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Sen. Warren's Timing Was Brilliant, Former Obama Adviser Says

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Well, as we mark this new year, take note. We are now just 672 days away from the 2020 presidential election. Sorry about that. And already four Democratic contenders have announced they're either running or are considering running.

Senator Elizabeth Warren is the most high-profile of those. She announced yesterday in a video message to supporters that she is forming an exploratory committee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH WARREN: I'm in this fight all the way. Right now, Washington works great for the wealthy and the well-connected. It's just not working for anyone else.

MARTIN: The field of Democrats is likely to open up to two dozen names all told. So how can Democrats distinguish themselves from one another? We're going to ask Anita Dunn that question. Back in 2008, Dunn helped to distinguish Senator Barack Obama from the others running for the Democratic nomination. She served as the communications director for the presidential campaign, and she joins us now. Anita, Happy New Year.

ANITA DUNN: And a Happy New Year to you and to your listeners.

MARTIN: Thanks for being here. So what do you make of Senator Warren's timing? What are the benefits and the risks of getting out so early ahead of the rest of the crowd?

DUNN: I thought her timing was brilliant. Anytime you make news between Christmas and New Years, you basically have a clear field. Even with the government shutdown, it was still, I thought, a very strong way to end the year and begin the year for her.

I also thought that the way she did it is symbolic of the way people are going to do these announcements now, which is direct communication to their supporters. She also had a very clear message, which is going to be the chief differentiator for all these candidates in 2020.

MARTIN: I mean, you talk about what is differentiating her. In her message, she focused on economic inequality and really seemed to be tacking even more left. Is that how you think of her? Is that how she is positioning herself in this race?

DUNN: You know, I don't think - I don't think of it as left or right when it comes to Elizabeth Warren. She has a consistent record over the years of fighting the economic issues for the middle class. It is what propelled her into the administration - into the Obama administration. It is what propelled her into the United States Senate. And it is what has made her an effective United States senator.

How that translates to the presidential campaign level will be interesting to see for all of these candidates who are thinking about running. But for Elizabeth Warren, economic inequality and economic issues around the middle class and the lower-middle class, how people get taken advantage of, have been the propelling value of her political life.

MARTIN: Although, she's had - she's had a lot of publicity as of late for really getting into it with President Trump, so much so that some Democrats have warned that she has too much political baggage. And this is the challenge for Democrats - right? - how much to engage Trump in a back-and-forth about things that aren't related to policy. What are the pitfalls as you see them?

DUNN: The winner of the Democratic nomination will be the candidate who successfully figures out how to engage Trump, how to challenge Trump, how to take him on on issues and how to communicate with the voters who voted for him in 2016. And that's why this is going to be a primary process we need to have as Democrats because it's not clear the most effective way to do this.

In 2016, we saw an entire field of Republican candidates not do it effectively. Each Democrat is going to figure out their way, but the person who wins the nomination will be the person who figures this out.

MARTIN: Do you think Elizabeth Warren handled it right?

DUNN: I think everybody will have their fits and starts along the way. Everybody will kind of feel out what their style will be.

MARTIN: That sounds like a no.

DUNN: It's not a no. It's not a yes because I don't tend to think that things that happened in 2016 - 2018 are going to be determinative of who wins the nomination in 2020.

MARTIN: All right. It's a couple years away.

DUNN: It's a couple of years away. And every candidate is going to make their mistakes in this, Rachel.

MARTIN: I mean, it sounds like you like her though. I mean, there's a long list of people who are thinking about throwing their hat in the ring - Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, faces we know - Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders. Does she stand out in that crowd, or do you like someone else?

DUNN: I'm like a lot of Democrats. I like whoever can beat Donald Trump, and I - and I like almost - I like all the candidates who are running. I know many of them. I've worked with some of them. They're all very, in their own ways, effective, great public servants. And that's why this is going to be a very valuable primary process for the Democratic Party. We as a party have issues to sort out, and this primary process will allow us to do it.

MARTIN: Is it going to be dangerous to have so many in the field, though, to get these candidates all battered up before the general?

DUNN: No, I think the larger field means that it's harder for one candidate to become a lightning rod, at least at the beginning. And it gives some of the lesser-known candidates time to develop their messages. Having an open primary process is better for this party than a small group of people who ran. I didn't think 2016 was healthy for the party. I think this is healthier.

MARTIN: Anita Dunn, former communications director for Barack Obama. We appreciate your time this morning.

DUNN: Well, thank you for having me, and Happy New Year.

MARTIN: Happy New Year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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