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.