A weekly window on the American political scene hosted by Liz Marlantes.

Did Warren win the first debate – or get herself in trouble? Maybe both.

Why We Wrote This

Saying she would eliminate private health insurance may win progressive votes for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren – but could alienate moderates.

Wilfredo Lee/AP
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., gestures during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, June 26, in Miami, as Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., listens.

Dear reader:

By most accounts, Round One of the two-part Democratic primary debates was The Elizabeth Warren Show. 

True, there were fireworks between the two Texans over immigration. Some lower-tier candidates managed to pull off brief attention-getting moments. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker may have done himself some good with an impassioned response on the issue of guns.

But the senator from Massachusetts, who has been climbing in the polls in recent months, came in as the frontrunner among the first night’s contenders – and appeared to leave with her position more or less intact. She impressed members of the progressive advocacy group Indivisible, a majority of whom picked her as their favorite in a flash poll conducted right after Wednesday night’s debate. Political observers noted that she set the tone from the start, crisply articulating her ideas about corporate greed and corruption, and demonstrating that she was, as Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias put it, “ready for primetime.” 

On the other hand, many say she also took a big risk when, in what could prove to be the night’s most pivotal moment, she said she would eliminate private health insurance in favor of a government-run system. “I’m with Bernie [Sanders] on Medicare for All,” Senator Warren said. 

Overhauling the U.S. healthcare system is popular among liberals, but doesn’t sell well with the general public. Ending private health insurance is a particular sticking point, as 70% of the roughly 181 million Americans who get coverage through their employers say they’re satisfied with their plans. Most Democrats – including eight of the 10 onstage Wednesday night – prefer a public option, or other incremental ways to expand single-payer health care that wouldn’t blow up the current system. 

Senator Warren’s position, which represents a shift from her take back in March, could leave her vulnerable in the general election – which could also turn off Democratic voters, most of whom want to choose a nominee with the best chance of beating President Donald Trump. 

“Warren ventured boldly, perhaps foolishly, onto a shaky limb,” left-leaning political commentator Jonathan Chait writes for New York Magazine. “She may have just filmed the most effective attack ad against herself."

We’ll see tonight whether former Vice President Joe Biden – or any of the other candidates debating in Round Two – take it upon themselves to draw that distinction more clearly.

Let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.

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