Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders Aren't the Same

(Bloomberg) -- Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have become so closely linked that their names have been joined to form a talisman for left-wing Democrats who embrace membership in the party's "Sanders-Warren wing."

There are, however, differences to be considered as each ponders a run for the presidency in 2020. Sanders is an avowed socialist. Warren isn't. She's a capitalist, albeit one who believes in a strong government role if markets aren't protecting people.

"It shouldn't surprise anyone that I believe that strong, healthy markets are the key to a strong healthy America," she said in a Washington speech last year.

She's also a relative political novice, still in her first Senate term and first elective office. Her background is in academia, where she rose to become a distinguished law professor at Harvard University specializing in bankruptcy and commercial law.

Sanders started as a community activist and has been an elected politician for three and a half decades. Sanders, an introvert, is better known for raising issues than for practical problem-solving. Warren, an extrovert, focuses more on concrete accomplishments, with mixed success.

Their policy differences are notable, and illustrated well by the different health-care measures they are pushing. Each is a co-sponsor of the other’s proposal, but that’s just a courtesy.

Substantively, Sanders advocates a single-payer system that would replace private insurance with government coverage, eliminate co-pays, premiums and most deductibles, and mandate broader coverage and price controls. The cost of such a plan, according to a study two years ago by the respected Urban Institute, would be $32 trillion over 10 years.

The Warren initiative seeks to build on the Affordable Care Act, which gives private insurance companies much of the responsibility of designing health-care plans and administering payments. She would provide more government subsidies, cap some out-of-pocket costs and require insurance companies to offer individual policies through Obamacare exchanges if they want to participate in the government's Medicare Advantage and Medicaid programs. That's a mandate the industry won't like, but it's far from a government-run program. An Urban Institute analysis of her proposal pegged the 10-year cost at $221 billion.

Warren "is politically savvy and practical," said Ezekiel Emanuel, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania medical school and one of the architects of Obamacare as well as an adviser to Warren on health-care issues. "She's always asking, 'Who can I get as an ally?'"

Sanders, of Vermont, is visibly gearing up for a 2020 presidential run while Warren is waiting until after November, when she's expected to win re-election handily in the Massachusetts Senate race. Their constituencies are similar, but neither is likely to step aside because the other is running.

I like Warren's chances better. Sanders will be 79 years old on Election Day. Warren will be 71. In appearance and style, though, the age gap seems to be wider. Sanders was an effective protest candidate against Hillary Clinton, but as a front-runner his appeal may be more limited. Warren works better with other politicians; on a congressional trip to Afghanistan last year, her Republican Senate colleagues John McCain and Lindsey Graham treated her as one of the guys. That wouldn't happen with the grumpy Sanders.

Still, Warren would face big challenges if she decides to run.

She has to be careful not to alienate younger voters committed to Sanders; a Harvard University survey two years ago found that 33 percent of millennials identified as socialists.

Warren's populist passion will make it hard for her to win friends in the business community, even among Democrats. And while polls show that most Americans agree with her that the rich should pay more taxes, that Wall Street should be held more accountable, and maybe even that commercial and investment banking should be separated, she is also capable of alienating potential supporters with ideological rigidity.

An example: In 2015 she helped block President Barack Obama's nomination of the liberal financier Antonio Weiss to help manage the nation's debt portfolio, a task for which he was eminently qualified, after progressives claimed without substantiation that he'd be too deferential to Wall Street.

She may be trying to broaden her base of support, in part by reaching out more to mainstream liberal economists like Gene Sperling, an adviser to Obama and President Bill Clinton, and Lawrence Summers, the ex-Treasury secretary whom four years ago she opposed as a potential chair of the Federal Reserve Board.

One completely phony charge against her is the accusation by Republicans that she misleadingly claimed a part-Native-American heritage to help get a law school professorship. That's the cheap calumny that President Donald Trump circulates when he ridicules her as "Pocahontas."

She has cited family lore about Native-American ancestors. But the chair of the committee that recommended her for Harvard Law School, Charles Fried, solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan, repeatedly has said that there was no mention of her ethnic identity in that process.

"She remains a legendary teacher, mentor and model of scholar-law-reformer," said Martha Minow, former dean of the Harvard Law School, where Warren taught before joining the Senate. She wins similar praise at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was a faculty member from 1987-1995.

If she does seek the presidency, she'll need to show that her political appeal extends beyond her committed liberal base and demonstrate that she can assemble a campaign team as impressive as her policy advisers.

To contact the author of this story: Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net.

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