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.”
Warren speaks during a protest in front of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year.
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.
“He is trying to create a movement. She approaches so many of these policy issues as a good lawyer or powerful cross-examiner would.“
“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.)
“Both of them have really changed the way we think,” but it was Sanders who “put such a sharp point on the fact that something entirely different was possible.”
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.”