There was a six-word moment Monday night during in CNN’s hour-long town hall with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren that summed up the dark cloud that constantly hovers over her 2020 presidential campaign. It’s a shadow that has nothing to do with her ambitious plans to close America’s wealth gap or even the GOP’s favorite stalking horse, which surrounds her past claims of Native American ancestry.
“How,” a bright-eyed female Harvard student asked Warren, “will you not get Hillary-ed?”
Ah yes ... Hillary-ed. That new word in U.S. political lexicon — meaning to take an over-65 female policy wonk with a killer resume and toss her in the Trumped-up meat grinder of locker-room taunting, street-corner misogyny and howling mobs chanting “Lock her up!” or doing Cherokee war whoops while their other hand is grabbing the Electoral College. In 2020, a Groundhog’s Day that would surely foretell four more years of bleak Trumpian winter.
Warren — the bespectacled bankruptcy prof turned progressive icon — tackled that question the same way she tackled every other issue: With practiced persistence. She cast herself as the underdog when she’d challenged GOP Cosmo pin-up Sen. Scott Brown in 2012, but said she was bucked up by the young girls she met on the campaign trail — the ones she “pinky-sweared” with and told she was running for the Senate because “that’s what girls do.”
“You stay after it every day,” she said of her eventual victory in that race. “One might say, you persist,” she added, echoing her famous 2017 Senate-floor showdown with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “That’s how I’m going to be elected the first woman president of the United States.”
It was a powerful moment in a 60-minute TV showcase in which Warren — making a righteous case for both a bold attack on wealth inequality and for impeachment hearings against President Trump — showed off how when it comes to actual policies and their moral underpinnings she’s running laps around the 19-person Democratic field. And, to steal the famous line about Ginger Rogers, she’s doing it backwards and in high heels.
And yet despite offering the boldest and the most thoughtful policy solutions for the ravages of the 21st Century’s flawed capitalism — a wealth tax that would pay for education and other programs, the forgiveness of America’s massive college debt load for the middle class, breaking up the Silicon Valley tech monopolies — Warren’s campaign is lagging.
The polls, and yes, it’s ridiculously early, show that the Killer B’s — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke and now the upstart Pete Buttigieg, each showing a different face of the Democratic Party as long as that face is white and male — have been dominating the field and a lot of the media attention that comes with that. One of the record five women in the field, California Sen. Kamala Harris, also has been polling ahead of Warren. Warren even trails Biden, despite his Hamlet-like plod toward an announcement, and Bernie Sanders in her home state of Massachusetts.
I’ve talked with Democrats — both professionals and rank-and-file neighbor types — and I keep hearing the same things from people who, for the most part, would have swooned over a Warren campaign in the year 2015 B.H. (Before Hillary). That they love her and her ideas but that America would never elect someone like her. A woman who’ll turn 70 this June, attractive but unglamorous, with the raspy voice and sometimes didactic syntax of a school marm. A woman whom Trump and his pale-faced mob would endlessly ridicule as “Pocahontas.”
A woman who can be Hillary-ed.
In other words, a woman.
Maybe Trump’s 2020 re-election motto — instead of “Keep America Great Again” — should be “Making Misogyny Work for America.” Imagine if America has watched Selma’s “Bloody Sunday" assault in 1965 and decided that we better put off this whole civil rights thing because it seems to make some white people really, really mad. Because a lot of Americans seem to have walked away from 2016 deciding let’s not try this woman president idea again for a few decades. If saving democracy means dumping Trump by any means necessary, some folks have decided that requires going with what’s worked the last 58 times. A man.
And so in many ways the Warren campaign has become a grand metaphor for the struggles of every woman in every enterprise who encounters a glass ceiling, in a nation where a paltry 5 percent of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. She had to get up earlier than everyone else — announcing her candidacy first, back in late December — and then she had to stay up later preparing her super-detailed policy proposals. Meanwhile, O’Rourke was off doing his Jack Kerouac tour of America and glamming it up on Vanity Fair while a fresh-faced Buttigieg — who can recite his tiny resume in Norwegian, apparently — sprinted past Warren.
Now, the “Hillary-ed” question is overshadowing Warren’s remarkable backstory — a fairly conservative Republican who learned from her first-hand research into bankruptcy in America that the problem wasn’t the everyday people she met but a broken system, and who changed her politics — and her engaging, down-to-earth style on the campaign trail.
But where Warren really shines through — amid a Democratic field that keeps adding generic white guys like some minor-league hockey team — has been on the issues. As her party drifts leftward on issues like income inequality, the ex-Harvard professor has moved past polemics into real policy.
Her latest plan just announced on Monday, which would use the proceeds from her proposed wealth tax on millionaires and billionaires to eliminate student debt and end tuition at public universities, offers potential game-changing relief to millions of young, middle-class Americans trying to start their careers under a mountain of loans.
But so far the Warren campaign has been about more than just briefing books. Among leading Democrats, she is one of the few to frame the alarming findings of the Mueller report as a moral dilemma for America and not as a political calculation. “This is about what kind of democracy we’re going to have,” Warren, who has called for hearings on Trump’s impeachment, said at Monday’s CNN event.
She also took a question from a young prospective police officer about keeping cops safe that could have been answered with “Blue Lives Matter” boilerplate — and turned it on its head. She said the streets won’t be safe for everyone, including for police officers, without gun control and without reform of “a criminal justice system that is locking up too many people but has a problem of race at the heart of it.”
Indeed, Warren has infused much of her campaign with a call for racial equity, and a few key black voters are starting to notice. Politico last week noted that Warren is starting to generate excitement among African-American influencers like LaTosha Brown of Black Voters Matter, who said the Massachusetts senator is "not running away from this conversation about race and class and gender and the intersection of that.”
Warren has eight more months to see if that message can filter down to rank-and-file voters as she flutters backwards across an increasingly crowded dance floor. She’s surely not perfect — she might be president right now if she’d boldly run in 2016, and most agree she could have handled the Native ancestry issue better, even if it’s not clear exactly how.
But let’s be honest: The biggest problem surrounding Warren’s 2020 campaign has nothing to do with her. It is, rather, the mistake of everyday voters allowing their minds to be clouded by sexism and the paranoia over getting “Hillary-ed” one more time.