In back-to-back appearances at CNN town halls Thursday night in Nevada, former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren rooted themselves in bread-and-butter Democratic issues. They spoke to the economic challenges of the middle class and working families, who in Biden's words 'are getting battered across the board,' and need relief from high health care costs and the rising cost of living.
And while normally this approach would be smart political strategy, it's unclear if it's going to draw Nevada's Democratic voters to either of them in the caucuses Saturday. Biden and Warren have both lost the strong polling leads they had last fall, and are confronted by the ascendance of two more extreme economic views -- those of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sander's, in which capitalism has failed and must be curbed, and former Mayor Mike Bloomberg's, in which capitalism is critical to success.
Biden and Warren did not just linger on the economic fight Thursday night -- they took the fight to Trump, speaking to the corruption of the current administration and reports of continued Russian election interference, which in Warren's words demonstrate 'lawlessness that we have never seen in this country before.'
However, these candidates' world views are decidedly not the same: Biden spoke to a world people wished they lived in, a bygone era where camaraderie and bonhomie were all that was needed to make political progress. Warren spoke to the world we live in now, a more complex society where race, gender and economics too often intersect to create barriers to equal opportunity.
Biden bemoaned the state of politics today for being 'so mean and ugly and dirty.' While he blamed President Donald Trump for the decay of political discourse, Biden suggested that Trump is an aberration, that the system can be reset: 'I honest to God believe, with Trump out of the way, you're going to find people screwing up a lot more courage than they had before to say, 'OK, OK, I can move now, I have more leeway.''
This worldview can be soothing and compelling because it doesn't involve change; it simply means turning back the clock. It's also involves magical thinking mixed with revisionist history. For example, Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is no more likely to work with Biden as a President than he was Biden as Vice President, when McConnell denied a hearing or a vote on Merrick Garland, Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, vowed to make Obama a one-term President and worked to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Biden himself mentioned this challenge in the course of the town hall -- but failed to explain why things would be different in a Biden administration.
By contrast, Warren spoke bluntly of race, gender, and income inequality embedded in institutional structures. She labeled white supremacy as a form of domestic terrorism, calling on the Attorney General to enforce 'efforts to shut down white supremacy' and enforce civil rights without interference from the White House.
She spoke to the complexity of gendered expectations around women in leadership positions, something, she said, 'we all struggle with every day,' and offered a path forward: 'We have to recognize that the world has changed since 2016. And how do I know that? I'm here in Nevada with a woman majority state legislature, hello!'
She also addressed the issue of women in the workplace, taking direct aim at the former New York City mayor. Ironically drawing upon her own experience as a contract law professor, Warren offered Bloomberg a release form, so that all the people with whom he has non-disclosure agreements -- many of whom Warren believes to be women -- could share their stories about workplace discrimination or sexual harassment. (Bloomberg maintains he made nothing more than a few off-colored jokes, a response many women hear when pointing out sexism.)
And she spoke of her early warnings about the 2008 mortgage crisis and how 'mortgage companies figured out that they could target communities of color ... and sell them the worst of the worst mortgages.' Like Biden, Warren remains hopeful: 'There is so much we need to do.'
Biden and Warren, two Democratic stalwarts, must now overcome two outsiders -- Sanders, who has spent most of his political career as an Independent, and Bloomberg, who has funded, among other candidates, Republican Senate candidates that have helped McConnell maintain the Senate majority. Sanders offers revolution, while Bloomberg offers a cynical realism -- both appealing to voters who think the system we've been raised to believe in is fundamentally broken.
This is the reality facing not just Biden and Warren, but the Democratic Party writ large -- how to build unity within a structure that many voters are signaling they don't believe in anymore.