Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s first televised interview as a nearly announced presidential candidate was with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. The interaction was about as challenging as a Donald Trump interview with Sean Hannity. From there, she went on to Iowa, where the questions got a little bit tougher and are just a foretaste of what she will have to confront going forward.
There is no doubt that Warren’s populist message should resonate, even among some Obama voters-turned-Trump Republicans. She is smart and accomplished: witness her role in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She is courageous, a stand-up leader, and in tune with values that need more effective champions in the public arena. So what is that “something about Elizabeth” that turns some people off?
There’s still a lot of misogyny in the world. #MeToo is a movement, not a majority. A female candidate must be strong, but not castrating. She must be bold, but not divisive. She must be feminine, but not shrill. You get the idea. Despite the encouraging success of female candidates in 2018, this tricky challenge still confronts virtually any woman who aspires to the nation’s highest offices.
Many who like Warren’s populist economic message nonetheless see her style of messaging as that of a liberal school marm. Others have called her a “scold,” which sociologists have long taken as a proxy for gender bias. For some who won’t acknowledge gender bias, likability becomes the code for such expressions of gender prejudice. If Trump is the candidate, it will be especially challenging for any female to win in 2020.
The metrics of likability are nothing new and not gender-specific. Remember that George W. was more “likable” than John Kerry. W was the candidate people preferred to have a beer with. And, though he looks a lot better now than Donald Trump, the beer buddy test didn’t produce a better president than Kerry would have been, likable or not.
Some who would support a female nominee believe that Warren smacks of blue-state, coastal elitism, which, along with other more significant negative characteristics, damaged Hillary Clinton. Warren’s personal biography, her up-from-Oklahoma-poverty rise to national prominence, could help counter that. It’s an authentic story. Other personal characteristics stand up less well. It’s fine that Elizabeth likes beer. So, in spades, does Brett Kavanaugh. But did she have to interrupt a New Year’s Eve Instagram to go to the fridge and get a bottle, which she drank from? Like Michael Dukakis in a helmet driving a tank, Warren was just trying too hard, suggesting a tin ear on the small things. Not to mention how she handled the revelation of her DNA test, taken to get out ahead of the Pocahontas issue.
A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll not long ago found that 58 percent of Massachusetts residents thought Warren shouldn’t run for President. Just 32 percent favored her running. Many progressives with whom I have spoken support Senator Warren as an important voice nationally but fear she can’t win a race for President. They desperately want her to play the role in the Senate that Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank did for years in the House. Republicans, by contrast, are salivating for Warren to be the nominee, just as Democrats were lusting for Trump to be the Republican nominee in 2016. That tells us something. Strange things do happen.
I have no doubt that Warren will improve as a candidate, and her presence early on will help shape the national dialogue. Even if she ultimately loses, the race should make her a better Senator, perhaps even becoming more comfortable dealing with the press. She has the potential to be a benchmark against which other progressive candidates will be measured. She may also drive home a message that, given where the country is, the Democratic Party will do better with a more centrist nominee with broader appeal on issues and greater ability to reach across the aisle.
All the talking heads from MSNBC to Fox should knock it off in proclaiming that Elizabeth Warren is dead on arrival. We’ll all benefit if the media and other pundits learn how to be more measured and thoughtful in covering the race. The news media covered the 2016 race dishonorably and this time should learn from their shameful behavior. There are miles to go before we vote.
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