Elizabeth Warren
Credit: Marc Nozell/Flickr

Especially in a field as crowded as the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, political pundits like to put candidates in what are sometimes referred to as “lanes.” The idea is that candidates can be grouped according to similarities in their approach as well as voters to whom they are attempting to appeal.

It is often assumed that Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren occupy the same lane in the upcoming primary. But a closer look at what has been happening over the last couple of months indicates that Warren might be trying to distance herself from Sanders, at least when it comes to how he ran in 2016.

The most obvious distinction is that Warren has unapologetically characterized herself as a capitalist in contrast to Sanders, who identifies as a Democratic socialist. The senator from Massachusetts has also endorsed universal coverage as the goal of health care reform, with single payer being just one avenue to get there.

Those are very specific ways that Warren is carving out a different lane. But she has also released a string of fairly detailed policy proposals. I doubt she’s done yet, but so far she has articulated plans to impose a tax on wealth,  address the country’s housing crisis, break up monopolies, eradicate Washington corruption, and provide universal child care. In other words, Warren is establishing herself as the policy wonk of the 2020 Democratic presidential field.

During the 2016 presidential primary, it was Hillary Clinton who occupied the lane of policy wonk, even though her proposals might not have been as aggressive as those Warren has announced. One of the most significant criticisms of Bernie Sanders was that his big ideas weren’t backed up by much attention to specifics. That became most obvious during his interview with the New York Daily News. But another prime example was his bill to break up the big banks, which was impossible to take seriously.

This distinction strikes me as even more significant than the one about capitalism or socialism. It is unclear whether Warren is consciously attempting to distance herself from the critiques leveled at Sanders or if being a policy wonk is merely her nature. Based on her record, I’m more likely to assume the latter. But it signals that she is not only proposing progressive ideas, she’s done the leg work to look into how they might actually be accomplished.

As we all know, the fact that Clinton was a policy wonk was enough to win her the nomination, but didn’t assure victory in the electoral college. That will require a message that combats Trump’s dystopian story of America. It is still very early in the 2020 race, so it remains to be seen if Warren can deliver on that front. Her tendency has been to identify the villain she is fighting to defeat, which is what she shares in common with Sanders. To win, she’ll need to add an aspirational vision that undergirds all of her policy proposals.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.