Winning a U.S. presidential election takes a lot — stamina, gumption, charisma, and before 2016 that list also included brains and something called gravitas. But it really, really helps to have good timing — to capture the lightning bolt of political and cultural zeitgeist, whether it’s Ronald Reagan and a 1980s electorate wanting the triumphalism of “Morning in America” or Barack Obama tapping into “Hope” after the gloom of the Iraq War years.
It’s hard not to notice that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has surged in recent weeks to the very top of the Democratic 2020 polls — Real Clear Politics, which aggregates all the leading polls, just moved her ahead of the no-longer-inevitable Joe Biden — at the same time that the office-water-cooler show all your coworkers are talking about is Netflix’s Unbelievable.
For sure, the core premise of the series — which starts with the agony of a troubled teen struggling and initially failing to convince detectives she is the victim of a horrific sexual assault, and then pans out more widely to the search for a serial rapist — has nothing overtly to do with electoral politics.
But the underlying angst of Unbelievable — the power dynamics of a society where too many women are not only unheard but unheeded — is very much the same wave of righteous fury that propelled the 2017 Women’s March, the #MeToo movement, and a record number of new women in Congress.
With the calendar flipping toward 2020, Elizabeth Warren is surfing atop that tsunami, backwards and in high heels. Her steady climb in the polls has moved her campaign from the “first they ignore you” mode into the stage of “then they fight you,” with increasingly nervous billionaires and card-carrying members of the vast right-wing conspiracy looking to attack her as dangerous, shrill, not likable enough, (insert misogynist trope here) — and unbelievable.
This week, a conservative publication called the Washington Free Beacon was sure it found the magic bullet to prove that the 70-year-old Warren is just another hysterical woman making stuff up. Its editor sifted through records from 1971, when the future Harvard Law professor was briefly a schoolteacher in New Jersey, and insisted her campaign-trail story that she was fired for getting pregnant couldn’t be true because the board had rehired her (albeit a couple of months before she was abruptly gone).
But the article had more than enough holes to fill the Albert Hall — Warren wouldn’t have been visibly pregnant at the time of her rehiring, nor would there likely be a written record of the principal ordering her to skedaddle once it did become noticeable. A couple of Warren’s contemporaries from Riverdale, N.J., who’d somehow been invisible to the Washington Free Beacon emerged elsewhere to say, yup, forcing out pregnant women was exactly what their district did at the end of the Mad Men era — as did almost every other school back then.
Soon, the floodgates were open with women saying, in so many words, #MeToo. On Twitter, even my own innocuous tweet on the topic — that the Beacon article had merely reminded women voters that her struggles were their struggles — drew a flurry of responses. Some were anecdotes — “my mother was told to leave her secretarial job when she started showing w/my brother ... in 1960” — but many more were simply gut recognition, with one asking, “How many times do women have to lay their stories out for everyone and then defend defend defend for people to believe sexism exists and is prevalent[?]”
The feminist author Jessica Valenti wrote the backlash against a failed Warren smear is “about trusting women when they talk about their experiences with sexism. Because oftentimes the ‘official record’ will not match what actually happened — sometimes an institution is trying to cover up something illegal or unprofessional, and sometimes sexism is so embedded in a culture that no one thinks of it as particularly noteworthy.”
So many women relayed their own tales of discrimination to Warren herself that she turned it around into a viral video, and why not? If the popular online hashtag #BelieveWomen resonates with you, there is an increasingly good chance that you also believe in Elizabeth Warren and her once quixotic quest for the White House that feels more and more real every day.
There’s no such thing as pitching a flawless campaign — perfect games are for baseball, and they’re rare — but Warren keeps getting stronger as we approach the middle innings of the 2020 race. Her carefully thought-out plans for attacking inequity, social injustice, and corruption in America are exactly what voters are thirsting for after a fly-by-night president who can blow up years of policy in one really bad phone call. Yet Warren’s gut instincts have also been impeccable — whether it’s leading the pack on seeing the need for Donald Trump’s impeachment, or her decision to stop soliciting big-bucks donors. After all, Americans want a new president with consistent moral values, not the most money in the bank — and last time I checked dollar bills don’t vote.
No wonder the elites whose corrupt temples would be smashed by a Warren presidency are in full-blown panic mode. But nearly every attack hasn’t killed her campaign, but made it stronger. When billionaires like Trump-backing Peter Thiel say they’re “scared” of Warren or Wall Street whisperer Jim Cramer says her plans have his rich pals “shaking in their freshly polished leather shoes," it’s essentially a free ad for the Massachusetts Democrat and her wealth tax.
When far-right pranksters tried to promote a transparently false sex scandal under the banner “Elizabeth Warren Cougar,” the candidate instantly responded with a tweet calling for an end to college debt with the mascot of her alma mater, the University of Houston Cougars. That kind of quick wit — coupled with a bouncy, charismatic style on the stump — has made the mostly male knocks on Warren as an annoying schoolmarm seem, well, unbelievable.
Rebecca Katz, the progressive political consultant who’s worked for the left-wing Justice Democrats and for candidates like Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman, said the latest attacks on Warren seem to galvanize many of her supporters who believe that “we tell women to speak up and then when they do, they say there’s no proof or that they’re a liar.” She added that the pregnancy story has many women voters not thinking Warren is dishonest but instead that “it’s incredible that we might actually have someone like this in the White House.”
But as I said, there are no perfect games. Warren will always have to live down her biggest pre-political-career mistake — her overexuberant claim of a Native American heritage that proved to be minuscule. That unforced error matters less with her Trump-"Pocahontas" haters on the right — misogynists gonna misogynize, no matter what Warren does — but it has understandably complicated her efforts to get the nonwhite support she’ll need for the Democratic nomination.
The whiff of a cultural appropriation complicates a natural distrust among some voters — especially older African Americans who right now heavily back Biden — for what they see as “pie-in-the-sky” progressives, and aggravates the fraught history between women of color and white suburban women who right now are the most enthusiastic Warren voters.
Even with those innate obstacles, the most recent Quinnipiac College poll showed Warren nearly doubling her African American support to 19 percent, with room for further growth. A lot can happen between now and next July’s Milwaukee convention. But in the current state of play, Warren will just need a few more nonwhite voters — she won’t even need all of them — to go from the woman whose baby bump forced her out of a suburban classroom to the 2020 Democratic nominee for president. Who would have believed it?