Everything Elizabeth Warren is about came together in Manhattan on Monday night when she brought her anti-corruption campaign to the capital of capitalism. Her overarching theory of what’s wrong in the country is that the power of the big guys—lobbyists, Wall Street, corporations, and the government in cahoots with them—keeps the system from working for the little guy.
To emphasize her point, she re-released her plan, embodied in proposed legislation, to stop corruption where it thrives, among the ruling class exchanging money for influence. For drama, she spoke in the shadow of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where 146 people, mostly young female immigrants, burned to death in 1911. That’s what happens, she said, “when the rich and the powerful take control of government and use it to increase their own profits while they stick it to working people.”
For a show of power, she was introduced by Maurice Mitchell, the president of the influential Working Families Party, whose coveted endorsement she snatched from Bernie Sanders that very day. The group claims progressive wins in dozens of races across the country, and its backing may be a sign to the Bernie bros that it’s safe to come over should he drop out.
Her Washington Square Park performance explains why she’s attracting crowds growing toward Elton John size. She’s a Poli Sci prof’s dream of how a campaign should be built and organized. Everyone assumed she gave off fumes of the Harvard faculty lounge but instead she exudes Oklahoma, where she grew up poor and gradually worked her way into the middle class. She’s cheerful despite the no-nonsense demeanor of a former nun who’s given up one habit for another.
Wearing black pants, a camisole, and a flowing cardigan every day gives her back the extra time campaigning while female usually requires. She routinely delivers a big helping of spinach to a crowd standing still for 40 minutes, unlightened by jokes unless you count her self-aware smile when she repeats, “I have a plan for that.” The crowd Monday night, estimated between 8,000 and 20,000, stuck around for four hours to take selfies with the candidate after she spoke.
Warren extolled her idol Frances Perkins, who took up her fight for labor rights after the sweatshop fire and became FDR’s labor secretary, the first female Cabinet member in U.S. history. “What did one woman—one very persistent woman—backed up by millions of people across this country get done? Big structural change,” Warren said.
“Social Security. Unemployment insurance. Abolition of child labor. Minimum wage. The right to join a union. Even the very existence of the weekend.” By the end of that, I was thinking of Warren: “Yes, she can.”
Yet there’s a big undertow of “No, she can’t.” Some otherwise liberal Democratic men, threatened by her certainty, her style, her coming after their perch with her reforms, are against her. She reminds some of them of their first wives, who knew more than they did, or Mother Superior, who wouldn’t read their short stories until they diagrammed sentences. Women, the most worried about beating Donald Trump, hear men say they’re not voting for a lefty who can’t win, and retreat to a safer choice.
Thus, the feedback loop: Joe Biden is electable because he tops the polls. He tops the polls because he’s electable. Warren is not electable, allegedly, even as she keeps rising in the polls.
Electability is this year’s euphemism for likability, the “who you would like to have a beer with” question supposedly discarded after it was asked and answered to the detriment of Hillary Clinton and the entry of Trump into our lives. The hope this time was that with so many women running, voters wouldn’t have their 2016 excuse for not voting for a woman in the Oval Office: “I’m for a woman, just not this one.” There were five, now three. They couldn’t all be “this one.”
Warren is leading the female pack and, like Hillary, is bedeviled by some ineffable characteristic she lacks, or has, something some Democrats just can’t put their finger on except they know it when they see it and they won’t vote for it. That translates, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says, to a capable male candidate who’s not likable being electable—Ted Cruz, anyone?—but not a still more capable woman.
Out of the top seven candidates, Warren has the biggest spread between male and female Democratic likely voters at 20 points, according to the cross-tabs compiled by T. Anthony Patterson of the Morning Consult Poll. There’s less sexism in legislative races, so take no comfort from women’s romp to historic wins in the House. Who can sit behind the Resolute Desk is deeply affected by who has sat there before, and those people look more like Biden or Sanders than Warren.
In a CNN/UNH Survey Center poll of likely voters in New Hampshire, where Warren got a two-minute standing ovation before she said a word at a recent candidate roundup, the two leading female candidates rated high on favorability—67 percent for Warren, 54 percent for Kamala Harris—but their numbers plunged to respectively 4 and 5 percent when pollsters moved on to who do you like. Funny, but the candidates they preferred had only one thing in common: They were both men. The congenial, shoulder-squeezing Biden and the cantankerous Sanders each scored 20 percent support.
Among Warren’s targets are the ones consumers suspect don’t have their best interests at heart but whom they don’t have the power to fight—banks like Wells Fargo, which confessed to cheating customers, along with payday lenders whose business model is to cheat customers, polluters, consultants, defense contractors, corporate vultures, and the Washington establishment that keeps all of them in business. The Massachusetts Democrat added another culprit Monday, proposing to close the loophole that allows federal judges (see: Maryanne Trump-Barry, who the Times reported benefited from a family scheme to evade taxes) to escape investigation for misconduct by retiring.
It’s a campaign of small differences other than Warren’s conviction that the corruption she’s targeting arises from both parties’ coziness with the donor class (she’s sworn off big donations for the primary). Imagine a world where you don’t have to compromise with Pfizer on drug prices or Chevron on emissions because you are beholden to them to fund your next election. Most of the donor class is composed of well-situated men. Could Warren’s gender gap partly be the result of leaving the corrupt vote on the table?
If you doubt that “this woman” isn’t every woman, consider the poll taken in June by Avalanche Strategy, which studies the intersection of electability, likability, and gender to gauge the electorate. In it, Biden came out on top—that is, until respondents were told they could use a magic wand to change anything about a candidate in order to win. Gender was the most common choice. And when the wand was waved, Warren came out on top.