country, and you cannot love your country unless you love your fellow countrymen and women.
“Love means that I see you. I see your worth. I see your dignity,” said the senator, whose recent book was titled Unity. “We may not always agree. There are some days we may not like each other that much, but love says, I see you.”
The two candidates, both senators from the Northeast who are seen as part of the party’s liberal wing, embody the two poles of a rhetorical debate that will consume the Democratic Party over the course of the next year: Should the party select a candidate who is more focused on repairing the long-existing fractures in American society and culture exacerbated by the presidency of Donald Trump, or one focused on defeating the party’s bêtes noires?
“There are two schisms within the voter base,” said Sean Bagniewski, the chair of the Polk County Democrats in Iowa. “There’s progressives versus the establishment. And there’s ‘When they go low, we go high’ versus ‘We want to fight.’”
Bagniewski’s use of a phrase famously used by former first lady Michelle Obama at the 2016 Democratic National Convention points to another, frequently unspoken element of the debate. While no candidate would explicitly criticize President Barack Obama, who remains the most popular politician in the Democratic Party, the debate is also a de facto discussion of the former president’s political leadership style.
Obama ran, famously, as the “Hope and Change” candidate, and entered the White House with a strategy based on seeking bipartisan cooperation on a host of issues. Relentless opposition from GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell ruined those plans, and Obama shifted in his second term to a strategy based on more unilateral moves.
To a certain extent, the rhetorical contrast mirrors an ideological divide. Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are likely to be the two highest-profile progressive populists in the field, and both are fond of naming and shaming their opponents ― Sanders essentially convinced Amazon to raise its minimum wage to $15 by relentlessly slamming Jeff Bezos, the company’s CEO. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a potential candidate and favorite of labor unions, also is well-practiced in inveighing against the American establishment.
On the opposite side are Booker, who has bucked his party with his support for charter schools; former Vice President Joe Biden, a moderate who has refused to apologize for his close relationships with Republicans; and center-left figures like former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who are both fond of calling for unity.
There’s progressives versus the establishment. And there’s ‘when they go low, we go high’ versus ’we want to fight. Sean Bagniewski, Polk County Democrats chair
“We may come from different places,” Klobuchar said amid a snowstorm as she announced her candidacy Sunday in Minneapolis. “We may pray in different ways. We may look different and love different. But we all live in the same country of shared dreams.”
The divide can be seen everywhere. At an event honoring Martin Luther King Jr. in South Carolina last month, Booker invoked the civil rights leader’s record of bringing people together ― “King said we can never let someone pull us so low as to hate them,” Booker noted ― while Sanders portrayed him an insurgent who wanted to bring drastic change to the American political system.
“We must be faithful to his revolutionary spirit, his call for a ‘radical revolution of values’ and for his incredible courage in taking on virtually the entire political and economic establishment of his time,” Sanders said.
And while Warren’s speech on Saturday blamed growing income inequality directly on the wealthiest Americans “waging class warfare against hardworking people for decades,” Biden’s desire for inclusion extends even to the nation’s economic elite.
“I don’t think 500 billionaires are the reason we’re in trouble,” he said at a Brookings Institution event in 2018. “The folks at the top aren’t bad guys.”
There are limits to the split: Warren regularly mentions her red-state upbringing in Oklahoma and isn’t looking to replicate Trump’s divide-and-conquer political tactics, and Booker isn’t promising to roll over for Republicans and special interests. Nonetheless, it’s clear Warren’s supporters think the party has moved past its desire to place political unity over policy victories.
“She’s in your face,” Jana Adam, a retired nurse who attended a Warren event in Sioux City, Iowa, said approvingly. “Just trying to get people with hopefulness, it doesn’t work anymore. You need to get down and dirty.”
Booker’s backers, meanwhile, insist his re-creation of Obama’s rhetoric in 2008 will lead to a repeat of Obama’s successes in both the primary and general elections, pitching him as an antidote to Trump’s constant divisiveness.
“Americans have reached the point where they’re just so tired of division. Cory Booker, his career, has been built on a really unifying message,” said Jim Demers, a prominent New Hampshire Democrat who was one of Obama’s earliest backers and now supports Booker. “His message, his style, his tone has always been all about bringing the country together.”
Early polls of the 2020 field, which place Biden and Sanders as the front-runners, give few hints about which style Democrats might ultimately prefer. But in a CNN poll released earlier this month, 68 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said it was extremely or very important for a candidate to be willing to work with Republicans, while 65 percent said the same of holding progressive positions on the issues, and only 47 percent said it was important for a candidate to bring an outsider perspective to Washington.
Daniel Marans contributed reporting from Des Moines, Iowa.