The Risk of Elizabeth Warren’s Dodging

She’s presented herself as the truth-teller, the straight-talker, the one who can break down complex economic ideas and bring nonprogressives along.

Tony Dejak / AP

WESTERVILLE, Ohio—Elizabeth Warren has a lot of plans—including a plan not to cop to how she would pay for Medicare for All.

It’s a simple answer. Everyone knows it: Taxes would almost certainly have to go up on middle-class families, even if Warren is right that their overall costs would go down. She knows it, too. She’s just decided not to say it.

That decision is bigger for her candidacy than a conversation about health care or the tax code is. On the campaign trail, the senator from Massachusetts has presented herself as the truth-teller, the straight-talker, the one who can break down complex economic ideas and bring nonprogressives along. Now, just as she’s started to get the attention from competitors and the press that comes from leading public polls, she’s insisting on talking in circles. In politics, there’s little more dangerous than moments that undermine a candidate’s core image—even the parody of Warren on Saturday Night Live, from the actor Kate McKinnon, is centered on her brutally telling it like it is.

Warren has been doing a dance on Medicare for All for a long time now. When she was first running for the Senate, in 2012, she didn’t support the idea. Then, in 2017, she signed onto the bill written by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Then, after declaring her presidential candidacy late last year, she ducked questions about her position for months. Finally, onstage for the first debate, in Miami in June, she quickly ended the suspense by saying that she supported the proposal, vaporizing the wedge that Sanders supporters were preparing to drive between them. Yet as her campaign has issued plans on all sorts of smaller policy matters, it has offered little on how she’d pull off the big structural changes she’s proposing.

The hubbub around her dodging—one of the defining features of last night’s debate—makes staffers on the Warren campaign roll their eyes. They think that reporters and Republicans and her rivals onstage are just looking for a sound bite about raising taxes, an “Aha!” to stick her with all the way through the primaries, and perhaps through Election Day. They clearly take pride in not playing the game the way political insiders and Twitter critics want them to. They can also take solace in the fact that, in the month since the previous debate, when the ABC News moderator George Stephanopoulos pressed her on the tax question, her poll numbers have continued to go up.

But life’s different now as the front-runner. Last night’s debate made clear that Warren’s Democratic opponents feel like the primary revolves around her now, with most of the 11 other candidates onstage taking swings at her and seeming to forget that former Vice President Joe Biden, until now the focus of the race, was even there. In a statement following the debate, Warren’s communications director, Kristen Orthman, brushed off the attacks from other candidates: Warren’s momentum comes from “running a campaign of substance,” and “she took heat tonight as a result of that momentum.”

In the spin room afterward, the other candidates and their surrogates kept up the Warren criticism, in a sign that the next phase of the race could be even more Warren-centric. Her avoidance of the taxes question “hurts her brand,” Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Nan Whaley told me, after she popped into the spin room on behalf of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, one of the candidates who went after Warren the hardest.

Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s chief strategist, resisted a question from another reporter asking if Warren was dishonest, but he argued that his own boss was being “straightforward” in saying that raising taxes would help pay for Medicare for All. “That’s the honest answer; that’s the only answer,” he told me when I followed up.

When I asked whether Warren was living up to her reputation as a truth-teller, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey said he wasn’t going to attack anyone, but he made sure to point out that he wants to be defined by his own “utter candor.”

Former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas wasn’t so delicate. Was she telling the truth? I asked. “She failed to do that tonight, and she’s failed to do that in previous debates,” O’Rourke replied. “And I think on an issue as important as health care, and an issue as important as taxes on the middle class, this country deserves to hear the truth.”

Obviously, these are all people who don’t want to see Warren become the Democratic nominee. So I walked over to two women who do: Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico and California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher. Both have endorsed Warren, and they were among the official representatives of her campaign in the spin room.

“We agree that she was very clear on what she plans to do on Medicare for All,” Haaland said.

“She was very clear,” Fletcher echoed, adding that Warren has pledged that any cost to middle-class families “will be less” than the cost to the “wealthy” and corporations.

Wealthy and middle-class are always slippery terms in politics. But when they’re being used as the only clear terms in a haze of rhetoric about a bill, the slipperiness can become a real liability. Sanders himself has outlined only suggested options for paying for Medicare for All, even as he has acknowledged an increase in taxes.

Where is the dividing line between “wealthy” and “middle-class”? another reporter asked Warren’s surrogates.* Is it at families with $100,000 in annual income? $200,000? Some other number?

“Maybe it’s working families,” Haaland said.

Isn’t every family working?

“It’s not wealthy families,” Fletcher said.

What counts as wealthy?

“If you make $1 million a year, that’s wealthy,” Fletcher said.

So any family making less than $1 million would count as middle-class? I asked.

“I don’t know the exact number,” Fletcher said.

A year ago almost to the day, Warren and her team tackled what they thought would be her biggest liability: the claims of Cherokee heritage she’d made through the years, based on family lore that she says she assumed to be true. The DNA test she took last year, the video featuring her family that she recorded on a trip back home to Oklahoma, and the news articles she participated in about her background were the campaign’s attempt to take its hits on the chin all at once and take the issue off the table. It largely worked: President Donald Trump, who attacked her for her claims, has moved on—at least for the time being—and not a single Democratic candidate has raised the issue as an attack.

There’s still time for Warren’s campaign to issue a detailed plan on Medicare for All, similar to those she’s offered on so many other, much less expensive issues, and try to put this conversation away like she did with the one about her heritage. But Warren’s dodging exposes a deeper truth. As much as supporting Medicare for All has become a litmus test for which candidates in the 2020 race count as true progressives, there isn’t a realistic person in American politics who believes that a President Warren—or anyone else—could get enough votes in the Senate to pass Medicare for All. It’s simple. Everyone knows that. Warren knows that.

“The difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done,” Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said onstage, in a slice at Warren. Klobuchar voiced a complaint that all of the candidates seem to have about Warren when, for example, she’s dismissive of Andrew Yang’s ideas on automation as fuzzy, or when she refuses to endorse Kamala Harris’s bid to get Trump kicked off Twitter. Warren tries to sell her own plans as the only sensible way forward for the country, hard as they might be to enact. “Your idea is not the only idea,” Klobuchar said last night.

Yet what is true of Medicare for All is true of many of Warren’s proposals. They all depend on a best-case scenario for the candidate: her in the White House, a cooperative majority in the House, a Senate majority that’s no longer dependent on moderates and has scrapped the filibuster—and nothing else getting in the way.

Except sometimes pragmatism creeps in. Last night, Warren spiked O’Rourke’s plan to somehow both pass and enforce mandatory assault-rifle buybacks, which he argues could be done by trusting the American people to comply.

“So look, I want to get what works done,” Warren said, responding to his plan.

Maybe next up in this long campaign, Warren will explain exactly how she thinks Medicare for All would work, and how she thinks she could get it done.

*A previous version of this story misidentified which reporter asked two Warren surrogates about Americans’ income levels.