The Primary Within the Primary


Last week, the third edition of the 2020 Democratic Primary debates was held in Houston,
Texas, with the top 10 polling candidates slugging it out on a single stage. It was the first time
that all of the top-tier candidates appeared on the same stage and also the first time the number of candidates was reduced to accommodate a single event. Immediately after the candidates had
given their opening statements, the ABC moderators set up what has become the classic dynamic
of this campaign so far—progressives led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren versus
conservatives led by Joe Biden on the issue of healthcare.

In this article, rather than focusing on this debate or the progressive versus “moderate”
dynamic, I’d like to take some time and talk about the progressives in this race, namely Senators
Sanders and Warren.

Many pundits and media-folk predicted at the beginning of the campaign that Sanders and
Warren would cannibalize each other’s support, effectively splitting the progressive base and
giving Biden the nomination. This idea was repeated before the second debate, when they were
scheduled to appear onstage alongside one another for the first time. The idea was that Warren
and Sanders’ messages and policies are so similar, that they would be forced to attack one
another in order to have a chance of winning the nomination. Instead, they worked as a tag-team, deflecting mud slung at each other by the centrist candidates and building off each other’s points to create a somewhat cohesive narrative, particularly on the issue of healthcare. In the campaign overall, Warren and Sanders have refrained from attacking one another and frequently
complimented each other in public. This is perhaps possible because the pundits, unsurprisingly,
got it wrong; Sanders and Warren have proven to attract support from very different
demographics, with Sanders’ coalition being overwhelmingly poor and young, and Warren being
most popular among white voters with college degrees.

The friendly nature of Sanders and Warren’s relationship, and the similarity of much of their
rhetoric has led many to believe that they are basically the same candidate. After all, they both
support Medicare-for-All, eliminating student loan debt and a Green New Deal—all things that
Biden and others do not. Warren has even adopted much of Sanders’ rhetoric from 2016
regarding movement versus electoral politics and the need to take on the establishment. As usual, however, the devil is in the details.


Let’s take the most important issue in this primary aside from beating Trump: healthcare. Polls
indicate that a strong majority of Democratic primary voters favor moving to a national
healthcare system. Although Warren has been one of the most vocal supporters of Medicare-for-
All for years, she’s taken steps throughout the campaign to signal to big donors and other elites
that she’s not serious about enacting the plan introduced by Sanders in the Senate, despite
formally endorsing the bill as her own campaign’s plan for healthcare. When campaigning, she
frequently talks about “multiple pathways” to Medicare-for-All which she calls her “North
Star”—rhetoric which is used by other candidates who don’t support “M4A”. In addition, despite
pledging to swear off big-money fundraisers and donations from establishment interests, she’s
since clarified that this only applies to the primary, because apparently corruption only matters
some of the time.

This uncertainty about her true position and her tendency to talk about other, less ambitious
healthcare plans she’s signed on to in the Senate, have led many progressives to accuse her of
attempting to co-opt the label and rhetoric of M4A, while not actually intending to pass it once
elected. Such a strategy would also give her the benefit of not having to release her own
healthcare plan and see it possibly become a drag on her campaign, as other candidates
attempting to co-opt M4A have done.

Look, I like Elizabeth Warren. She has a strong, progressive record in the last 20 years, despite
being a Republican for most of her life, and she knows how to get stuff done in Washington. But
honestly, I’m not sure why she’s running in this race. If she really is the same as Sanders in
terms of policy and her vision for the country, as so many in the media seem eager to portray
even as they smear Sanders and M4A nonstop, then why doesn’t she drop out and endorse him?
In a normal situation, the media and people in the Democratic establishment would be treating
the runner-up in the primary last time around as the presumptive nominee, or at least in a tie for
that position in their minds with the former VP Biden. But for whatever reason, the mainstream
media and the Democratic establishment have decided that Sanders is an unacceptable choice,
and that Warren is just fine. Wonder what they know that we don’t?