intelligencer chats

The Risks of Going After Elizabeth Warren

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Ben: At yesterday’s debate, Elizabeth Warren drew the kind of incoming fire from other candidates that mark her as the one to beat. Post-debate, rivals like Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden have kept up their attacks — the former said that Warren had been “more specific and forthcoming about the number of selfies she’s taken” than her Medicare for All plan; the latter accused her and Bernie Sanders of trying to “con the American people” into thinking a health-care overhaul would be easy. How risky is this kind of strategy for candidates who have previously chosen the high road?

Gabriel: Well they’re coming at it from different places, so their approaches have different risks. Buttigieg, for one, is trying to become the young Biden alternative, but he’s built up his image without going negative, and now he’s betting this is the way to be taken super-seriously — and, crucially, that voters are ready for these “let’s get serious”-style contrasts, and won’t rebel at the negativity. (See my story this morning on this very topic!) Biden is trying to maintain his position, and probably feels like he doesn’t have much of a choice but to draw these contrasts. Obviously neither Biden nor Buttigieg is missing the obvious fact that Sanders+Warren has more supporters, right now, than Buttigieg+Biden, which says something, but obviously not everything, about the shape of the electorate this cycle. But they’ve both picked their lane.

Ben: Warren clearly does not want to answer the question about whether her plan will raise taxes on the middle class. Some have criticized journalists for repeatedly bringing it up, arguing that their framing is misleading. But given her waffling, she seems destined to be hit with it again and again. Why do you think she doesn’t simply say, “Yes, taxes will go up, but the huge drop in health-care costs will make the tradeoff worth it,” the way Bernie Sanders does? What’s the political calculation there?

Gabriel: She’s already been asked it again and again … immediately after the debate last night! It’s probably the single question she’s been asked most over the last few weeks. But she’s clearly calculating that (a) she doesn’t want a clip out there, either in the primary or the general, of her talking about raising middle-class taxes, and (b) that she’s refused to answer this framing of the question for long enough that she’s not going to cave now and deal with all the coverage of that. But you can also see in her response how frustrated she is with the framing. She’s trying to make a specific point when she responds, not to dodge for dodging’s sake.

Ben: Do you get the sense that this is viewed as an actual potential problem, or more as something journalists are obsessed with?

Gabriel: Depends on who’s doing the viewing. There are definitely some candidates not named Elizabeth Warren who are worried about this — Buttigieg’s team, for example, loves pointing to a recent Des Moines Register poll suggesting Medicare for All is a general-election problem for Democrats. But Warren’s allies see this as little more than a gotcha that’s captivated journalists until they find their next thing.

Ben: As many have noted, Joe Biden sort of faded into the background for large stretches of the night, as candidates went after Warren instead. He also announced last night that he had only $9 million in cash on hand, significantly less than his top-tier rivals. There’s a definite narrative going on now that Biden’s long-awaited self-implosion is happening, and that he’s yesterday’s news. But he still polls very well nationally, and quite well in early states. Are we seeing more of the disconnect between what pundits expect to happen and what’s actually happening that we saw crop up earlier in this primary cycle, when his staying power came as a surprise to a lot of people?

Gabriel: I think this is a case where both can be true! He’s clearly no longer the strong front-runner, but you’d think by now that the pundit class would be a bit more careful about predicting doom for Biden. He’s shown in the last few hours alone that he’s going to turn up his contrasts a notch, clearly because he sees a problematic trend in his campaign. But he’s still polling first in many surveys and second in others. Hardly time for a massive panic, though the fundraising is a real problem.

One of the reasons Biden’s fundraising numbers are an issue, of course, is his reliance on big-dollar, in-person fundraisers rather than grassroots donations. He can’t go back to his donors and ask for more money like other candidates, because his relatively small number of donors have largely already given the legal maximum.

Ben: Amy Klobuchar had a pretty strong debate, but is right now not on track to qualify for the next one, in November, thanks to weak poll numbers. Do you think her performance could single-handedly put her on track to at least stay in the race longer?

Gabriel: I think there’s a reasonable case to be made that she did the most of any of the four onstage last night who still hadn’t qualified for November’s debate. She’s clearly made a similar calculation to Buttigieg (see above), and got a ton of speaking time out of it. Obviously, we’ll find out soon … and we’ll see how many polls there even are between now and the deadline!

Ben: Bernie Sanders did very well, especially coming off his heart attack. And he announced that AOC will be endorsing him, which is something of a coup, since some people expected her to pick Elizabeth Warren. Do you think either of these things will meaningfully boost his campaign?

Gabriel: He’s obviously at the center of attention again, and that’s been a major concern for him, so in that sense he’s already gotten a boost. We’ll see whether he’s able to stop his polling slide and start gaining new (or regaining old?) voters. But Sanders’s team was thrilled with how last night went, for good reason.

The Risks of Going After Elizabeth Warren