Opinion writer

Two more Democrats, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), formally entered the 2020 presidential race this weekend. In their announcement speeches, they laid out their respective cases for what needs to change in America and how they’d bring that change about, offering the outline of the campaigns they’ll run.

While we often say that the policy differences between the Democratic candidates are relatively small, Klobuchar and Warren presented profoundly different visions for their candidacies. The differences lie not so much in the policy details (though there are some distinctions) but in their basic analysis of the challenge we confront.

Every presidential candidate has, or should have, a three-part case to make the public. Part 1 describes the problem: It says, this is what's wrong with things as they are right now, in the government or the economy or the country (or all of the above). Part 2 describes the solution: It says, this is what we need to do in order to fix the problem. And Part 3 explains why the candidate is the one who can get us from the problem to the solution.

When he said he'd "Make America Great Again," Donald Trump presented all three parts as succinctly as anyone ever had: America was once great but now was a failure in every way, a new agenda of white nationalism would turn back the clock and restore our prior greatness, and only Trump had the guts to do it.

So what do Warren and Klobuchar see as the problem, the solution and their own part in getting from the former to the latter? Let’s start with Warren’s speech which she gave in Lawrence, Mass.

She began by telling the story of a strike a century ago at the textile mills in Lawrence, how exploited female workers got together and, despite their differences (many were immigrants from a long list of countries), managed to achieve higher wages and better working conditions, gains that spread around the state and then the region, helping lead to minimum-wage laws, worker-safety laws and the end of child labor. Warren then linked that story to the present:

The story of Lawrence is a story about how real change happens in America. It’s a story about power — our power — when we fight together. Today, millions and millions and millions of American families are also struggling to survive in a system that has been rigged by the wealthy and the well-connected. Hard-working people are up against a small group that holds far too much power, not just in our economy, but also in our democracy.

This is Warren’s articulation of the problem: Not just that the system is rigged — something Trump said in 2016 — but that it’s rigged by and for a specific group of wealthy individuals who shape it for their own benefit. This willingness to name the villains of the story she tells distinguishes Warren from many of the other candidates.

She also said, “We can’t afford to just tinker around the edges—a tax credit here, a regulation there. Our fight is for big, structural change.” She then outlined an agenda for economic and political reform to change how the system operates. So to summarize, Warren says the problem is a system rigged by the wealthy; the solution is a series of broad and fundamental policy changes that take away their power to continue rigging the system. She’s the one to implement them, because though she came from a poor family, she had the opportunities she says are lacking in the United States today, and she has spent a career understanding and attempting to confront the forces that limit those opportunities for ordinary people.

One of the most important questions Democrats confront right now is this: How ambitious should they be? Can we fix things by getting President Trump out of office and making serious policy changes but ones that leave most of the American system as it exists now in place, or do we need sweeping change? Warren’s answer is that they have to go big. Klobuchar has a somewhat different answer.

In her announcement speech, Klobuchar started by talking about the past too, but in a different way. After some poetic musings on the path of the Mississippi River, she talked about the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, not far from where she was making the speech. She described the bravery of those who saved lives, but what’s interesting about this story is that, although it brings up issues around infrastructure, in Klobuchar’s telling it’s absolutely nonpolitical. Unlike Warren’s story of the women fighting for more rights on the job, it has heroes but no villains, at least not specific ones. Here’s how she brought it around:

Later, we worked across the aisle to get the federal funding and we rebuilt that I-35W bridge — in just over a year. That’s community. That’s a shared story. That’s ordinary people doing extraordinary things. But that sense of community is fracturing across our nation right now, worn down by the petty and vicious nature of our politics. We are all tired of the shutdowns and the showdowns, the gridlock and the grandstanding. Today we say enough is enough.

Klobuchar detailed some of the same policy proposals as Warren, such as reforms to reduce political corruption and guarantee voting rights. She did name some particular individuals — a reference to “dark forces” attacking voting rights, another to “tax loopholes designed by and for the wealthy,” and criticisms of pharmaceutical companies and the gun lobby — but she didn’t tie them together in a single us-vs.-them critique. For Klobuchar, the real problem is “our politics,” a system in which everyone is implicated and everyone can have a part in improving.

It would be a mistake to think of the differences between Warren and Klobuchar as solely a matter of center vs. left (or maybe center-left vs. left). It isn’t that their ideological differences are imaginary; it’s that the Democratic primary campaign isn’t just about a checklist of issue positions. It’s also about personalities, and records, and the ability to inspire.

And so, when they run for president, candidates can’t just pick a message off the shelf; it has to come from who they are and what they believe in. Klobuchar’s message is true to her, just as Warren’s is. In her time in Washington, Klobuchar has been a pragmatic legislator who has worked with Republicans (and earned their praise), reasonably liberal but not an ideological crusader. So it seems proper for her to say that the problem is a broken, gridlocked system and she’s the one who can bring people together to solve problems, just as it’s proper for Warren to offer a more sweeping and fundamental critique.