Is Elizabeth Warren an Ideologue?

Tuesday’s debate points to trouble for Democrats if she wins the nomination.

Warren gesturing at a podium.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren at the Democratic presidential debate in Westerville, Ohio, on Tuesday. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, is a strong candidate for president. She has a clear and compelling message about the unfair distribution of American prosperity. She’s smart, well versed in economics, and far more lucid than her fellow front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden. She’s a charismatic speaker. At campaign events, she’s excellent at answering voters’ questions.

But there’s a big risk for Democrats in nominating Warren: that beneath her talents, she has the soul of an ideologue. If that’s how she conducts herself in the general election—or if Republicans can effectively paint her that way—it substantially increases the danger that President Donald Trump will be reelected. And if Warren were to beat Trump, this disposition would make her a counterproductive president, more likely to revive the Republican Party than to enact significant legislation.

On this question—the question of who Warren is—Tuesday night’s debate sent ominous signals.

Warren did show pragmatism on a few issues. Instead of confiscating assault weapons, she proposed to focus on achievable gun laws. She agreed that American troops should come home from Syria, but she stipulated that it had to be done as part of a negotiated agreement. When fellow candidate Andrew Yang challenged her claims about automation, employment, and income subsidies, she said she was open to evidence. “I want to understand the data,” she told Yang. “I want to make sure we’re responding to make this work.”

But on the biggest issue, Warren nailed herself to a coercive and unpopular position. She insisted on a “Medicare for All” program that would abolish all private insurance for basic health care. And she ruled out the idea that she might pivot to a voluntary alternative—Medicare for All Who Want It—that would allow people to keep their private insurance if they preferred it. “I will not embrace a plan like ‘Medicare for all who can afford it’ that will leave behind millions of people,” the senator declared, using a pejorative term for the voluntary approach.

Warren gave two reasons why she couldn’t tolerate nongovernment insurance. First, a private insurer could limit its coverage or reject a claim. “I will not embrace a plan that says people have great insurance right up until you get the diagnosis, and the insurance company says, ‘Sorry, we’re not covering your expensive cancer treatments,’ ” she explained. Second, she argued that private insurers stay afloat by denying necessary care and that they otherwise contribute nothing to cost containment. “Every dollar of profit that an insurance company made last year,” she told a CNN panel after the debate, “was made by saying one word: No.”

When CNN’s Van Jones questioned the wisdom of coercing everyone into Medicare, Warren responded as though she didn’t understand the objection. “People don’t like to be forced,” Jones reminded the senator. “Why is that good politics? Don’t you think Americans are going to feel like you’re forcing something on them they don’t want?” Rather than engage the question, Warren repeated her talking point: “We should leave no one behind.” Jones persisted: “What about the people who … want to have the freedom to opt out? Do you care about them and their freedom to opt out?” Again, Warren batted the question away. “What I care about,” she told Jones, “is that they don’t get pushed out” of being covered at all.

Warren also dismissed queries about the cost of her proposal. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the author of the Senate’s Medicare for All bill, argued that on balance, his bill—which Warren supports—would save people money by eliminating premiums, deductibles, and copayments. But he conceded that as part of the math, Medicare for All would require a big tax hike on the middle class. Warren refused to make the same concession, despite being asked several times. In her post-debate interview, she said the price of her plan could “vary by literally trillions and trillions of dollars.” She said “revenue streams” would cover it, but she didn’t explain what they were.

Polls suggest that if Warren becomes the nominee, her crusade for a government monopoly on health insurance will be a significant liability. But her hard line on health care is just one part of a sweeping, invasive agenda that could alarm many voters. “On the first day, I will … repeal the filibuster,” she told the debate audience. “I know what we can do by executive authority, and I will use it.” Warren demanded that every major American company allot 40 percent of its board seats to directors chosen by employees. She also defended her pledge to dismantle several corporations. “We need to enforce our antitrust laws, break up these giant companies that are dominating big tech, big pharma, big oil,” she said. “All of them.”

When other candidates disagreed with Warren—pointing out, for example, that her proposal to tax the accumulated wealth of the superrich had been tried and abandoned in other countries because it didn’t yield the projected revenues—she accused them of selling out. “Why … does everyone else on this stage think it is more important to protect billionaires than it is to invest in an entire generation of Americans?” Warren protested. She accused her rivals of “taking money from the big tech executives” and “taking money from big drug executives.”

This scorched-earth campaign might help Warren get the nomination. But it might burn her, by provoking other Democrats to form an opposition bloc in the center of the party. During the debate, several candidates challenged Warren’s extremism. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told her, “I don’t understand why you believe the only way to deliver affordable coverage to everybody is to obliterate private plans, kicking 150 million Americans off of their insurance.” Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, added, “I don’t think it is the role of a president or a candidate for the presidency to specifically call out which companies will be broken up.” Tom Steyer, a Democratic donor-turned-candidate, said the party should “talk about harnessing the innovation and competition of the American private sector,” not just “tax and have programs to break up companies.”

The greater danger to Warren, as a candidate and potentially as the nominee, is that her positions on these issues will contribute to a portrait of her as a zealot. “Your idea is not the only idea,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota told Warren. O’Rourke made a related point: “Sometimes I think that Sen. Warren is more focused on being punitive or pitting some part of the country against the other instead of lifting people up.” Buttigieg chimed in, “I also don’t agree with Sen. Warren that the only way forward is infinite partisan combat.”

Warren professed dismay at these rebukes. “I’m really shocked at the notion that anyone thinks I’m punitive,” she said. Her surprise might well be genuine because she spends her days in a bubble of love. She seldom does interviews with aggressive journalists. She answers a few questions at each rally, but the questioners adore her. After the debate, when she was asked whether Medicare for All would require a tax increase, she suggested that real people didn’t care about that. “The tens of thousands of people who come through the selfie line to me talk about their costs,” not their taxes, she said. But the people in Warren’s selfie lines aren’t the voters Democrats need to attract. They’re already in the bag.

Maybe Warren has a secret plan to win the election. Maybe, if she wraps up the nomination, she’ll modify Medicare for All and repackage herself as a sensible progressive who can unite the country. But Tuesday’s performance suggests otherwise. It suggests that the senator we’ve seen in recent encounters—dismissive of religious conservatives, defiant about making false statements, only vaguely apologetic for having claimed Native American ancestry—is the real Elizabeth Warren. Tenacity isn’t always a virtue.