Littwin: Was it sexism that did Warren in or was it sexism and a lot of other things?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) poses for a selfie and a pinkie promise ahead of her Super Tuesday night event on March 03, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. She dropped out of the race two days later after a poor showing in which she failed to win even her own home state. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) poses for a selfie and a pinkie promise ahead of her Super Tuesday night event on March 03, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. She dropped out of the race two days later after a poor showing in which she failed to win even her own home state. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

After the sad demise of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for president, it seems that many women took the defeat personally — even though many more women, it turns out, simply chose not to vote for her.

It’s too easy to ask the question of whether sexism was at work. Of course it was. There has never been a female president. What’s the alternative explanation? In Colorado, there has never been a female governor or a female senator, even though the state legislature is dominated by women. There are several things at work here, but the fact of gender can’t be overlooked or overstated.

It wasn’t just sexism that cost Warren, of course. It’s more complicated than that. But isn’t it always?

When Warren did a post-mortem interview with Rachel Maddow Thursday night, Maddow — not Warren — said that after Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, after the many female candidates went by the wayside in the 2020 Democratic primary, that Warren’s defeat, in the end, felt like “a death knell in terms of the prospects of having a woman president in our lifetimes.”

”Oh god, please no,” Warren said. “That can’t be right.”

Warren went on to say that women would persist, of course, and that a woman would eventually be elected.

Here’s what we know. We know the Democrats, the party of diversity, are left with two old white guys (again, I say this as an old white guy myself) who both have deep electoral flaws. It’s not wrong — at least in my view — to say that Warren was the most talented person in the Democratic field, the best prepared, the best debater and the one most likely to be able to eviscerate Donald Trump in much the same way she did Mike Bloomberg.

So, why did she rise to the top of the Democratic polling, only to slip steadily thereafter? Do Americans have a problem with ambitious women who run as confident and competent candidates? Or is it, as we often hear, just this woman? 

After dropping out Thursday morning, Warren met with the press in front of her house in Cambridge, Mass., where she was a Harvard law professor for 20 years and the key player in reforming bankruptcy laws and setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. When Republicans blocked her from heading up the CFBP, she ran for Senate instead and won. Then she ran for president. And not only didn’t win — but lost badly in the end.

Many trace Warren’s downfall to the moment she backed away from her “I’m with Bernie” claim on Medicare for All. For weeks, Warren was asked again and again why she didn’t have a specific plan for this critical issue when she had a plan for everything. That was a fair question, more than fair — or would have been if Bernie had gotten the same question with the same degree of skepticism. He didn’t. He was allowed to skate. Was that the fault of the so-called corporate media that Bernie likes to blame for his problems?

The truth is that Warren, running as the candidate of competence, was held to a higher standard than Sanders. Was that sexism or maybe ageism or, more likely, just Bernieism?  In any case, she fell behind Bernie in the progressive lane and never found another lane that worked for her.

But the more likely explanation is that this election — maybe more than any election in modern history — is about defeating the incumbent, who is almost certainly the worst president in the nation’s history. Beating Trump matters more than anything else. And because Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 to Trump, many saw this as a woman losing to Trump, rather than a particular woman losing to Trump. That’s a good working definition of sexism.

Biden’s semi-miraculous comeback was a move back to what suddenly looked like the safest pick even if Biden has been, throughout the campaign, somewhere between a weak and a terrible candidate. But his win in South Carolina — a win that wouldn’t have been possible without Jim Clyburn and Biden’s overwhelming support from African Americans — gave Dems hope, maybe a false hope, that they didn’t have to settle for Mike Bloomberg’s billions or Bernie’s revolution or Warren’s plans.

And so, Biden won in states where he hadn’t spent a nickel. He won in states that Bernie easily won in 2016. He won in states where the youth-vote advantage didn’t turn out. Did younger voters stay home because of billionaires or corporate media? 

It was a moment where Warren thought her campaign would benefit, that if people were taking another look at the field, Democrats might take another look at her, which isn’t how it turned out. And yet, she consistently polled as among the best two or three candidates — and often as the best candidate — to serve as president. But at the end, she couldn’t even finish in the top two in her home state of Massachusetts. 

When the campaign began, you heard a lot of talk about Warren and likability. That was, of course, before Warren became better known, and it seemed she was more than likable enough. Later in the campaign, you would hear a lot of talk that she was condescending, which I assume was code for smart — but not like Bill Clinton is smart and Barack Obama is smart and Pete Buttigieg is smart, but like a woman is smart and doesn’t apologize for it. Is it sexist to believe that Warren couldn’t win because voters felt that other people would hold her gender against her. If it’s not exactly sexist, I don’t know what the right word is, but it’s definitely about gender. And it’s something that Warren couldn’t overcome.

This is where I do the full disclosure, as I have before. My law-professor daughter was a Warren student in law school and is a Warren protégé and supporter. My late wife and I had dinner with Warren and her Harvard-law-professor husband, Bruce Mann, long before Warren became a politician.

But you don’t have to listen to me. Read Connie Schultz, the Pulitzer-winning columnist who also happens to be married to liberal Sen. Sherrod Brown, when she writes how Warren became “invisible” right before our eyes. “I can’t stress to you how tired I am of answering the same questions,” Shultz later told Vox. “We’ve just asked for one chance for a woman to lead the country. Just once, let’s try a woman.”

In speaking to reporters Thursday soon after she dropped out of the race, Warren said she wasn’t ready to endorse anyone — the Bernie Bros may be a factor here — and she showed she understood how the dynamics worked against her.

 “I was told at the beginning of this whole undertaking that there are two lanes: A progressive lane, that Bernie Sanders is the incumbent for, and a moderate lane, that Joe Biden is the incumbent for, and there’s no room for anyone else in this,” she said. “I felt that wasn’t right, but evidently, I was wrong.”

But central to Warren’s campaign was the “pinky promises” with little girls she met in the selfie line a promise that they would someday run for higher office because “that’s what girls do.” When asked about the role of gender in the race, Warren had the answer exactly right: 

“Gender in this race, you know, that is the trap question for every woman. If you say, ‘Yeah, there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner.’ And if you say, ‘No, there was no sexism,’ about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?’ ”

Warren promised she would talk more about gender and presidential politics eventually. And so the race continues. While the misogynist in the White House prepares for either Sanders or Biden, you can bet that the Democratic winner will pick a woman as his running mate. And then, in case anyone has any doubts, Trump will put the question of the role of sexism in politics to rest.



  1. She was and is a forgot that important point.. The female Ward Churchill Worth 12 million because of her fraud.

  2. My one cent’s worth ( deflation you know-used to be two cents worth) I was a big Warren supporter till she made two blunders one strategic and one tactical ( though it really was over before the tactical error). The strategic blunder that gave opponents from the center an opening was M4A. There is a place in politics for principle, It’s at the back of the line well behind expediency. The conventional wisdom was “you can’t beat something with nothing”.so candidates felt obliged to come up with a program because that is what D.s usually do: debate endlessly whether NAFTA was good or bad or what was your position when on what..
    But this election is different, it one of the few times i found myself saying the same thing as everyone else. “Just find me somebody who can win” And I thought this would be like Billie Jean King vs Bobby Riggs after the Hillary Clinton /Margaret Court vs Trump /Riggs debacle. But that one issue did her in.
    I’m not sure we have the two strongest candidate left. But this wouldn’t have happened if the D’s used approval voting instead of the thoroughly screwed up process for nominating a candidate

  3. I liked Liz. And her Golden. She is a certified Tough Lady. She’s a good policymaker, but a bad politician. That doesn’t make her a bad person, just not a great candidate these days.

    By the way, the time has long since passed when Republicans can whine about lying, bigotry, morality, etc…without instantly being a Huge Hypocrites.

    They gave that right away during the ongoing self-immolation.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful (and personal) piece. As you note, the issue is complex. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that if Warren were a male she would effectively have the nomination sewn up now. After that she would verbally eviscerate The Dear Leader! (“Full disclosure” HLS ‘74)

  5. Experience matters.

    Warren is one of the 27 different “major” Democratic candidates who won’t be the winner. The field has effectively narrowed to two candidates — and both ran in previous cycles. To the best of my knowledge, Mike Gravel is the only other person among the field who had run before. The experienced Democratic candidate will be facing Trump, the experienced Republican candidate (Reform party 2000, “musing” about running in subsequent cycles, and obviously running in 2016).

    Recent nominees who lost the general election have often had previous runs as President or Vice President — H Clinton, Romney, McCain, Dole, Gore, In the past 40 years, only Obama, Kerry, Bush 43, B Clinton, and Dukakis ran as a major party nominee without experience. .Bush 43 benefited greatly from the experience of his father’s multiple campaigns. Obama and B. Clinton have often been called the “most gifted” politicians of their generation. Losers Kerry and Dukakis remain as the other outliers. among 15 candidates in that time.

  6. Ward Churchill? There is a delusionary disconnect. None of this comment makes sense. Try focusing on here and now:

    While still a Harvard Law Professor, Elizabeth Warren within four short years conceived her brainchild the seemless Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reducing consumer contracts with credit card agencies and mortgage banks from 30 pages to just several. Michelle Goldberg wrote In the NYT 2/27/2020: “It’s no small thing for someone who had little direct government experience to single-handedly spearhead the creation of a new agency. The C.F.P.B. has since provided $12.4 billion in relief to 31 million consumers.” Michelle’s goes on, “after the latest Democratic debate, Ann Coulter tweeted: “Sen. Warren has convinced me that Bernie isn’t that worrisome. He’ll never get anything done. SHE’S the freak who will show up with 17 idiotic plans every day and keep everyone up until it gets done.” Vicious reactionary that she is, Coulter cut to the heart of Elizabeth Warren’s promise.”

  7. Mr. Littwin’s admiration for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is both obvious and earned. But that admiration has clouded his judgment.

    He has accused Democrats of sexism four years after Hillary Clinton became the first woman to be nominated for president of the United States by a major political party. Sexism that—–at least according to Mr. Littwin—-resulted in Senator Warren’s withdrawal from the Democrat presidential primary race.

    While Mr. Littwin generously acknowledges the possibility of other factors (e.g. “according to the polls, women are as wary of Warren as men”) he seems to dismiss those possibilities out of hand to focus on sexism.

    It’s time to take a breath.

    It seems like a stretch to blame sexism for Senator Warren’s lack of success in the primaries when Mr. Littwin has consistently maintained “Primaries get ugly. They always get ugly.” Add to that she finished third in her home state behind Joe Biden and Senator Sanders. And as humiliating as that third place finish was for Senator Warren it proved to be an accurate predictor of how the rest of the country would rank the three candidates.

    In 2016 after Mrs. Clinton broke through the glass ceiling to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the ceiling was reinforced to ensure only the strongest candidates could get through and many voters—-both men and women—-believe Senator Warren lacked that strength. But Senator Warren’s perceived weakness wasn’t her only problem. This from the New York Times:

    “If (Senator Warren) were the nominee, could she win back working-class voters who swung to Donald Trump in 2016?
    There are real reasons for concern. In her 2012 and 2018 Senate races, Warren struggled in other blue-collar parts of Massachusetts, like the areas around Springfield and Worcester. And in most state polls asking voters to choose between Trump and potential Democratic nominees, Warren looks considerably weaker than Joe Biden.”

    “Jonathan Chait of New York magazine says that Warren’s policy positions are hurting her with swing voters. “She is a compelling orator with a sympathetic life story and a gift for explaining complex ideas in simple terms. Yet she has spent most of the last year positioning herself as if the general election will never happen.”

    Mr. Littwin warned Democrats not “to leave the convention in Milwaukee this summer with any thought other than to do what is best to beat Donald Trump in November.”

    Democrats (male and female) have taken Mr. Littwin’s advice to heart and have determined that neither diversity nor being a Harvard law professor would help defeat President Trump.

    But nominating an old white guy—-or an even older white guy—-might.


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