Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders sit side by side at the front of the cafeteria, heads bent over matching yellow legal pads, taking notes in workmanlike silence. It’s April 2008 at Montpelier High School. Sanders is new to the Senate. And Warren, still a Harvard Law School professor, is his guest speaker at a series of town halls across Vermont. He gives a speech. She walks the crowd through a PowerPoint presentation. The national press ignores the event.
In 2014, they are colleagues in the Senate. Barack Obama is president. And Warren, leading the fight to push his administration on economic policy, is a progressive icon. Activist groups name her “the North Star” of the left, leader of the “Warren wing of the Democratic Party.” At one progressive conference, her face is superimposed on a life-size cutout of Katniss Everdeen, the hero of the Hunger Games series. She is a god. By the fall of 2014, organizers form not one but two “Draft Warren” campaigns. In interviews, she is asked again and again — some 50 times before the end of that year — if she will run in 2016. Every time, she says no. People were still asking the question months later, when Sanders announced his campaign at a small press conference.
In 2018, they are both considering a run for president. Donald Trump is in the White House. Sanders, 76, is the most popular politician in America. And Warren, 69, is suddenly navigating a progressive movement that revolves daily around Sanders and his “political revolution.”
Now, people like to put another question to Warren.
“What’s the difference between you and Bernie Sanders?”
Just four years ago, no one would have even thought to ask. With the 2020 primary months away, it’s one of the questions Warren gets most.
The new and pressing reality facing the Massachusetts senator is this: Elizabeth Warren, once a singular power on the left, is now a name that people conflate with Bernie Sanders.
The question, by its very existence, reflects a remarkable shift in progressive power from 2008, when both senators appeared at their sleepy town hall in Montpelier, Vermont, to the four-year span that marked the end of the Obama administration and ushered in the Trump era. Even some of her biggest supporters in the progressive community admit that the energy around Warren isn’t the same as it was four years ago, when she fashioned herself as a kind of mirror to Obama. Where he avoided confrontation, she picked big public fights on economic policy. That strategy, combined with a more tactical behind-the-scenes effort to “influence incentives,” as her team would put it, is no longer quite a natural fit in the chaos of the Trump administration — leading some progressives to ask if she missed her moment by forgoing a run in 2016.
For those on the left, the difference between Warren and Sanders has less to do with policy or ideology. Really, they say, it’s a question about progressive power — about two vastly different theories of change. It’s “the preacher vs. the teacher,” as one former Sanders adviser put it.
Now, when Warren gets the question, she has her answer ready.
“He’s a socialist,” she’ll say, “and I believe in markets.”
If Bernie Sanders is leading a political revolution, then Elizabeth Warren is waging a different kind of fight. It’s more tactical and methodical. It’s robust, specific government regulation and oversight — on your student loans, your credit card fees, your banks. In every case, her objective is the same: to change the way Democrats think about economic policy and reshape it in the process.
In Warren’s office, she and her aides make plans in the span of months and years, not weeks. “Impact,” a word you hear a lot from the people around the senator, is a constant pursuit, achieved through a careful combination of public confrontation and private negotiation. When critics accused her of grandstanding, picking fights with bank regulators in Senate hearings — exchanges that her office would circulate in YouTube clips that garnered millions of views — Warren was energizing supporters from groups like MoveOn.org and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which in turn grew her platform, which in turn grew her leverage.
In 2011, the strategic approach helped her create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In 2013, her push to expand Social Security functioned as a broader effort to shift the “Overton window” on the issue — making “chained CPI,” shorthand for a proposal opposed by progressives to change the way the government accounts for cost of living, a less tenable option among mainstream Democrats. And in 2014, Warren and her aides were already engaged in a plan to influence Hillary Clinton’s campaign early on and in private, creating pressures and incentives that might sway Clinton’s thinking on the economy — all in an effort to shape the eventual makeup of the advisers in her 2017 transition team and administration.
“Her view was that people are policy,” said John Podesta, who served as Clinton’s campaign chair and talked frequently with Warren and her team throughout the election. “To the extent that she was expressing her perspective and point of view, it was generally about people: Who would be the head of the National Economic Council? Who would be treasury secretary? Her [priority] was that we wouldn’t immediately turn to a bunch of Wall Street insiders.”
On Nov. 9, 2016, of course, Warren woke up to an administration she didn’t plan for.
In a political moment dominated by Trump on one side and Sanders on the other, how Warren now defines her own brand of politics, and to how wide an audience, is a question that will also shape the future of the progressive movement. Warren and Sanders are two enigmatic leaders who work as strategic partners toward shared policy views, but with almost opposite tactics.
“As much as people try to lump them together, they are stylistically very different,” said Anita Dunn, a longtime Democratic operative who got to know Warren after her 2012 Senate run. “He is trying to create a movement. She approaches so many of these policy issues as a good lawyer or powerful cross-examiner would. She looks for ways where the laws can be improved.”
Compared to four years ago, Warren’s role in the Trump era can, even now, seem somewhat muddled. There is no Democratic administration to shape. There are none of the same major Democratic policy fights. (Under Trump, the talk of shifting the Overton window to the left has been replaced with slack-jawed outrage at the president’s rhetoric and policy agenda.)
Warren has so far stayed close to Sanders, cohosting livestreamed town halls and Facebook discussions. Last year, she and her aides worked closely with his office to hone the details of his Medicare for All bill, though her name, like other cosponsors who worked on the bill, were just part of what was perceived as his effort. And when asked about the difference between her and Sanders, it is usually only in private that she chooses to reply, “He’s a socialist, and I believe in markets.”
Still, the response is an indication of how she would differentiate herself from the Vermont senator. “I am a capitalist,” she told CNBC in an interview last month. “Come on. I believe in markets.” (Or as one former aide put it, “She believes in markets. She loves markets.”) Last week, she introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act to encourage corporate profit-sharing. Vox called it “a plan to save capitalism.”
Next to Sanders, though, Warren is often described as a less transformative force inside the party. “Both of them have really changed the way we think,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who describes himself as a sort of student of progressive politics. “We wouldn't be here if they both hadn’t done what they did.” But it was Sanders, de Blasio said, who “put such a sharp point on the fact that something entirely different was possible, including different language.”
“I really, literally, think it literally redefined American politics.”
Even for Republicans, Warren is not quite the same potent political foil as in 2014. “We view Sanders as the purist and Warren as his chief mascot,” said Alexandra Smith, executive director of America Rising, a Republican research group focused on the 2020 Democratic field.
In the view of progressive operatives, it’s not that the senators themselves have changed: They are still the same duo leading the Montpelier town hall 10 years ago — Sanders at the podium, Warren flipping through slides on median family income. But after Trump’s election, as one longtime progressive strategist put it recently, “it was like Warren couldn’t meet the dimensions of how giant the crisis had become. She wasn’t as big as the moment, unlike before 2016.”
“The problems have become more existential,” the strategist said.
Ahead of 2020, there are no plans to reboot the Draft Warren campaign — an effort that started as a grassroots Facebook page in 2013, just nine months into her first term in the Senate, before spanning two major progressive groups, MoveOn.org and Democracy for America, with full-time field staffers installed in Iowa and New Hampshire. After the draft campaign ended, much of the would-be Warren team migrated to the Sanders operation, forming new loyalties.
Four years later, “there haven’t been any conversations on 2020,” said Ilya Sheyman, the executive director of MoveOn.org’s political arm. The lead-up to 2016, Sherman said, was in part about “making sure that economic inequality was at the center of the political conversation.” Another cofounder behind the Draft Warren campaign, Charles Lenchner, said that after the first draft campaign, there’s no inherent need for a second: “The point of ‘Draft Warren’ was to say to her, ‘If you run, you have support.’ The message was received. Why do it again?”
Even Guy Saperstein, the California-based donor who provided seed money for the 2014 effort, said he now isn’t sure he would support Warren over Sanders in 2020. “I think she realizes she made a mistake,” Saperstein said of the opportunity to run against Clinton. “I wouldn't say her time has passed, but she’s not quite the bright star that she was. Timing is so much in politics.”
After 2016, Warren had to rethink her role in the Trump era. What she landed on, people around the senator say, was a focus on energizing the party — leaning into the “fighter” persona she’s always embraced as a politician. (Last year, Warren followed her first memoir, A Fighting Chance, with a second political book, This Fight Is Our Fight, which catalogs the fights therein via a lengthy index entry for “fighting back,” organized into sub-entries like “value of.”)
Warren got a taste of the role during the last presidential election when she emerged as Clinton’s best Trump antagonist on the trail. At rallies, Warren would sprint up to the podium, pump her firsts, clap her hands, jump on the balls of her feet — and call Trump names. He was a “loser,” a “bully,” a man “driven by greed and hate” who will “crush you into the dirt to get what he wants.” At turns, Warren seemed to find the spats both thrilling (the response from voters at one rally, she recalls in her book, “was like an explosion”) and ridiculous (“I started going after him on Twitter,” she writes, before adding in a parenthetical: “Good grief, that sounds lame”).
But Warren also realized the power of the platform. In her 2017 book, This Fight Is Our Fight, she includes screenshots of her own tweets to Trump, noting that at least 46 million followed the exchanges. (It’s a lesson she learned well before she arrived in Washington, in 2003, when she and her daughter appeared on Dr. Phil McGraw's syndicated talk show to promote their book, The Two-Income Trap. “I’d been fighting as hard as I could — doing research, writing papers, giving interviews,” Warren writes in her first memoir. But after a few minutes on Dr. Phil’s show, speaking to an audience of about 6 million viewers, “I might have done more good than in an entire year as a professor,” she says. “Maybe that was a better way to make a difference.”)
Warren has found some success translating that role to the resistance movement that took hold after Trump’s inauguration. She turned a confrontation on the Senate floor last year into her own ubiquitous rallying cry — “Nevertheless, she persisted” — putting the word “PERSIST” across campaign bumper stickers and placards, in digital ads and new stump speech lines.
On the left, the prospect of a Warren–Sanders primary fight in 2020, with one progressive giant up against the other, is already a source of angst and apprehension and sometimes dread.
“There’s gonna be a splintering of support for candidates,” said Lenchner. “The question I’m asking is how do you cultivate maximum unity between supporters of Bernie and Warren so that they will enter the race planning and hoping to be on the same side in the final run.”
Some Bernie voters will always remember 2016 as the year that Warren betrayed a fellow progressive. During the primary, she declined to endorse Sanders, remaining neutral until Clinton had already amassed an insurmountable lead in the delegate count. At the Democratic National Convention, when she took the podium, chants of “We trusted you! We trusted you!” filled the Wells Fargo Center. “There’s a looming danger of Bernie supporters saying she’s just as bad as the corporate Democrats,” Lenchner said. “She’s our best hope if Bernie can’t do it.”
For some progressives, Warren is a 2020 candidate who could draw a broader swath of support. The late Joel Silberman, a legendary operative on the left who passed away this month, liked to describe the Massachusetts senator as a “leading” actor and Sanders as a “character” actor. “He’s the Spencer Tracy of the movement,” Silberman said earlier this year. “She’s the Katharine Hepburn. She’s a leading player. That’s the distinction for me when I look at the two of them.”
Podesta, the former Clinton campaign chair who founded the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, said Warren could play better with some of the voters who backed his candidate over Sanders in 2016: “traditionally liberal Democrats,” he said. “I think Bernie’s thing plays better with younger voters, because he’s so angry. I’m not talking about being angry at Trump. I’m talking about being angry at the world. She doesn’t carry that with her.”
“They’re overlapping bell curves,” Podesta said, “but they’re not the same.”
Sometime last year, the progressive group most closely aligned with the senator, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, changed its logo: “I’m from the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party” became “I’m from the Elizabeth Warren wing of American politics.”
The subtle but significant tweak, according to PCCC cofounder Adam Green, reflects a shift in the “center of gravity in American politics shifting in a more economic populist direction.” For PCCC members, he said, that movement is still most closely associated with Warren. “We’re the Warren people,” said Green. “Her credibility as a leader within the progressive movement is as high as it was four years ago, but Bernie is certainly a new major force. That’s fair.”
See the two together, and it also becomes obvious.
A few months ago, in February, Sanders walked into the Macaroni Grill near Gate K2 in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Inside, Warren was already seated at a nearby table, finishing her meal, according to a person present. When he approached to say hello, the scene turned. Passersby erupted into applause and cheers. “Progressive food fantasy!” one yelled.
A few weeks later, at a training for progressives hosted by PCCC, both senators spoke to a crowd of activists and candidates at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Organizers passed out “Elizabeth Warren wing of American Politics” T-shirts at the start of the event. But it was Sanders whom attendees chased outside the ballroom. When he moved to the courtyard behind the hotel, people crowded the double doors overlooking the patio, their faces pressed to the glass.
“Can I snap a photo?” one woman asked, staging a selfie from inside the hotel.
“I just want to look at him,” another said.
For the first time since she entered politics, mapping out each step in her plans for the Senate, Elizabeth Warren is facing an uncertain strategic fork: the 2020 presidential race.
It’s a possibility she’s approached like any other tactical pursuit: with careful, incremental planning meant to give herself the option to run a strong campaign should she decide to get in the race. She’s done the travel, speaking to Democrats in early-voting states like Nevada. She’s done the party-building, setting aside $5,000 earlier this year for every state party. And she’s treated her Senate reelection this year as a staging ground for something bigger. (The sizeable campaign staff in Massachusetts, according to two people familiar with the operation, notably includes a team of researchers combing through reams of material, positive and negative, on Warren herself: “self-research,” as it’s called — a prerequisite for any presidential candidate.)
The prep work, at the least, is a sign that Warren is pursuing the idea of 2020 primary more seriously than she ever did in 2016. Four years ago, she says in her new memoir, “my heart wasn’t in it.” (As she tells in that book, the closest she got was a late-night conversation with her husband, Bruce Mann. They were at home in Cambridge, sitting on the couch in their bedroom under a blanket. “I asked him: Would you be okay if I ran?” she recalls. “Bruce said yes, and I smiled in the dark. I didn’t believe him, but it was the right answer. And I knew what the right answer was for me too. Talking with Bruce and asking the question out loud had settled it.”)
But for neither Warren nor Sanders is that “fantasy” partnership a major part of the other’s plans for the Senate and beyond. They refer to one another as “my good friend.” It’s a warm relationship, and one that goes back more than a decade, but it is most of all a working relationship. (“You remember the people who were nice to you before [when] you didn’t matter,” one veteran Democrat said. “Elizabeth Warren was nice to him when he didn’t matter.”)
If anything, their allies say, the two senators view one another as a source of validation. For Warren, Sanders’ success is proof of what she and her team told Clinton early on in 2016: that she should heed voters’ real thirst for progressive populism. And for the Vermont senator, Warren is a close partner who understands the grassroots better than most Democrats.
Four years ago, at least for Sanders, it was different.
Bill Press, a longtime Democratic strategist who hosted a series of planning meetings for Sanders and his top aides when he was weighing a primary challenge against Clinton, has said the senator’s main concern at the time was putting progressive issues “front and center.”
“And if somebody else did it, fine,” Press said in a 2016 interview with C-SPAN.
“And of course the other person at the time, everybody thought, would be Elizabeth Warren. If Elizabeth Warren had run, I’m pretty confident saying Bernie Sanders would never have run.”
Two years later, ask the question again — if one of them runs in 2020, would it be enough for the other to get out of the way? — and for people on both sides, the response is the same.
The answer, for now, is no. ●