IOWA CITY, Iowa — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign has plenty of well-known slogans: “I’ve got a plan for that.” “Two cents!” “Big, structural change!” “Dream big, fight hard!”
And for reporters looking for her comment on rivals for her party’s 2020 presidential nomination, Warren has another slogan: “I’m not here to attack other Democrats.”
Warren has deployed the line again and again over the past 11 months to decline comment on other candidates’ approaches to governing, their policy proposals and even their attacks on her. But with her campaign’s poll numbers plateauing, two moderate rivals stepping up their explicit and implicit attacks on her and a billionaire entering the race, Warren has begun to occasionally counterpunch.
Yet Warren’s campaign, which has been setting traps for other candidates on campaign finance since its very first days in the race, remains wary of unleashing full-bore assaults on her competitors. Democrats in the early states still want the candidates to play nice, and some allies remain uneasy about how the media portrays women who attack their opponents.
Before the Thanksgiving holiday, Warren seemed to adopt a more aggressive posture. When reporters asked about South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s request for her to release additional years of her tax returns, Warren responded with a shot at Buttigieg’s refusal to disclose the names of people who have been collecting high-dollar checks for his campaign.
“I understand that there are some candidates who want to distract from the fact they have not released the names of their clients, and they have not released the names of their bundlers, who right now in this campaign are gathering up big checks, who are getting special access to the candidate,” Warren told reporters at a campaign event in Iowa.
And she greeted former New York City mayor and billionaire media mogul Michael Bloomberg’s entrance into the race with a string of attacks, often suggestion he was running in hopes of avoiding Warren’s proposed 2% tax on the ultra-wealthy. On Wednesday, she aired an ad on Bloomberg’s namesake television channel.
“Some people have figured out, you know, it’d be a lot cheaper to spend a few hundred mil just buying the presidency instead of paying that 2-cent wealth tax,” Warren says as an image of Bloomberg appears onscreen.
But during a two-day, three-stop swing through Iowa on Sunday and Monday, Warren was back to avoiding direct attacks. After a rally at the University of Iowa’s Memorial Union, a reporter asked about Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet’s criticism of Warren’s ambitious policy goals.
“I’m not here to attack other Democrats,” she quickly responded.
When reporters pressed if she would stick to that policy throughout the remainder of the campaign, Warren tried to avoid directly answering before eventually leaving the door open to future criticism.
Her stance comes as her two leading moderate rivals for the nomination have opened up new lines of attack in recent days. (Warren and Sanders, the leading progressives in the pack, have a long-standing nonaggression pact and typically minimize their differences.)
Buttigieg, in a new television ad airing in Iowa, is implicitly criticizing Warren and Sanders, arguing that their plans for universal free college are a giveaway to millionaires and billionaires. And Biden, during an interview with reporters on his “No Malarkey” Bus tour of Iowa, suggested Warren didn’t have the enthusiastic support necessary to defeat him.
“Look at the polling everywhere, OK, tell me, tell me where this great enthusiasm is manifesting itself?” Biden said. “She’s advertising millions and millions of dollars in New Hampshire. Why shouldn’t she be known there? So tell me, beyond that, where is the enthusiasm?”
(Part of Biden’s critique was wrong: Warren hasn’t aired a single television ad in New Hampshire and hasn’t spent money in a television market that reaches the state since her first Senate race in 2012.)
Warren’s team and her allies remain wary of full-on political combat, fearing media double standards will inevitably declare her the loser.
“There is always a double standard. It’s always harder for the women,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive Democratic strategist who has praised Warren. “It’s dangerous for a woman to go on the offensive. She’ll be called too mean, or too shrill or too aggressive.”
There are other reasons for Warren to avoid attacking her rivals: Democrats in the early primary states overwhelmingly prefer the dozen-plus candidates in the race to play nice with each other. And operatives in both Iowa and New Hampshire say Warren, who has heavily invested in a top-of-the-line field operation, remains in a strong position.
“They’re really, really comfortable with their organization,” said Sean Bagniewski, the Democratic chair in Polk County, which includes Des Moines. “It’s a risk they don’t think they need to take.”
Still, Bagniewski noted that attacks on other candidates can uniquely drive the narrative: “Everybody says they don’t like the attacks. But in person, and on social media, the attacks are what they react the strongest to.”
It’s dangerous for a woman to go on the offensive. She’ll be called too mean, or too shrill or too aggressive. Democratic strategist Rebecca Katz
Warren, since her earliest days in the race, has been preparing to attack the other candidates as tools of corporations and wealthy donors. She called for the candidates to disavow super PACs, then later swore off high-dollar fundraisers and finally requested every campaign to reveal its bundlers. The other campaigns are aware those requests could quickly turn into attacks.
Even on other issues, like impeachment and taxes, Warren came out with an aggressive position early, essentially forcing the candidates into a media narrative of her making ― and challenging them to take a position they might not be ready to accept.
But so far, Warren hasn’t been aggressive on her signature issue. When Biden welcomed a super PAC earlier this year after initially swearing one off, the quickest and harshest attacks came from Sanders’ campaign.
“The former Vice President has been unable to generate grassroots support, and now his campaign is endorsing an effort to buy the primary through a super PAC that can rake in unlimited cash from billionaires and corporations,” Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir said minutes after Biden changed his position. “That’s not how we defeat Trump. It’s a recipe to maintain a corrupt political system which enriches wealthy donors and leaves the working class behind.”
Warren, a few hours later, was tamer: “It’s disappointing that any Democratic candidate would reverse course and endorse the use of unlimited contributions from the wealthy to run against fellow Democrats.”
(Her rivals for the nomination also question Warren’s claims to nonaggression, noting an outside group that has endorsed her candidacy ― the Progressive Campaign Change Committee ― regularly criticizes other candidates.)
Warren has fallen from her polling peaks in October, but remains firmly in the top tier in public polling nationally, and in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Still, there are hints of an altered campaign strategy. Warren made a media blitz Wednesday night, appearing on Bloomberg TV, “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and MSNBC’s “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.”
And at a town hall Sunday night in Marion, a suburb of Cedar Rapids, Warren told the crowd of 350 people they were part of an “experiment.” Warren would deliver a shorter stump speech and would take more than 10 questions from the crowd instead of three.
For Warren, who normally delivers the same stump speech at every event, it amounted to a significant change. Instead of a 30-minute stemwinder heavy on her plans to raise the wealth tax and fight corruption, she delivered a tight eight-minute speech heavily focused on her biography. She used the same format on Monday in Iowa City.
But one thing was the same: As she has since Iowa’s Liberty and Justice Celebration in October, she ended the night with implicit attacks on two of her rivals, promising to change America in ways Biden wouldn’t and to swear off the consultants who influence Buttigieg.
“If all Democrats can offer is business as usual after Donald Trump, then Democrats will lose,” Warren said. “I’m not running a campaign that’s shaped by a bunch of consultants with plans that are designed not to offend big donors. I passed that stop sign a long time ago.”