Can Don Berwick Capture the Warren Wing?

The Atlantic’s Molly Ball wrote an interesting piece last week titled The Left’s Quiet Advance in Democratic Primaries. She was careful not to claim too much for the evidence she collected but still, progressives are cheering in several congressional districts across the country. The Warren Wave began right here in Massachusetts. Will Don Berwick seize the mantle?

Ms. Ball notes that progressives are cheering primary wins by candidates from “Elizabeth Warren’s Wing” over more moderate “corporate Democrats.” In New Jersey Warren Winger Bonnie Watson Coleman easily defeated her moderate opponent, campaigning on familiar Warren economic themes. In Iowa Pat Murphy dubbed himself the “bold progressive” in the race and defeated four opponents handily. The head of the Progressive Change Committee declared that “A message of economic populism is what actually excites voters and drives them to the polls.”

So far though Berwick presents as more of a social justice progressive than an economic progressive like Warren. The two issues on which he has distinguished himself from Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman are single-payer health care and on repeal of the casinos legislation, where both of his opponents are happy to do a Cold War style duck and cover and let the Supreme Judicial Court decide; though Coakley had ruled in favor of the casinos as Attorney General.  Berwick’s convention speech stressed social justice issues, using words derived from “just” on eight occasions, the word “jobs” once almost in passing, and never uttered the word economy. He talked poverty but not economic populism.

Where do Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman stand? Grossman has stressed economic themes some, declaring in his convention speech the intent to be a “progressive job creator.” Since job creator is Republican code for protect the rich you have to wonder about the signal. I was unable to listen in to last week’s WGBH candidate debate but from what I understand Grossman was touting business themes like “closing the skills gap” and “innovation economy.” He has been a successful businessman so he has the credibility on such topics. Maybe that is what a “progressive job creator” is but it isn’t economic populism. On casinos he faces the same problem that Coakley has: core Democratic supporters in labor see casinos as a jobs creator (“progressive jobs creator”?; I doubt it). He is in no position to exploit any vulnerability Coakley has on casinos.

I recently wrote of Coakley’s casinos dance that “it is a case of siding with moneyed interests over the desire of citizens to take direct action on the question through the referendum process. That makes Coakley, at least on this one important issue, the leader of the state’s progressive conservatives.” A little harsh, maybe? Then try this from a recent Joan Vennochi column in the Boston Globe: “As she campaigns for governor, Attorney General Martha Coakley says she wants to be a voice for the people. But when it comes to the deal she struck with Partners Healthcare, so far the voices she’s most interested in hearing belong to the powerful players behind Partners.”

So will anyone surf the Warren wave? It’s hard for traditional interest group liberals like Coakley and Grossman who have been around awhile and are intertwined with powerful interests. Warren was an outsider and didn’t owe anybody; so is Berwick. But so far he sounds more like Pope Francis than Saint Elizabeth. That leaves the Warren wing up for grabs.






About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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27 Responses to Can Don Berwick Capture the Warren Wing?

  1. Jim Walsh says:

    I wonder if we should make a distinction between legislative and executive candidacies. It is easier for me to be convinced by and support a legislative “populist” than an executive one although I find myself recoiling from that very label. (Was Huey Long “populist?” )

    I am a deep admirer of Senator Warren and supported her candidacy even before she was a candidate. A legislator ultimately sets the policy that the executive must (or should) follow. Her themes of economic and social fairness and equity are wonderful and she wraps them in an appealing personality. But we’re electing an executive this fall and, personally, the last thing I want to hear is left-wing populist rhetoric that promises to change everything. We heard that from a certain executive we elected in 2008 and in many areas his record has been profoundly disappointing. His was also, perhaps most importantly, a symbolic election…which is all well and good, but, partly as a consequence, I am less interested in electing “symbols.”

    Starting with Ms. Coakley then, although she would be the first elected Massachusetts Governor–and thus a symbol–she has been mediocre as both a policy maker and an executive, seemingly more interested in her own advancement than anything else. Dr. Berwick is a fine fellow, probably a good doctor, absolutely correct on the casino issue and also correct on the single-payer issue, but…we are in a situation where the court will make the final decision on the casino ballot question whether we like it or not. Does anyone believe that, absent a vote to repeal, any governor is in a position to get rid of the casinos? I am also a strong supporter of “medicare for all” but I’m wondering how much more turmoil the public will accept in the heath care system. Let’s see how Vermont does with single-payer before we dive into these rapids again.

    Steve Grossman? Why do you recoil from “progressive job creator” as a good description of a candidate for governor? It seems to me that the label expresses clearly, if inelegantly, two bedrock notions of a lefty political philosophy, the importance of meaningful, productive work and the idea that government has a role in creating good and fair economic growth. And if you are competing against a Republican whose main claim is an understanding of business, why would one not want to offset that claim with demonstrated success in a unionized business environment? Unless…your candidate had virtually no experience on Beacon Hill. And this is an important difference between Dr. Berwick and Steve Grossman. Mr. Grossman knows politics and he knows Beacon Hill. My sense is that he has the negotiating skills to work with the House and the Senate to develop and implement…wait for it…progressive and fair job-creating policies and programs for further economic growth.

    So, of the available candidates I obviously support Steve Grossman. As Treasurer, his incredibly astute and seemingly simple policy of bringing money back from overseas and investing it in Massachusetts community banks was a stroke of genius. He has the right values and he has relevant experience. BUT…he is not charismatic. To which I say…

    Competence has its own charisma.

    • Christopher says:

      I assume you intended the first sentence of your third paragraph to say, “Starting with Ms. Coakley then, although she would be the first WOMAN elected Massachusetts Governor…”? Otherwise, I think John Hancock just might have something to say about that:)

  2. Maurice T. Cunningham says:

    Jim, excellent comment. Thanks for it. I do think though that “job creator ” has taken on a sort of political shorthand. Here is the lead from a recent Jared Bernstein piece on who are the real job creators, in Economix blog at NYTimes “If you want to protect someone in Washington, call them a “job creator.” Such wonderful, rare creatures must be insulated from taxes, regulation, and especially unfriendly rhetoric.”

    • Christopher says:

      I think “job creator” with the important “progressive” modifier is deliberate on Grossman’s part. Too often Democrats have conceded battles over vocabulary to the Republicans so it’s nice to see a Democrat try to reclaim the term. It describes what Grossman has been all his life – someone who not only hires people, but treats them right once they are hired.

  3. Maurice T. Cunningham says:


    You’ve hit on the other part of this that fascinates me – does using the modifier “progressive” (currently the magic word for MA Democrats) inoculate the phrase “job creator”? Ah to be a linguist!

    • Christopher says:

      I don’t think it inoculates the term, but I do think it’s Grossman’s way of saying to the GOP, “You keep using that word; I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

  4. Ed Lyons says:

    Professor Cunningham,

    I believe that Dr. Berwick will capture the Warren Wing, and will also be captured by them. I thought Ms. Kayyem would have also achieved the first, without suffering from the second.

    As for government officials calling themselves “job creators,” I find the entire concept silly. “Progressive job creator” seems like a too-clever political slogan to appeal to both the base and normal people, despite the obvious contradictions. It reminds me of President George W. Bush adopting the epithet, “compassionate conservative.”

  5. Jay Gold says:

    The distinction between ‘social justice progressive” and “economic progressive” is too subtle by half. The single payer and anticasino positions both are economically as well as socially progressive. Single payer would in essence abolish the private health insurance industry, and the casinos get most of their income from the less well-off. If Berwick hasn’t emphasized the economic aspects yet, it will be easy enough for him to do so at the right time. His positions that relate directly to jobs and the economy – public investment, progressive taxation, union rights, etc. – are similarly progressive. You can put the Warren wing in his column.

    • Tim says:


      Remember thought that by some estimates over 10,000 people in Massachusetts work for private health insurance companies or companies related to/suppliers of private health insurance companies. Under Berwick’s plan you would essentially be throwing all these people out of work. Now to a tough minded Republican this would probably hardly be a matter of concern but I suspect to many more “establishment” Democrats this might single handedly be a “dealbreaker.”

  6. John Berg says:

    It seems to me that there is another big difference between E. Warren in 2012 and Berwick in 2014. Warren wasn’t challenging the party establishment, she was the answer to their prayers. Party activists had been looking at the candidate pool and seeing what looked very much like a flock of turkeys. There was a very active ‘draft Elizabeth’ movement before she got into the race, and a quick coalescence of support around her once she had.

    In contrast, no one seriously argues that Berwick will have a better chance against Charlie Baker. (Well, no one but the 3 Berwick fans who will immediately jump on this comment.) The argument is that he, too, can win, and that he will be a better governor than Coakley or Grossman when he does.

    As for “job creators,” I liked it better 40 years ago when we called them “exploiters.”

  7. Maurice T. Cunningham says:

    Thanks to Jay and John for the comments. It is a matter of emphasis — Warren often made the case that medical crises drove a huge amount of personal bankruptcies for instance. I just don’t see much economic emphasis from Berwick. John I think Jay may be among the 3 folk who object to your comment. I agree that the Democrats had no one until Warren was driven into their arms — by the Republican senatorial caucus, which refused to allow her confirmation to head Consumer Financial Protection. Scott Brown can thank Mitch McConnell for that one!

    • Christopher says:

      Thus another similarity between Warren and Berwick. Both returned to MA to run for office after Senate Republicans denied them the jobs they were meant to have.

  8. Tim says:

    There was actually a pretty heated thread on Blue Mass Group a few days between Berwick and Grossman supporters. Many Berwick supporters want Berwick to call for the expulsion of Robert DeLeo from the Massachusetts Democratic Party for being too “conservative” this was in regards to some comments from Grossman that Berwick would be unable to work with DeLeo and would basically go to war with him if elected.

  9. Tim says:

    I will also add as strongly as Berwick is in favor of single payor many Democrats are against single payor. For example current Senate Ways and Means Chair Stephen Brewer has said many bad things about single payor and has fought in public with single payor advocates such as Jamie Eldridge. I could easily imagine Brewer as head of Democrats for Baker if Berwick was the nominee. Of course many Berwick supporters view the fact that Brewer lost the leadership to Stan Rosenberg as a sign Brewer has hit the sell by date.

  10. Joan says:

    People seem to be underestimating Berwick ‘s command of the Private sector-the founding of the successful IHI-now an international organization which has dramatically decreased the incidence of medical mistakes in hospitals. Then, there is the public experience of working with a budget greater than the pentagon’s, and managing well over 5k employees. I know someone who is a former employee of Berwick’s. He says that all of his years in Gov’t,” no one ever voluntarily worked overtime.”But, “under Don, they did.” What makes you think that he cannot do a good job as Governor? Also, check out Berwick’s website for his plans to increase employment, as well as his positions on all other important topics.
    You support Grossman? Well, Grossman takes Berwick’s rhetoric, is verbally aggressive to Berwick and sounds like a fool every time he opens his mouth. Grossman only won the Convention because he is playing the insider’s game. God knows how he would have done if he had not been running for Governor for eight years! He may have done a good job as Treasurer, but he does not deserve to be Governor. He should be re-running for Treasurer, not Governor. No, Berwick can do the job, but people need to know him and realize it. You are wrong this time, Mr Cunningham.

    • Tim says:


      It is my understanding that much of Berwick’s work experience in healthcare issues especially in more recent years was in the United Kingdom. While I acknowledge Berwick has many supporters in the Massachusetts healthcare community much of the senior leadership such as that of Partners Healthcare is strongly supporting Coakley. Not to be snide but I suspect if a majority of Massachusetts voters were given the option of obtaining at healthcare at Partners(MGH+Brigham) or the UK National Health Service I suspect they would choose Partners.

      You are right to suspect that Berwick is probably hurting Grossman more than he is hurting Coakley.

  11. Joan E. Sullivan says:

    I know Berwick well. He speaks of his experience with the IHI in countries around the world. I know he has been to some countries in Africa. But I know of no trips to England. Plus, he does not advocate a health system like Great Britain, where there is government provided healthcare. Rather, he proposes a health system of private providers, with one entity, the government, paying the bills through a handful of insurance companies.Yes, some insurance companies would have to re-tool or diversify. But the glut of insurance companies who average 12-15% of their fees in overhead costs (v 1% of the healthcare budget with Medicare.) would be eliminated. Eliminating the high costs of overhead would, in and of itself, add revenues to the government and consumers immediately. MA has the highest medical costs in the nation. A full 42% of our state budget goes to healthcare. That, in turn leaves little money to improve public transportation and infrastructure of roads, bridges, etc., not to mention education and renewable energy iniatives.
    Grossman supports Single Payer-or says he does- but has no experience in how to implement it. Nor does Coakley, who, in one breathe says she would explore Single Payer, and in the next Abreathe doubts that it would bring down healthcare costs. Also, what Coakley did for Partners was a strictly political calculation, without regard to prohibiting competition in the marketplace, something that Berwick encourages.
    I hope I have clarified what I know to be true about Berwick’s definition of Single Payer. Because, if I understand it correctly, it makes a lot of sense to me, as I believe it would to others. The other two candidates bring no new ideas regarding innovation to our Commonwealth, as I see things. Thus, I am a Berwick supporter. I also prefer his stands on other issues. But there is no more time to write about them here, as they are too comprehensive. Therefore I invite people who are so inclined to visit Berwick’s website.

  12. Maurice T. Cunningham says:

    Thanks to all for the very informative comments. I wasn’t aware that a few people would like to drive Speaker DeLeo from the party, I’ll have to look that one up.

  13. Joan says:

    I agree. I am not aware of ANYONE who would like to unseat Mr De Leo. More smearing of Berwick, perhaps?

    • Tim says:

      Take a look at this post on BMG:

      Take note of following comment from somervillTom:

      The Massachusetts Democratic Party has an overwhelming advantage in both registered voters and in the House and Senate. When a Democratic governor proposes a program like Governor Patrick’s failed transportation initiative, I expect my Democratic Speaker of the House and Democratic President of the Senate to stand on each side of the Governor, clap along with him as he makes his address (politely if need be), and then do whatever it takes to make that program succeed.

      The spectacle of Bob DeLeo contemptuously dismissing the transportation bill was an embarrassment. Mr. DeLeo should have been taken to the woodshed, firmly spanked, and invited to change his tune or resign. That’s not what happened.

      I don’t think any of the current candidates will have any more success than Deval Patrick in accomplishing anything that Mr. DeLeo opposes. I think our next governor must persuade the Massachusetts Democratic Party to change the leadership of the House and Senate so that our legislature represents the majority of Massachusetts voters (never mind Democrats).

      I think that kind of change requires a kind of vision, courage, and creativity that, to me at least, is most apparent in Don Berwick.

      Tim again:

      That sure sounds like a declaration of war by a Berwick supporters against Speaker DeLeo.

      • Joan says:

        Thank you! Yes, indeed it does sound as though SOME Berwick supporters think that Berwick not only should be elected, but also change the leadership in the House and Senate. Pardon my ignorance, but is changing leadership positions even under the Governor’s purview? At any rate, I believe that since De Berwick had to work with all of the Governor’s in the US, plus members of the US Congress, etc while at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid, he is savvy enough to deal with State Officials as well. Berwick is a leader, pure and simple, in whatever environment he has found himself. I think he can lead in MA as well.

        • Christopher says:

          Changing legislative leadership is not the Governor’s purview. The term for that authority is royal prerogative and we got rid of that some 200+ years ago. What the people can do is elect enough progressive Dems, even by primary if necessary, to form a powerful enough voting bloc capable of changing the leadership. Theoretically the Governor could wade into those battles and endorse certain candidates with an eye on accomplishing this, but that very much risks backfiring politically.

  14. Robert C. Buxbaum says:

    Joan and Tim: Don Berwick has worked in England and was honored for his workl there, and the IHI organization has done work in Africa and elsewhere. But his main contribution insofar as IHI is concerned relates to many hospital settings in the US. This is about reducing errors and inappropropriate use of resources. The IHI achievement is well known and understood by health policy folks but perhaps less well known by the public. Much of it is in medium-sized facilities and perhaps not in major teaching hospitals, many of whom have been remarkably reluctant to adopt these innovations. he inertia in these facilities is enormous, but the IHI contribution in the US is its prime achievement.

    • Joan says:

      Interesting. I had been unaware of his work in England. Still, his support for Single Payer is very different than the way health care is provided in the UK.
      But, thank you.

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