In less than two weeks, the ten leading Democratic candidates will all appear on the same debate stage for the first time. Outlets priming the pump for what will likely be the most important day of the nascent primary season are teasing a series of potential conflicts: Joe Biden vs. Elizabeth Warren. Bernie Sanders vs. Elizabeth Warren. Everyone vs. Elizabeth Warren.
After a brutal start marred by controversy and low fundraising numbers, Warren has made a remarkable comeback by adopting a policy-heavy “slow and steady” approach. The outlets teasing a “showdown” in September rightly acknowledge that she has been the recipient of a staggering amount of positive coverage over the past several months, including a number of adoring news stories and profiles. Citing data from NewsWhip, Axios’ Neal Rothschild wrote that “Warren has been able to strike a balance of being discussed a lot without being the target of sustained criticism or media pile-on that other top candidates have endured. And many of the biggest stories about her have been downright glowing.”
Having built up a narrative, news outlets are gleefully prepping for it to be torn down. The hunger for a fight between Warren and the rest of the field is clear. Aside from Kamala Harris’s takedown of Joe Biden, the first two Democratic debates were largely tame and respectful; with primary season heating up, there’s a desire for conflict. At the first presidential debate, Warren appeared on a stage without another heavyweight—due to an imbalanced draw, the other leading candidates appeared on stage on a different night. At the second, the Massachusetts senator was paired with Sanders, who thus far has declined to attack her.
Some want a fight between Warren and Sanders for ownership of the primary’s left lane. “Have you noticed that nobody in the Democratic field ever attacks Elizabeth Warren?” asked Politico earlier this month in a piece arguing that she was using Bernie Sanders, who has received substantially more negative coverage, as a “human shield.” Other politicians and pundits attack Sanders for his left-wing policies, this narrative goes, but not Warren, allowing the Massachusetts senator to effortlessly rise in the polls. The desire for a battle between Warren and Sanders seems motivated, in part, by an idea held by many that there can only be one “left-wing” candidate in any given primary.
Most, however, are eager for a showdown between Biden and Warren, who have yet to appear onstage together, and have some history—the two first sparred in 2002 over Biden’s support for a bill that made it harder for people to claim bankruptcy. There have been suggestions in the lead-up that Biden will attack Warren aggressively, hoping to blunt her momentum. “She’s promised about $50 trillion worth of benefits in the last 30 days. Her economics are [a] fraud and at some point someone is going to point that out. She’s a multimillionaire professor at Harvard. She can’t rail against the one percent—she is one of the one percent,” Biden surrogate Dick Harpootlian told Politico, outlining a series of possible fronts. (These attacks are a bit rich coming from Harpootlian, who supported Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign.)
“I think that at the end of the day, the biggest criticism of Elizabeth Warren is her inability to make her plans actual reality. There are a lot of voters—especially black voters—who will say, ‘A lot of this is pie in the sky and we want pie on the table,” Harris surrogate Bakari Sellers told Politico. Given the ambitiousness of much of the policy work being done in the primary so far, these are attacks that will probably ultimately be lobbed at every Democrat, but they likely preview how Warren and Sanders will be targeted next month.
For fellow Democrats, attacking Warren and Sanders on policy grounds is foolish and self-defeating (though that alone practically guarantees that it will happen). The senators’ agenda is popular and has revolutionized the party; voters are hungry for new ideas. Moreover, practically every candidate has an ambitious policy proposal or two of his or her own. The idea that Democrats shouldn’t talk enthusiastically about improving people’s lives in every way possible because of vague worries about “electability” makes little sense, particularly in this early phase of the primary.
While there’s clearly desire among the media to see a fight between Warren and the field, it still doesn’t make sense for any of the other candidates—with the exception of Biden. For the former vice president, attempting to halt the rise of the candidate who seems, at this juncture, to have the best shot of snatching the nomination from his grasp, is a calculated risk he might feel he needs to take. But for everyone else, it’s premature. Although Warren is steadily rising, she still commands only a fifth of voters. Biden consistently polls much higher and remains the front-runner.
But he also remains the party’s biggest liability, particularly after yet another gaffe-filled week. Surveys suggest his support is much shallower than it appears, and there are signs that there is little enthusiasm behind his candidacy. On policy, he’s retrograde, an embodiment of a status quo that does not inspire voters. There’s novelty in targeting Warren, so that’s what many who need to boost clicks or ratings want. The candidates, however, might have a different metric in mind—one measured in votes and delegates—so for them, it’s still Biden season.