2020 Vision: Why Warren's honeymoon may be coming to an end

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks to delegates during the Massachusetts Democratic Party convention in Springfield on Saturday. (Photo: Jessica Hill/AP)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Massachusetts Democratic Party convention in Springfield on Saturday. (Photo: Jessica Hill/AP)

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race. Reminder: There are 136 days until the Iowa caucuses and 410 days until the 2020 presidential election.

[Who’s running for president? Click here for Yahoo News’ 2020 tracker]

It’s an ironclad law of presidential primary politics: With increased success comes increased scrutiny. And it looks like Elizabeth Warren is about to get her turn in the hot seat.

After fumbling a Native American DNA test — a misstep that threatened to overshadow her nascent campaign — the Massachusetts senator went on to enjoy a months-long streak of positive press coverage. Her debate opponents mostly declined to attack her, choosing to target frontrunner former Vice President Joe Biden instead. As a result, Warren ticked up steadily in the polls, week after week; now she ranks second nationally in an average of recent polls, a bit ahead of fellow progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Yet there are signs the honeymoon may be ending. The first clue came during last week’s ABC News debate, during which Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg all explicitly criticized Warren’s support for Medicare for All, claiming that it would cost too much, that it would raise taxes on the middle class, and that it would force people off their private insurance.

The more ominous development, however, is how Buttigieg in particular has decided to spend the week following the debate. Introducing his own health care proposal in a Thursday op-ed, Buttigieg took Warren and Sanders to task, by name, for wanting to “fli[p] a switch and kic[k] almost 160 million Americans off their private insurance, including 20 million seniors already choosing private plans within Medicare.”

Then he implied that Warren in particular was not being “honest and straightforward about the details” of how she would pay for her plan.

“Senator Warren is known for being straightforward and was extremely evasive when asked that question — and we have seen that repeatedly,” Buttigieg added Thursday in an interview with Jake Tapper. “People are used to Washington politicians not giving straight answers to simple questions. But at a time like this, on an issue this important, that’s exactly what we need.”

The “kicking people off private insurance” argument certainly has some purchase among Democratic primary voters, which is why Democrats running to Warren’s right keep pushing it. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, for instance, found that 55 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents prefer to vote for a candidate who intends to build on the Affordable Care Act, while only 40 percent prefer to vote for a candidate who wants to replace the ACA with Medicare for All.

But the most interesting part of Buttigieg’s critique is the part about Warren’s character. On several occasions, Warren has refused, unlike Sanders, to say that she would raise taxes on middle-class Americans to pay for Medicare for All, insisting only that overall health care costs would go down with the elimination of premiums, copayments and deductibles.

At this point, it’s clear that Warren is trying to avoid handing Republicans a general-election sound bite on tax increases. In other words, she’s acting like a politician. But that’s the thing: Warren has built her brand on being a nonpolitician — a middle-class fighter who came to Washington to make “big, structural change.”

Buttigieg’s strategy here is simple. To have any chance of winning the nomination, he needs to overperform in Iowa, the first caucus state. Warren is leading or tied with Biden in the most recent polls; Buttigieg is hovering around third place. Warren voters and Buttigieg voters tend to overlap; they’re mostly college-educated and white. If he can “attack her strength” — in this case, her reputation as a no-holds-barred truth teller — perhaps he can sow some doubts, surprise people on caucus day and propel his campaign forward.

“I think it’s puzzling that, when everybody knows the answer to that question of whether her plan and Senator Sanders’ plan will raise middle-class taxes is yes, why you wouldn’t just say so, and then explain why you think that’s the better way forward,” Buttigieg told Tapper.

The big question now is twofold: Will other candidates follow Buttigieg’s lead and start to scrutinize not just Warren’s plans but also her character? And if so, how will Warren handle the new pressure?

President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. (Photos: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters, Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
President Trump; former Vice President Joe Biden. (Photos: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters; Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Will the whistleblower saga blow up the race?

It’s a story that would seemingly upend a normal presidential campaign.

On a phone call with a foreign leader, the incumbent president reportedly makes a “promise” so alarming that, along with other, related actions, a U.S. intelligence officer lodges a whistleblower complaint.

The complaint, in turn, concerns a foreign government (in this case, reportedly, Ukraine) from whom the president had been withholding military aid in a possible effort, according to reports, to extort officials there into investigating the rival party’s presidential frontrunner (in this case, Joe Biden).

But 2020 isn’t going to be a normal presidential campaign. And for that we have President Trump to thank.

The potentially explosive saga now gripping Washington is still in its earliest stages. Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is refusing to comply with the law that usually requires officials in his position to turn over whistleblower complaints to the relevant committees in Congress. As a result, lawmakers know little about its actual contents. The American people know less.

Yet the electoral politics of the situation are already taking shape.

The president and his allies are on one side, dismissing the whistleblower as a “partisan” and characterizing coverage of the complaint as “fake news” while also claiming that even if Trump did try to pressure a foreign power into investigating his chief political rival by threatening its security, he would be well within his rights.

“A President telling a Pres-elect of a well known corrupt country he better investigate corruption that affects US is doing his job,” tweeted Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer. (For much of 2019, Giuliani has been openly pushing the new government of Ukraine, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate an evidenceless allegation that Biden improperly pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who was looking into a company on whose board Biden’s son sat. Earlier this year, a Ukrainian official said he had no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son.)

“It doesn’t matter what I discussed,” Trump added Friday. “But I will say this: Somebody ought to look into Joe Biden.” (On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that during their July phone call, Trump urged Zelensky “about eight times” to work with Giuliani on a Biden probe.)

“Not one single credible outlet has given ... any credibility to [Trump’s] assertion — not one single one,” Biden told reporters Friday after an event in Iowa. “And so I have no comment except the president should start to be president.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders waves to attendees at the New Hampshire Democratic Party state convention in Manchester earlier this month. (Photo: Gretchen Ertl/Reuters)
Sen. Bernie Sanders waves at the New Hampshire Democratic Party convention in Manchester earlier this month. (Photo: Gretchen Ertl/Reuters)

Bernie breaks a million

The Sanders campaign achieved a fundraising milestone this week, announcing it has received contributions from more than 1 million individual donors — “making Sanders the fastest candidate in history to reach the milestone.”

According to campaign officials, virtually all of those donors are able to donate again under Federal Election Commission rules.

And, in a dig at the big corporations that Sanders believes despise him, the campaign noted that Starbucks, Walmart and Amazon are the most common employers of his 1 million donors.

Through June 30, the Sanders campaign raised more than $46 million, tops among Democrats and second only to President Trump, whose reelection effort has raised more than $124 million.

Andrew Yang takes the stage for the start of the Democratic presidential debate in Houston last Thursday. (Photo: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)
Andrew Yang takes the stage for the Democratic presidential debate in Houston last Thursday. (Photo: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

Yang gets a post-debate bump

The campaign and supporters of entrepreneur Andrew Yang spent the late part of summer insisting that the media was ignoring him. Yang, a 44-year-old Asian-American running on a platform of universal basic income (UBI) for all Americans over the age of 18, easily qualified for the third Democratic debate, something that a number of sitting senators and governors failed to do. While he’s still a long way back of the top polling trio of Biden, Sanders and Warren, he is edging out some more high-profile opponents in a pair of recent polls.

Yang came in third in the latest straw poll from Daily Kos, the liberal news site and forum. Warren dominated with 43 percent and Sanders was second with 15, but Yang’s 11 percent put him ahead of Biden, Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris. The 11 percent was a high for him in the survey, up from 2 percent in May. In an Emerson College poll of California, Yang finished fourth with 7 percent, trailing the frontrunners (Biden and Sanders tied for the lead with 26 percent, Warren had 20) but 1 point ahead of Harris, who represents the Golden State in the Senate. Yang is polling at just 3 percent nationally per the RealClearPolitics average, but that does put him ahead of Beto O’Rourke and Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar.

What’s next for Yang? His campaign has expanded its mailing list, announcing that it has received over 450,000 entries for a contest to win $1,000 a month for 12 months, a pilot program for Yang’s “Freedom Dividend” UBI plan. He’s also already qualified for next month’s primary debate, set to be held just outside Columbus, Ohio, at Otterbein University. His campaign also said it raised $1 million in the 72 hours following last week’s primetime debate in Houston.

“We’ve got a 21st century candidate and we’re running a 21st century campaign,” Zach Graumann, Yang’s campaign manager, told Politico. “That’s something not many of our competitors can say.”

Weekend planner

Friday, Sept. 20: Ten Democratic hopefuls — Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Sestak, Elizabeth Warren and Marianne Williamson — are expected to attend an LGBTQ forum at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Saturday, Sept. 21: Some 18 Democratic candidates will be in Des Moines, Iowa, for the Polk County Steak Fry, an all-day event hosted by the Polk County Democrats.

Sunday, Sept. 22: President Trump is expected to appear at a rally at the NRG Stadium in Houston for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at 10 a.m. local time. More than 50,000 are expected to attend the “Howdy Modi” summit, according to the event’s website.

President Trump talks with reporters in Otay Mesa, Calif., on Wednesday. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)
President Trump talks with reporters in Otay Mesa, Calif., on Wednesday. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)


“[We] are locked and loaded.”

— President Trump in a Sunday tweet offering Saudi Arabia support from the U.S. military after an attack on the kingdom’s oil supply that the United States says Iran was behind

“We are not your prostitutes. You are not our pimp.”

— Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a U.S. combat veteran, to President Trump in a video message criticizing his offer

“Who do you like more, the country or the Hispanics?”

— Trump to a longtime Hispanic supporter at a rally in Rio Rancho, N.M., on Monday night

“It’s extremely hot. The wall, you won’t be able to touch it. You can fry an egg on that wall.”

— Trump to reporters after visiting the southern border in Otay Mesa, Calif., on Wednesday; he subsequently signed the structure with a Sharpie

“I’m proposing Medicare for all who want it. It’s just a little bit different from the idea of Medicare for all whether you want it or not.”

— South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaking on the campaign trail Wednesday

“It’s clearly not my time.”

— New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” announcing the end of his presidential bid

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