Warren in the Trap

Drawing of Elizabeth Warren by Anders Nilsen
Elizabeth Warren; drawing by Anders Nilsen

Since Elizabeth Warren’s formal announcement of her candidacy on February 19, 2019, the narrative about her has had little to do with her actual qualifications. From initially low poll numbers, she rode a brief upswing in October to the top of some national polls, immediately drawing a backlash, in part over concerns that her Medicare for All plan was too far to the left. After the debate on January 14, 2020, when Bernie Sanders denied having told her, at a private meeting in 2018, that he did not believe a woman could be elected, it was clear that the issue of “electability” swamped all else.

To anybody paying attention, however, that issue has been central since the beginning. In Warren’s rhetoric, in the media, and in voters’ reactions to her, perceptions of her have always been driven by gender. Again and again, in books, in stump speeches, and in response to voters’ repeated queries, she has emphasized that her qualifications as a “fighter”—she is constantly casting herself as one—were earned in the trenches of the gender wars.

In nearly 250 years of American history, a woman candidate has come this close to the presidency exactly twice, and in both instances, the woman has been running against Donald Trump. Given that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million votes in 2016 and still lost the election, the anguish in Democratic circles over a woman’s “electability” is legitimate, even as it’s deepened by atavistic fears. Yet Warren’s approach to handling blatant misogyny as well as the bias cloaked in pollsters’ lingo—“authenticity” and “likability” are among the terms—has lacked force and clarity. Although she was late to formulate her controversial support for Medicare for All, she has famously had a plan for just about everything: a wealth tax, student loan debt forgiveness, gun violence, criminal justice reform, climate change. But she seems not to have had a plan for tackling a form of bias entrenched for centuries. Indeed, at times, she has appeared to be running two races simultaneously—the real one, involving her actual positions, and an amorphous one involving an obsession with women’s gender differences.

In 2016 Clinton struggled to respond to charges that she was “cold,” “aloof,” and not “authentic,” bigoted code for being different, as in not male. This time around, Warren had a chance to shift the debate by comprehensively rejecting such coded language, challenging voters to confront the history, costs, and consequences of prejudice.

Briefly, she appeared to recognize the opportunity. When the issue broke out into the open in January, she said, “It’s time for us to attack it head on.” But she didn’t, instead employing a superficial zinger about having won every election she’s been in, unlike the men on the stage. Since then, she has insisted that “this…


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