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Why Elizabeth Warren doesn’t scare many moderate Democrats


Many moderate Democratic leaders have reached a surprising conclusion about Elizabeth Warren: They’d actually feel comfortable if she won the party’s presidential nomination.

She might be an unabashed liberal, they say, but at least she’s a talented candidate — and she’s much more acceptable than democratic socialist Bernie Sanders.

“The thing about Warren is that she is staying within the lines of what is manageable,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the center-left group Third Way, who also praised Warren’s recent visit in South Carolina as “very impressive.” “She believes in capitalism, amazingly we have to say this, but that matters. What she’s offering is not a rejection of capitalism.”

“She is not tipping over the edge into what is absolutely unsustainable in a general election,” he added. “Our principle problem with Sanders is that he has.”

Bennett’s group hosted a gathering of center-left Democrats here this week focused on crafting a winning strategy to defeat President Donald Trump in 2020. Most of the speakers outlined a political approach that differed from Warren’s. They argued that the Democatic electorate is more moderate than activists on Twitter and reminded attendees of the party’s stark challenges in red areas.

But in interviews behind the scenes here, moderate Democratic leaders struck a slightly different tone. Even if they aren’t necessarily excited about Warren’s candidacy, they’re not hostile to it, either.

It’s a tone that’s especially noteworthy as Warren begins to climb in state and national polling, suggesting she might face less institutional resistance inside the Democratic Party if she does emerge as the primary’s frontrunner. It’s also reflective of how many Democrats continue to see a fundamental difference between Warren and the other leading progressive candidate in the race, Sanders, even though they share a similarly robust agenda aimed at upending the country’s economic order.

What distinguishes the two candidates, moderate Democrats say, is Warren’s stated insistence that she remains a capitalist. It’s a sentiment she’s reiterated time and time again, saying that she is bent on saving capitalism rather than replacing it.

To those who spoke at the Third Way conference like Stephanie Schriock, president of the Democratic group EMILY’s List, that distinction is critical.

“What I am always super impressed with her about is her discussion about capitalism, and how she is a firm believer in capitalism while acknowledging there has to be some changes to protect consumers and workers in that system,” Schriock said. “I think that language and her very straight-forwardness on that position is important for everybody.”

Bennett noted that when he saw Warren speak recently, she didn’t mention her support for single-payer health care. It was a sign, he hoped, that the senator wasn’t as fixated on the sweeping proposal — one considered an anathema to many center-left Democrats who see it as politically and substantively impractical — as Sanders is.

Warren has even begun to surpass her ideological rival Sanders in some polls. It’s a turnaround for the Massachusetts senator, who only a few months ago was struggling to gain traction. Critics questioned whether she could raise enough money to sustain her campaign or be a strong general election foe against Trump.

Those concerns have quieted amid a growing sense, even among some skeptical Democrats, that Warren has put together one of the primary’s most impressive campaigns with her agenda-setting policy proposals and personable style on the stump.

“Senator Warren has shown herself to be very serious and deliberate about policy,” said Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, who spoke at the conference. “[She] has put out detailed policy propositions and has been a persistent and diligent campaigner.”

Coons has endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden, a fact he was sure to reiterate during an interview even when asked about Warren. Many of the other moderate Democrats at the Third Way event said they hadn’t committed to a presidential candidate yet.

But even Democrats more inclined to be critical of Warren are full of praise for at least the quality of her campaign, if not her liberal agenda.

“When Elizabeth talks, you hear what she wants to get done,” said former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who lost her re-election race last year. “When a lot of other people talk what you hear is ‘blah, blah, blah, blah,’ and you’re like, ‘OK, that’s political speak for I don’t really want to answer the question.’”

“There isn’t a question Elizabeth won’t answer,” Heitkamp added. “And that’s really engaging. And people will say, ‘At least I know where she’s coming from.’”

Moderate Democrats, of course, still aren’t giddy at the prospect of Warren winning the nomination. Many of them still have reservations about many of her proposals. And questions about her electability against Trump are sure to resurface now that she is ascending in the polls.

Warren has also a history of public disagreement with some Democratic lawmakers, including Heitkamp, who supported legislation to change the Dodd-Frank financial reform law over Warren’s objections. Heitkamp made clear that she has a problem with any candidate who makes what she considers unrealistic promises.

“At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be promising things you can’t deliver,” Heitkamp said. “You should be looking at strategies to solve problems in America knowing that you have a fighting chance to actually get it done if you get elected.”

Still, many at the conference were willing to look past Warren’s agenda, if only because her potential alternative looked worse than she did.

“I think there’s lots of exciting candidates,” said Jen Psaki, a former spokeswoman for Barack Obama, who spoke at the gathering’s final event. “And if we don’t nominate a self-avowed socialist, … we’ll probably be OK. Or I hope so.”

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