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Commentary: Elizabeth Warren just told progressives what they need to hear about Joe Biden
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Commentary: Elizabeth Warren just told progressives what they need to hear about Joe Biden

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Former Vice President Joe Biden, right, applauds as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. Warren tweeted her endorsement of former vice president Joe Biden for president on Wednesday morning.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, right, applauds as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. Warren tweeted her endorsement of former vice president Joe Biden for president on Wednesday morning. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren's endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden came with none of the fanfare that accompanied Sen. Bernie Sanders' move Monday to do the same. Nor were there any pledges by the two candidates to craft policy together, as Biden will do with Sanders.

When your campaign stumbles as badly as Warren's did - she even finished third in her home state primary behind Biden and Sanders - you don't have much negotiating leverage.

Yet the video Warren tweeted on Wednesday may prove more helpful to Biden than the 12-minute endorsement video that former President Barack Obama delivered Tuesday. Not just because it's shorter, but because it's emotional and affecting, and it puts the focus where it needs to be.

Sanders and Warren attracted the support of progressives in part because they advocated dramatic change in the country's policies, priorities and direction. But Warren's campaign, much more than Sanders', was also about governing. She had detailed plans for everything she proposed because she was just as concerned about the implementation as about the ideas.

One of the central messages of her Biden endorsement is that this election is about governing. Unlike President Donald Trump, who was uniquely unprepared among American presidents for the crisis he now confronts, Biden has a lifetime of experience in public service and specific experience helping to steer the United States out of a deep recession: the 2008-09 meltdown triggered by the subprime mortgage collapse.

"I saw him up close, doing the work, getting in the weeds," says Warren, who helped the Obama administration design and set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau during that period, and can you imagine anyone describing the current, white-paper-averse occupant of the White House as "getting in the weeds"? Or depicting Trump, as Warren said of Biden, as someone "never forgetting who we were all there to serve"?

The other central message, conveyed more subtly, is that the specifics of policy - the details that animate Warren - don't matter in the general election.

She offered some assurance to her supporters that Biden, who's considerably more moderate in his politics than Warren, isn't rigid or ideological, saying, "he's shown throughout this campaign that when you come up with new facts or a good argument, he's not too afraid or too proud to be persuaded." She didn't mention it, but a case in point is how he has come around to Warren's view that federal bankruptcy law is too hostile to ordinary debtors and needs to be changed.

But really, the election in November won't be a referendum on Trumpism vs. whatever platform Biden puts forward, despite the manifest and crucial policy differences between the two. It will be about character. Americans are seeing the president's character on display every day in his coronavirus briefings, and it's not a pretty sight.

That's why Warren emphasized Biden's long track record of service and his old-school ability to relate to people in hardship, born out of the tragedies in Biden's own family. This is the point that needs to be heard by the #BernieOrBust crowd and the progressives who claim to see no difference between Trump and Biden. The former vice president has his flaws, as my friend Melissa Batchelor Warnke catalogued despairingly recently. But they pale in comparison to those of our current chief executive, who asserts "total authority" over monumental decisions while denying any responsibility.

The president crystallized the character gap on Tuesday with one unprecedented and breathtakingly self-serving act. No one can argue that there's no difference between a politician famous for his empathy and one who holds up relief checks the Treasury is sending to struggling Americans so his name can be printed on them.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Jon Healey is the Los Angeles Times' deputy editorial page editor.

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