Warren finally took on Sanders, but it may be too late

Image: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at a campaign event in Las Ve
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at a campaign event in Las Vegas on Feb. 21, 2020. Copyright David Ryder Reuters
Copyright David Ryder Reuters
By Sahil Kapur and Deepa Shivaram and Ali Vitali with NBC News Politics
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The progressive candidate waited until the past week to directly make the case against her chief progressive rival. Some Democrats wonder what took her so long.


LAS VEGAS — Elizabeth Warren's longstanding truce with Bernie Sanders came apart in the days preceding the Nevada caucuses. But the push came too late, with her campaign now on life support after disappointing finishes in the three early states.

Sanders won a dominant victory in Nevada, with the Massachusetts senator coming in fourth after she spent the preceding week throwing caution to the wind, for the first time making an explicit case for why the Vermont senator should not be the Democratic presidential nominee.

She took him to task for a lack of transparency on his health records, for the ugly behavior of some of his supporters, for refusing to call for abolishing the Senate filibuster, and for his campaign's negativity toward others on Medicare for All. She even criticized him by name after months of contrasts that were too subtle to make an impression on many voters.

Some Democrats wonder why she waited so long.

"Her strategy failed her. Her strategy failed her, and she clearly changed her strategy this week," said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic consultant. "She didn't do the contrast strongly enough until the last week or so... The debates in Iowa and New Hampshire — they certainly seem like missed opportunities given what she was able to do in the debate last week."

"She needs to say: If you really want progressive things to happen in this country and you want to get them done, I'm the progressive who can get them done. And draw that contrast with Sanders," Marsh said. "Her campaign was built on adversity and she's done it before," she said. "You can't count her out to do it one more time. But she's got eight days to do it."

After launching her campaign last year, Warren cultivated a core base of educated Democrats and people who want a woman president. She avoided criticism of rivals and ran a policy-focused campaign that conveyed her vision for rooting out corruption and bridging income inequality. The strategy was paying dividends, and by early October she had surged to front-runner status in some surveys.

Then Sanders began a comeback after his heart attack in October, fueled by a consequential endorsement from progressive icon Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. As he consolidated liberal voters in the weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Warren softened her message to emphasize party unity, whichseemed to undercut the image of a progressive "fighter" that fueled her rise in the first place.

Last week, Warren finally dispensed with her genteel "unity" message and delivered a tour de force debate performance Wednesday that spared none of her four main rivals. She criticized Sanders for running a campaign that "relentlessly attacks everyone who asks a question or tries to fill in details about how to actually make" his Medicare for All plan work.

At an event in Las Vegas on the eve of the caucuses, she questioned Sanders' commitment to progressive change by criticizing his resistance to ending the 60-vote rule to pass Senate bills.

"When other people who are running for president — and I say this just as a factual statement — like Bernie, who say they want to make real change but they will not rollback the filibuster. Keep in mind what that means, they have given a veto to the gun industry to prevent real change and gun reform. A veto to the pharmaceutical industry, a veto to the insurance industry," Warren said. "We cannot, cannot, cannot, give a veto to those who want to block real change in this country."

Warren was finally giving progressive voters a reason to support her over Sanders. Politically, her campaign attracts more mainstream Democrats who don't want a democratic-socialist nominee. And she sweats the details of policy and thinks about how to get from point A to B. And she called on Sanders, who is 78, to release more medical records after his heart attack in October.

"Any candidate who wants to win this primary, Warren included, should see the writing on the wall: Bernie is gonna run away with this thing unless they go directly after him," said Ian Sams, who faced Sanders twice as a former aide to Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign and Kamala Harris's 2020 bid.

"Even then, it's an open question whether it will work at this point. He has been able to not only consolidate a base but expand his appeal to new demographics over the past few months, largely unchallenged by his competitors. Looking back, candidates should have gone after him starting in the fall, recognizing he had a strong structural position as the frontrunner."

In a country that has never elected a woman president, Warren's advisers have long recognized that she faced a unique challenge when it comes to being combative. In an interview on Monday, she suggested there was a double standard for women who are quick to be seen as too aggressive.

"This is what women face all the time. It's always too much of this, too much of that," Warren told NBC News. "But you put your head down, you do your job, and you keep on going or you might say, we persist."

Brian Fallon, a Democratic strategist who worked on Clinton's 2016 campaign, said "never Bernie" Democrats "are panicking right now" and may have erred by "circled the wagons against Warren in October" when they had a chance to stop him.

"They may end up having buyer's remorse because Warren may have been a more viable non-Bernie candidate than Pete [Buttigieg] or [Joe] Biden," he said.


Conceding the Nevada caucuses on Saturday night, Warren again went after Sanders, saying there's "no magic wand" to getting big things done and suggesting she has a more viable strategy.

"People ask me about differences between Bernie and me. I want to point out a big one," she said. "You want to get something done? Bernie says we're going to keep the filibuster. I say (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell is not going to get a veto over what we want to do."

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