WASHINGTON, Iowa—Democratic presidential candidate
is trying to get back to talking about increasing economic opportunities and programs for the middle class, after scrutiny over Medicare for All blunted her momentum in the 2020 race.
Ms. Warren is embarking Monday on the final stretch of her “Fair Share Road Show” across southeast Iowa. After months of questions surrounding her single-payer health plan, from how she would pay for it to how it would be implemented, she is trying to return to the theme that shot her to the top of the polls here earlier this fall: taxing the wealthy, corporations and Wall Street to finance an array of programs and initiatives that would benefit middle-class Americans.
Ms. Warren is arguing ahead of the Feb. 3 caucuses, which kick off the Democratic nominating contest, that a populist economic vision and robust anticorruption platform is the best Democratic message to beat President
At a town hall here, she touted her proposal to boost Social Security benefits by $200 a month in response to a question from Jacqui Williams, 74, who said her family was struggling with medical costs.
Another attendee interrupted: “How’s $200 a month going to help her?”
“Ask her,” Ms. Warren responded.
Ms. Williams turned to the person who interrupted, tossed both hands in the air and said that with the additional cash, she could both fill her prescriptions and buy toilet paper instead of picking one purchase.
“The reminder: It’s about hard economic choices,” Ms. Warren said, summing up that exchange afterward in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
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The Massachusetts senator hopes such moments, framed around household economics, will boost her standing in Iowa, where she has suffered a dip in public polling. In late September, Ms. Warren was at the top of the pack in the Real Clear Politics average of Iowa surveys. On Sunday, she was fourth in that polling average, though only a few percentage points separated the top candidates, who also include South Bend, Ind., Mayor
of Vermont and former Vice President
“It’s just back to basics and driving the message that put her on the map in the first place,” said Adam Jentleson, a Democratic strategist with ties to the Warren campaign.
As much as Ms. Warren is trying to move past the months of criticism of her Medicare for All plans, she got several questions on the topic at town halls in Iowa this weekend, including how a dramatic expansion of government-run health insurance might be perceived by the broader electorate if she is the Democratic nominee. Ms. Warren has also begun in recent days talking up the choice Americans would have under her plan, unveiled last month, to transition to single-payer over three years.
“Her biography and critique of the system as rigged against middle class was spot on,” said
the former Chicago mayor and adviser to President Obama. He said Ms. Warren got off track with Medicare for All because she was trying to align herself with Mr. Sanders “and is now paying the price for that decision.”
Asked in the interview how she would move past that scrutiny, Ms. Warren said she would remind voters that health care is an economic issue. She also said she needed to frame her agenda around eliminating corruption and “this ultimate value choice between leaving great wealth with the top one-tenth of 1% or making an investment in an entire generation.”
To pay for her economic plans, Ms. Warren has proposed new taxes that would push federal tax rates on some billionaires and multimillionaires above 100%. She wants to return the top income-tax rate to 39.6% from 37%, impose a new 14.8% tax for Social Security, add an annual tax of up to 6% on accumulated wealth and require rich investors to pay capital-gains taxes at the same rates as other income even if they don’t sell their assets. Economists generally think taxes on profits, capital gains and dividends discourage investment and hurt economic growth.
Medicare for All hasn’t been the only headwind for Ms. Warren in Iowa. Even though she has a considerable campaign war chest, Ms. Warren has a much smaller presence on Iowa airwaves than her closest rivals do. Mr. Buttigieg’s $6 million TV investment in the state is three times what she is spending, according to data from political ad tracker Kantar/CMAG. Mr. Sanders has aired more than 8,100 spots there, compared with the 2,500 times Ms. Warren’s ads have aired, the data show.
Mr. Biden has had ads running since August, while Ms. Warren only started spending money on ads here in late October.
Multiple Iowa Democratic Party county chairs also said they believed other candidates had caught up to Ms. Warren’s early advantage in organizing here.
Mary Jo Reisberg, the Democratic Party co-chair in Lee County, where Ms. Warren is set to visit Monday, said Ms. Warren’s aides were the first from a major campaign to reach out to her earlier this year. “But I don’t know that it’ll pay off in the end,” Ms. Reisberg said, adding that Mr. Buttigieg hired a strong organizer in her county. “I think that makes a huge difference.”
Some Iowa Democrats, from party chairs to Ms. Warren’s supporters, are wondering whether Ms. Warren has enough time to regain footing, with about 50 days until the caucuses. “I think a lot depends on this tour she’s on now and if she can stir people up,” said Tom Courtney, the party co-chair in Des Moines County, where Ms. Warren will also stop Monday.
Ms. Williams, the Warren supporter who attended the Washington town hall, said she thinks Ms. Warren would have to balance a focus on a strong economic platform in a general election with hunger from progressives to expand access to health care.
“Maybe pushing higher income would be better,” the retired library associate said. “But we can’t deny we need health care for all.”
—Chad Day and Richard Rubin contributed to this article.
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