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Opinion What Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have in common

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) after a debate in Detroit on July 30. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
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In the Democratic primary, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) continue to avoid direct attacks on one another. Supporters of the two candidates are not so kind. On Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune’s John Kass called for Warren to drop out, convinced Sanders has a better chance to stop former vice president Joe Biden. “Sanders has the necessary authenticity,” he declared. Warren “turns off working-class families.” Before you go all up in arms, or point out that some polls now shows Warren in second place and Sanders in third, let me just say there are many, many people out there — many of whom are broadly sympathetic to Warren — who are equally unkind to Sanders.

Here’s some unsolicited advice for all from someone — that would be me — who likes both Sanders and Warren: Stop this argument, now. This debate serves no one — except, that is, other, less progressive contenders.

It’s true that Sanders and Warren campaign differently. Sanders calls for a “political revolution,” while Warren refers to herself as a “capitalist.” Sanders possesses a talent for pitching transformative policy in a simple way. Warren offers a sophisticated understanding of how the regulatory process has been manipulated by powerful interests, and she has an ability to explain that fact compellingly to a degree almost unheard of in a major national candidate.

But Sanders and Warren share similar progressive politics. Both offer a strong moral voice that gets results — just watch her take apart now-former Wells Fargo chief executive John Stumpf. “You should resign,” she told him. Less than a month later, he was out of a job. As for Sanders, it’s easy to take swings at Medicare-for-all but it’s impossible to deny the phrase has entered the vernacular and shifted the health-care debate, much the way the issue of income and wealth inequality achieved new visibility with Occupy Wall Street’s division of the population into the 99 percent and 1 percent.

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So why aren’t the pair’s assets widely acknowledged by those who should know better? Well, on one hand, no small number of people in the Democratic Party sphere do not want to concede Sanders’s political talent. Yes, it can sound to cynical progressives and moderates as though he’s promising ponies — to borrow Hillary Clinton’s somewhat bitter after-the-fact assessment — but technocratic and moderate Democrats could stand to remember nudges don’t get people excited and committed.

But when it comes to Warren, there is something else at work. It’s hard not to suspect a number of committed lefty partisans lack patience with her style of leadership. Warren got her start as a teacher, and that influences how she convinces others to this day. As Warren told New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister, teaching is “fundamentally about figuring out where the student is and how far I can bring them from where they are.” In other words, she reels people in slowly, step by persuasive step. In a nation where a plurality of people claim they are moderate, even as large numbers say they say they want to see action on climate change and a Medicare expansion, this is no small skill and it shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Given that Sanders and Warren’s combined support in most polls either approaches or slightly exceeds Biden’s. It’s not unexpected that many would begin to ask them to consolidate their support. But it’s jumping the gun. While many appear to lazily assume the current Warren and Sanders supporters are interchangeable, that’s just not so. Polls show Warren’s support skews older, whiter, female and more highly educated. Sanders’s base is younger, less educated and earns less money. Surveys show a not insignificant number of his supporters would turn to Biden — hardly a proponent of revolutionary change — if he pulled out. As for Warren partisans, more would go to Sanders if she exited than anyone else, but Biden and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) combined get significantly more of them than the senator from Vermont — again, not exactly progressive champions. In other words, is not a given that Sanders and Warren voters will magically accrue to the other if one or the other drops out now. That likely goes double if voters begin to think their own candidate was dissed or insulted in the process. Voters, alas, are not always logical.

To debate the merits of Sanders vs. Warren while Biden maintains a commanding lead is a fight made for social media, where opinion is routinely passed off as fact and minor differences of opinion have a way of turning into major fights. But it’s the opposite of good strategy. It’s harmful to the greater progressive cause. Both Warren and Sanders appear capable of leading a movement for change. Show patience. There’s time to let voters work it out.

Read more:

Rob Stutzman: Why Elizabeth Warren is the one to watch

Henry Olsen: Elizabeth Warren is gaining ground. But her path to the nomination is harder than you think.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Bernie Sanders has a smart critique of corporate media bias

James Downie: Sanders’s climate proposal is the best way forward

The Ranking Committee: Here’s how we get a brokered convention