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Progressive groups want all Democrats to take on the banks at tonight's debate — not just Bernie Sanders

Even her most die-hard fans have accepted that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) isn't running for president. You might think the plan B for the activists representing the (self-identified) "Warren wing" of the Democratic Party would be to go all in for Bernie Sanders – the candidate who's using the same message of economic populism that Warren rode to fame, and is generating the same amount of enthusiasm.

But that's not exactly what the Warren wing is doing. Instead, at least three groups — the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and MoveOn.org — are highlighting that both Sanders and Hillary Clinton (as well as distant third-place candidate Martin O'Malley) agree with them on key issues. And they're urging all three candidates to show off their economic populist bona fides at tonight's debate.

The "Warren wing" agenda: debt-free college, going after "banksters," more Social Security, and racial justice

In a series of letters to Clinton, O'Malley, and Sanders in advance of tonight's debate, the Warren wing groups urge them to talk about enforcing bank regulations and giving criminal penalties to bankers who break the law — the issue that Warren's made her career on. They also want candidates to talk about expanding Social Security (not just protecting it from cuts) and eliminating college debt. And — in what appears to be a recent addition to their agenda, since it wasn't included in a recent Huffington Post op-ed by the PCCC's Adam Green — the Warren wing is adopting the cause of the Black Lives Matter movement and calling for specific policies for racial justice.

As it happens, Warren has been one of the Democratic politicians most attuned to Black Lives Matter. But her primary cause — economic populism — is associated with the first three issues: banks, Social Security, and college debt. And on any of those issues, Bernie Sanders is more progressive than Hillary Clinton. He's been vocal about breaking up the banks; he's called for college to be not only debt-free, but tuition-free, period.

But you wouldn't know that from reading the Warren wing's letters to Sanders, Clinton, and O'Malley. All three letters use very similar language. And all three praise candidates for stances they've already taken, rather than urge them to take more progressive stances in the debate. In fact, what the letters ask the candidates to do is simply to be proactive in bringing up their stances on these issues, rather than waiting for the moderators to ask the right questions. It's a clubby, us-versus-them approach: We both know the CNN moderators can't really be trusted to bring up the issues that really matter to people, so you should make sure those issues get raised anyway.

This approach wouldn't make a ton of sense if the Warren wing groups were most interested in strengthening Bernie Sanders. In that case, they'd be praising Sanders for the places he's more economically progressive than Clinton, and warning Clinton to catch up — or not communicating with her at all. But what the Warren wing appears to be trying to do is push every candidate leftward individually, as a way of pushing the eventual nominee leftward.

This is similar to what the Tea Party did in 2012: Rather than pick a "Tea Party candidate," Tea Partiers let every candidate try to court them and made it clear what it took to win their support. As a result, while no one would claim Mitt Romney was a Tea Party champion, he'd engaged with them more than he might have if they'd united behind Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann from the start.

In this case, the strategy may make it less likely that Sanders wins the primary — the more that Clinton moves to the left on issues like Keystone XL and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the less distinct he is as a candidate. But it guarantees that whoever wins will feel the Warren wing is a force within the party that the nominee can work with.