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Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren visits members of Culinary Workers Union Local 226 picketing outside the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., February 19, 2020. REUTERS/Eric Thayer - RC2X3F9XTXHI
Politics

The unyielding effort of Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren took stages at a jog in comfy-looking sneakers. She waved her arms impatiently in the air at debates, trying to get recognized. Isaac Newton was right. An object in motion remains in motion unless it’s compelled to change direction by an outside force. People who love Warren love her energy as much as her ideas. She exudes effort. That was part of her appeal from the start. It was the feeling her campaign went for, a sense that Warren was someone who did all the reading. She put in the work. She had solutions for everything, and enough stamina left over for hourslong selfie lines.

Warren’s stump speech told a story about beating the odds. Growing up on the “ragged edge of the middle class” in Oklahoma; getting fired from her job as a teacher when she became visibly pregnant, because “principals did what principals did in those days” — only to have the last laugh by going to law school and making it to Harvard and Washington. At every step, the story went, nothing came easy.

Nevertheless, as Mitch McConnell famously said, she persisted. And for a brief moment last summer and early fall, Warren was on the brink of becoming the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. She was probably too progressive for many moderates, and her popularity with nonwhite voters was untested, but who was going to beat her? Joe Biden looked old. Bernie Sanders had a heart attack. Pete Buttigieg had not reached peak-Buttigieg. While the rest of the primary field was struggling just to qualify, Warren was dominating the debates.

Then Warren released her “Medicare for All” plan. She started sliding in the polls. The perception that she was gaining momentum — that she was, when you considered the merits, perhaps the best candidate in the race — evaporated in a matter of days, replaced by a new conventional wisdom that Warren couldn’t win. Narratives around presidential candidates are like concrete; they set quickly and are hard to break up. Also, when voting starts, these races move fast. Third place in Iowa, fourth place in New Hampshire and Nevada, fifth in South Carolina. Then Super Tuesday, when she lost in her home state.

Supporters were not expecting her to drop out so soon. People who have watched her rise through academia and politics are not used to seeing her fail. “Elizabeth Warren is a self-confident person. She works very hard and tries very hard to perform at a high level,” said Jay Westbrook, a prominent bankruptcy law scholar and longtime friend of Warren’s who has co-written several academic books with her. Warren had so many qualities that people want to see in a president, but it wasn’t enough.

What happened? Warren styled herself as the type of Democrat that many on the left claimed they wanted coming out of the Obama years: an unapologetic liberal who had learned from hard lessons (the Merrick Garland blockade, losing in 2016) when to fight back, and when to strike a deal. Warren’s fighter persona was more upbeat than Sanders’ shouting-man schtick, yet she was typecast as the louder, shriller, less likable candidate. Warren fans are disappointed. Female Warren voters in particular seem angry and sad, and depressingly unsurprised about how things have gone.

Their disappointment extends to Biden. Of the two, Warren in many ways had a more realistic political outlook. Biden claims that he could restore bipartisanship in Washington. Warren’s message was — are you kidding me? Let’s get real about who the Democrats are dealing with. And it’s pointless to tackle any other reforms — whether they’re progressive, centrist or somewhere in between — unless you take the money out of politics first. Warren’s vision of “big structural change,” as she called it, started with ending corruption. She had a plan for that. She tried getting real. Why were voters so reluctant to join her fight?

 

There’s an old joke that every senator looks in the mirror and sees a future president. The unspoken setup is that just to get to the Senate, most members of the world’s greatest deliberative body spent years eyeing the next best elected office as they worked their way up the political food chain.

Warren, who is 70, insisted that her interest in running the country was a recent development. As she reminded viewers at the debate in Charleston in late February, she’s only been an elected official for seven years. For most of her adult life, when Warren looked in the mirror, she saw a teacher. A public school special education teacher, briefly, and then for more than three decades a law school professor studying why middle- and working-class families go broke.

She still seems to see herself that way — as an educator who just happens to be a senator from Massachusetts (and a now-former candidate for president of the United States). Warren’s description of herself is sincere. There’s also something else going on. In presenting herself, “I think she thought really deeply about how you tackle the question around women and ambition,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. In Warren’s speeches, she would say, “‘I’ve had my dream job. It was to be a special education teacher.’ In case you thought maybe her dream was to be the first woman president. [The message was], ‘It’s in the past, my ambition is in the past,’” Palmieri said. “We’re very comfortable with a woman as a teacher. Not a Harvard Law school professor. She’s a teacher from Oklahoma. It’s really smart.”

When Barack Obama ran for president, people who’d known him for years told reporters they believed from the moment they met him that he would be president someday. Nobody I spoke to — old friends, former colleagues and law school students, officials from the Warren campaign, people who still know her as “Liz” — said the same thing about Warren.

Most were surprised that she ran for the Senate, though they were always quick to add that they had faith she could succeed once she committed herself to the task. “She’s very charismatic, and she’s obviously very smart,” said Lynn LoPucki, a professor at UCLA Law who became friends with Warren after they worked on a book together in the mid-1990s. After she reviews the facts and arrives at a final decision, he said, Warren is hard to dissuade. “She has very strong opinions. So it’s difficult to stand up to her, and it’s difficult to win” in an argument.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren speaks at a Town Hall in Los Angeles, California, U.S., August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Elizabeth Warren speaks at a town hall in Los Angeles, California, on Aug. 21, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

At the time of her first Senate run, which she launched in 2011, Warren could have easily walked away from the public sphere. She had spent 10 years at the forefront of a campaign to reform U.S. bankruptcy law. The effort failed, but Warren became a national voice on wealth inequality. Her now well-chronicled battle to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was a success. Obama didn’t nominate her to run the agency, but by then her legacy was already secure. She was close to retirement age, and one of the most famous academics in the country.

A former senior Obama White House official, who has known Warren for years, told me that more than anything, Warren was motivated to run for the Senate by the idea that she could use the larger platform to promote issues she’d worked on her entire career. Being a star academic had gotten Warren an appearance on The Daily Show, but now she wanted an opportunity to pass legislation that directly impacted peoples’ lives.

From her Senate run to the presidential campaign, Warren’s motivations never changed, said the former White House official, who asked not to be named in order to discuss private conversations with Warren about her thinking at the time. “This is a mission for her. It’s about what she sees as the best way to try and help individuals who are poor, who are middle class and seek opportunity and equity.”

 

Running for the Senate was a gamble, even in deeply liberal Massachusetts. The state had never sent a woman to the U.S. Senate. And Warren had never run for public office. Plenty of very smart people think they can do it and try, only to see that their skill set in another field doesn’t translate well to politics. It’s impossible to know how good a candidate can be until they become a candidate.

Doug Rubin was the top political strategist on Warren’s first campaign. Rubin, an influential Boston-based Democratic consultant who served as chief of staff to former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, said Warren was an unknown quantity at the first primary debate of the race. “It was nerve-wracking. This was the first time we were putting her out there in a significant way,” Rubin said. “There was a lot of press attention, a lot of questions about who she was. The first few questions, she was just so good. I remember 20 minutes into that debate relaxing and thinking, ‘O.K., we’re going to be O.K.’”

As it turned out, debating wasn’t a problem for a onetime high school debate champion. The other aspects of running for office came relatively easily to Warren as well. A quick study in retail politics, she proved a willing and capable, if not overly enthusiastic, fundraiser. In the general election, Warren beat the telegenic, well-funded Republican incumbent Scott Brown by seven points.

Once she got to the Senate, Warren chose a workhorse-not-showhorse approach that Clinton adopted before her White House run. “When you come to the body as a freshman with a great reputation, you have to be careful that you don’t alienate other senators,” said Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts congressman who worked with Warren to include a provision creating her consumer agency in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. Warren “resembled Hillary’s Senate career in being a good member of the Senate.”

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) questions federal financial regulators about Wall Street reform before a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington September 9, 2014.   REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst    (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS) - GM1EA9A00X701

In the fall of 2014, one year after joining the Senate, Warren scored a position on the Senate Democrat’s leadership team. The move was a sign of her rising stature in the party. Photo by REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Warren focused on her favorite issues, namely financial regulation and anti-corruption reform. She burnished her progressive policy chops. She did not initiate freewheeling conversations with reporters in the Capitol, John McCain-style. I was covering Congress at the time, and remember Warren as a polite figure who gave off the impression that she was always in a hurry, late to some meeting or hearing where she was eager to dig into the data. It seemed she had a clear set of priorities for how to use her time in Washington, a clear idea of how she wanted to be Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Whatever Warren was doing in the Senate, it worked. After the 2014 midterms, in a sign of her rising stature, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid created a new position for Warren on the Senate Democrats’ leadership team. The appointment sent two messages that reverberated around Washington. The progressive wing of the party was an ascendant force that could no longer be ignored by the Democratic establishment; and Warren was the establishment’s designated liberal star. Reid, at the time the most powerful Democrat not named Obama, could have chosen Sanders. Warren got the nod instead.

But in another old saw that happens to be true, a politician’s greatest strengths are also often their greatest weaknesses. After the 2016 election, when the speculation of a Warren presidential run began in earnest, her identity as a fiery populist was baked in. The question, even back then, was: How much would Warren have to pivot to the center to have a shot at winning the Democratic nomination? And if the moment came, could she actually pull it off?

 

Warren’s presidential campaign got off to a slow start in the early months of 2019. She struggled to raise money initially, after announcing that she would not attend high-dollar fundraisers. The pledge was on-brand; it would have been awkward to run an anti-corruption campaign while cozying up to “billionaires in wine caves,” as Warren memorably put it later on in the race. But it was risky. “That was a huge moment early on in the campaign, and it could have easily turned out to be a disaster,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic strategist. Eventually money started coming in. But for a while Warren was underfunded and stuck in single digits in the polls, far behind Sanders and Biden, who was already leading the crowded field even before he formally entered the race in April.

The video Warren released defending her claims of Native American heritage was also a setback. Marco Rubio proved, in the 2016 Republican primary race, that trying to out-bully Donald Trump is a losing strategy. Warren was standing up to the president’s racist nickname for her, not comparing hand sizes, but the move backfired. One year later, it’s still hard to understand how a slick-looking video that relied on DNA testing to prove Warren’s distant Native American ancestry even made it past the brainstorming stage, let alone out into the world where it will live forever on the Internet. The video was an embarrassing mistake, and Warren wound up apologizing for it. It’s one topic that people around her still avoid discussing, even off the record. One person outside the campaign who knows Warren well said she genuinely believed the stories she’d grown up with about her family’s Cherokee background, and was so angry with Trump for the “Pocahontas” nickname that her desire to defend what she saw as an attack on her integrity outweighed any political judgment.

The episode hinted at one of the fundamental challenges Warren would face in the coming year: building a diverse coalition that included large numbers of minority voters. Warren tried. She talked about the black-white wealth gap frequently as a candidate, with the easy authority of a former academic who spent years studying the issue. Melissa Jacoby, a professor at the UNC School of Law and a former student of Warren’s who worked with her on the National Bankruptcy Review Commission, said Warren’s interest wasn’t an election-year put-on. “Concerns about the racial wealth gap have been in her work for a long time. Her track record illustrates how she got down that path,” Jacoby said. More importantly, Warren did her best to show up in the black and Latino communities. But it was always a tough sell.

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at a campaign house party in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, U.S., September 2, 2019. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

Warren speaks at a campaign house party in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, on Sept. 2, 2019. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

Back in October, I watched Warren field questions at a forum on criminal justice in South Carolina. An African American student in the audience stood up and asked Warren how she would speak to him about racial profiling if she were his mother. Warren was not expecting the question, and she paused. Then she paused some more, as she considered how to talk about putting herself in the shoes of a black mother. She clearly wanted to give a thoughtful answer. But just as clearly, there was no great answer to give.

On another occasion one month later, a black woman and a white woman gave very different reactions to seeing Warren speak at a candidates forum in Iowa, underscoring divides over race that Warren was never able to bridge. Warren had just come off the stage at the arena in downtown Des Moines. She had touched on racial justice in her remarks, but true to form the speech was focused squarely on the issues of corruption and income inequality. In a concourse outside the arena, I caught up with Linda Kemp, who is white and lives in Grundy City, Iowa. Kemp, who was leaning towards supporting Warren in the Iowa caucuses, said she thought Warren had hit the right notes on race. But she acknowledged that maybe she was missing something. “I guess because I don’t think of things in terms of race it shows my bias. I’ve not lived as someone of color, so I don’t hear what she’s saying as leaving anything out.”

Valerie Simutis, who is black and had flown to Iowa for the forum from her hometown of Chicago, confirmed that, at least to her, there was definitely something absent from Warren’s speech. “When I see Warren on the stage I’m proud. She looks like my neighbor. She looks like my high school teacher,” said Simutis, whose favorite candidate at the time was Kamala Harris. Nevertheless, she said, a message that puts economic concerns first and race second misses the point. “You can all be on the same level when it comes to economic equality,” she said, “but racism doesn’t equal money. It’s what you look like.”

In the spring of last year, however, Warren’s future struggle to win over minority voters were still a ways off. Her campaign was starting to find itself. She put out plan after plan in the belief that voters really care about policy — a ballsy roll of the dice in the Trump era, when tweets rule the day — and her conviction was rewarded. Voters cared. Seemingly overnight, backed by a wonky team churning out white papers from the campaign’s headquarters in Boston, Warren became The Plan Candidate. With grudging admiration, aides on opposing campaigns privately acknowledged that Warren’s policy shop was the best in the race. Warren caught fire. She started rising in the polls, and her surge looked as if it might last.

On Nov. 1, 2019, Warren released her first health care plan. This was a turning point, probably the turning point, in her campaign. Don’t forget: Warren was as close as she would ever be to claiming sole possession of the all-important front-runner title. She was emerging over Sanders as the consensus pick among progressive voters. She was first overall in Iowa, first in New Hampshire. She beat Biden in a national poll. Pundits were predicting (a sure sign that this wouldn’t pan out) that the primary race was headed for a Biden-Warren showdown. In the weeks leading up to the start of November, Warren had been facing mounting pressure to take a position on health care. All she had to do was check the box. Given her campaign’s track record of successful policy rollouts, there was no reason to think this would be any different.

 

Of all the plans to get wrong. If Warren had put out, say, an incoherent proposal for legalizing marijuana, this might be a different race. Instead, inexplicably, her major policy dud came on the one issue that Democratic voters care about most. The one issue, in fact, that has dominated American political discourse ever since Obama began pushing for health care reform when he became president. Somehow, when it counted most, Warren’s otherwise flawless policy team swung and missed. Ultimately, Warren missed.

The price tag for Warren’s “Medicare for All” plan was $20.5 trillion, which seemed low. Warren said she would pay for the plan without raising taxes on the middle class, a magic trick even Sanders admitted wasn’t possible. Liberals said it didn’t go far enough, and centrist Democrats claimed it went too far.

In an interview with the PBS NewsHour in Iowa the day the plan was released, Biden said he looked at the numbers and thought Warren was “making it up.” I was in the room. Biden’s eyes lit up when Judy Woodruff, the NewsHour’s anchor and managing editor, asked him about Warren’s plan; you could tell that he knew it was a gift. Three weeks later, Warren reversed herself and came out with a new, Biden-Sanders hybrid proposal that could best be described as Medicare for All In The Future. This one was based on the improbable assumption that Warren could expand the Affordable Care Act with a public option in the first year of her presidency, and then at the end of her first term convince Congress — that functional, bill-passing machine — to act again and approve a government-run universal health care program. This revised version fared even worse.

FILE PHOTO: Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg wait onstage before the fourth Democratic U.S. 2020 presidential election debate at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio October 15, 2019. REUTERS/Aaron Josefcz/File Photo

At the Democratic debate in Ohio on Oct. 15, 2019, Warren faced calls from her rivals to put out a health care plan. She released the plan a few weeks later, in what would be a turning point in her campaign. Photo by REUTERS/Aaron Josefcz/File Photo

“This election started out as a series of ‘subprimaries,’ and one was the Sanders-Warren contest. She overtook him” early on, Frank said, in an interview over the winter. But even when Sanders appeared to be in Warren’s rearview mirror, “I think she was still sufficiently worried about Sanders to say she was for Medicare for All.” It may have been Warren’s personal preference all along. She is very liberal. And she certainly faced enormous pressure from progressives to stand with Sanders. But doing so was political suicide, because the Democratic Party’s base — the broader base, as opposed to the younger core that hangs out on Twitter — remains left-of-center, not far-far left. Abandoning Sanders’ most loyal supporters to go after Biden’s larger following was likely the safer bet. It’s the one big-time move most Democratic voters expect and want to see — the move that says, I’m willing to compromise if it means building the coalition needed to win the presidency.

It was a difficult decision no matter what. Health care had never been one of Warren’s main areas of expertise. But her campaign had nearly a year to prepare. Maybe there were no perfect answers, but surely there were better ones. Warren quickly recognized her blunder. To her credit, she went for the big, sweeping gesture that nominations are made of. “I think it was probably a hard step for her to back up on health care,” LoPucki said. In the end, “she moved in the right direction,” Frank said, but “she didn’t go far enough in the compromise.” When Warren turned around and tried appeasing both sides, she wound up infuriating everyone, and damaging her reputation for being a straight shooter.

“There are pivot-point moments that happen. And it’s hard to know they’re happening when they’re happening. But if you do recognize them, and make the pivot, that’s the road to victory,” said a Democratic operative who advised a rival campaign. Warren’s campaign was “at that moment where they could have taken a big lead and dictated the election.” Instead Warren started to fade, and she never recovered.

 

I sat down with Warren one evening in Washington in late January. This was in the final days of the Senate impeachment trial, which had turned out to be even more draining than expected. During the trial, senators were stuck in the Senate chamber for hours on end. They were supposed to sit at their desks in silence, and were only allowed to drink water or milk. Warren obliged, for the most part. But occasionally she would break the rules by leaving the chamber. Minutes later she’d reappear, striding back toward her desk, a rebel on the go with a glass full of milk.

The trial presented a problem for Warren and the three other senators who were still in the Democratic primary race. Since they had to be in D.C., they were all finding creative ways to reach voters from afar. After our interview, Warren was participating in a tele-town hall with supporters in Iowa ahead of the caucuses.

When we met, Warren had changed out of one of her signature colorful blazers and into a gray sweatshirt in preparation for the tele-town hall. She looked relaxed. I asked Warren about her decision-making process as a leader, specifically if what I had heard was true — that she really did the research herself, but was also reluctant to back down from a position once she had made up her mind.

“I think it’s fair. I think the description is entirely fair,” she said. Warren continued. “I do my homework. I do my reading. But I also cross-examine the facts.” Warren said in meetings with her staff she likes probing for weaknesses in her own position by switching to the other side and arguing the issue from that point of view. “I love the process with a smart team of getting to a good decision. So when you say ‘When she makes up her mind she sticks with it,’ it’s because I’m confident that I’m right,” Warren said. “Sometimes you’ve got to make adjustments,” she added. Warren didn’t give an example — she didn’t have to. “But I don’t decide until I’m sure that I’ve got my feet steady under me, and I’m in a place that I’m willing to stand in and defend.”

Later on, I asked Warren if her vision for governing was realistic. She answered, in pure Warren fashion, with a story about corruption in the hearing aid industry. Warren grew animated as she went through the numbers, leaning forward in her chair to drive her points home. Forty million people in the U.S. suffer from hearing loss, she said, but just one in six can afford a pair of hearing aids, which typically run around $5,000, because the costs aren’t covered by Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance. The industry had also successfully lobbied for a rule banning the over-the-counter sale of hearing aids, which helped drive down competition and contributed to their high cost. When Warren became aware of the issue a few years ago, she drafted a bill to end the ban on over-the-counter sales. Then she started shopping it around for support with lawmakers on the other side of the aisle.

Supporters of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren wait in line to enter a campaign rally in Denver, Colorado, U.S., February 23, 2020. - RC2P6F91VEPH

Supporters wait in line to enter a campaign rally for Elizabeth Warren in Denver, Colorado, on Feb. 23, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Bob Strong

“The first person I called was a Republican. He said yes. The second person I called was a Republican, he said yes. Third person I called was a Republican, said yes. All under the radar, no big headlines,” Warren said. A few months later, Trump signed the bill into law. “Now, not every piece of legislation will move like that,” Warren concluded. “But the point is, it’s about how you get things done. Sometimes, you get things done by staying entirely out of the spotlight. Sometimes you get things done by having a big public fight.”

The other point Warren seemed to be making was that she was more than a fighter, much as she might love using that word. Biden wasn’t the only Democrat who could build bipartisan consensus. Put in the same position, Sanders might not even get his calls answered. But in order to prove all those things, Warren needed a chance to lead.

 

Up until the very end, Warren refused to criticize her Democratic socialist neighbor from Vermont. She finally unloaded — on Sanders and everyone else who was left in the race — in the debate before the South Carolina primary. But by then Warren had already fallen short in the first three nominating contests. The idea of a Biden-Warren showdown was a distant memory. Warren was back where she started.

“She picked the same lane as Sanders. I don’t think that [has to do with] gender. That’s a strategic box” that was hard to escape, said Palmieri, the former Clinton campaign aide and White House communications director under Obama. But it’s also true that as a woman, Warren faced added criticism and scrutiny that male candidates like Sanders don’t have to endure, she said. Whether it’s about a change in a policy position or anything else, “we’re more suspicious of women and their motives than men,” Palmieri said. When faced with the choice, as a society “we do default to men as leaders, and we tolerate behavior in male politicians that we do not tolerate in women.”

In interviews in a half dozen states over the past year, women who liked Warren talked about her candidacy in remarkably personal terms. The side-by-side comparisons with Sanders were especially galling. Countless women who sided with Warren expressed eternal frustration that Sanders — Sanders! — was viewed as the more acceptable choice of the two. Their positions on most issues were nearly identical. If anything, Warren fans liked to point out, she was more moderate. But somehow, mysteriously, Sanders and then Biden were sprinkled with the “electable” fairy dust. Warren never was.

Numerous Democrats I spoke to who didn’t want to back Warren cited reasons that had nothing to do with her gender. Some were diehard supporters of another candidate, and had been from the start. Others were moderates who simply found her too liberal, and still others were progressives who found her not liberal enough, either on a broad range of issues or on health care in particular. But then there were lots (and lots) of Democrats who said they did not think a woman could beat Trump — not Warren, not Amy Klobuchar, not any woman, period. The women running were too tough or not tough enough, too boring or too outspoken, too young or too old.

The argument against Warren and the other female candidates — made by women and men alike — usually boiled down to a variation of, “I want a woman president, just not her.” That had been a common refrain around Clinton in 2016. In that election, voters could claim it was personal and specific to Clinton herself. After all, Clinton was the only woman in U.S. history to win a major party presidential nomination, and she wasn’t just any woman. She was Hillary Clinton, outsized political hero or villain (depending on one’s point of view) to a generation of Americans.

The 2020 Democratic primary race, when it began, was different. If voters really wanted a female president, there were a cornucopia of options to choose from: Warren, a liberal white U.S. senator from New England by way of Oklahoma; Kirsten Gillibrand, a liberal white U.S. senator from the East Coast; Kamala Harris, a liberal black U.S. senator from the West Coast; Amy Klobuchar, a moderate white U.S. senator from the Midwest; the inimitable Marianne Williamson; and Tulsi Gabbard, a congresswoman from Hawaii who was born in American Samoa and has outlasted them all. The “just not her” argument had a broad application.

Elizabeth Warren speaks to supporters in Monterey Park, California, on March 2, 2020. She dropped out of the race three days later. Photo by REUTERS/Kyle Grillot

Sometimes, when the issue of gender came up, voters would say that they liked this female candidate’s experience, and that female candidate’s criticisms of Trump, and so on. It felt like a game, like voters were designing a contender who combined all their favorite super powers. But of course that’s not possible. A mythical Elizala Gillichar doesn’t exist.

“I’m tired and I’m pissed off,” Lauren Crank, a Warren supporter, told me at one Warren event in South Carolina. “It’s so crazy that in our society we’ve been conditioned to place our trust and confidence in females to handle household and family management. If you’re fine trusting something so intimate as your family to a woman, why couldn’t you trust her with the country?” Maddie Cassidy put it another way at a different Warren rally, this one in a church on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. “It’s absolutely insane that we haven’t had a woman president.” Cassidy wasn’t finished. “We definitely need to represent what America looks like. And America is looking less and less like a white man. An old white man, especially.”

 

In the last weeks and days of her campaign, supporters at town halls and rallies would come up to Warren and ask for a hug. Mostly they were women. That wasn’t new, but as it became clear that Warren wasn’t going to win, these encounters had the air of a last goodbye.

On the morning of the South Carolina primary, Warren gave a final get-out-the-vote speech at an event space in Columbia. The room was packed with supporters. Warren arrived with her aides and husband, Bruce Mann, and waited in a holding area while a campaign surrogate revved up the crowd of a few hundred people. Then it was time for the candidate. A glass door covered in campaign posters (“Dream Big Fight Hard”) swung open, and there was Warren, half-walking and half-jogging onto a makeshift stage in the center of the room.

She took the microphone and thanked everyone for supporting her campaign. Then the only female candidate to lead a national poll in 2020 introduced herself. “My name is Elizabeth Warren, and I’m the woman who’s going to beat Donald Trump.” The crowd roared, as if the louder they got the more likely it was to be true. Warren soaked it in. When the room quieted down, she began by mentioning her old dream, in the very moment her new dream was slipping away.

“I wasn’t born in politics. I wasn’t born to run for office. If I was born for anything special, I was born to be a teacher.” Normally this was the point in her stump speech when Warren would launch into a story about her childhood in Oklahoma, and how it informed her lifelong fight for working families. This time, she skipped over that. By now, people knew who she was, and what she stood for. And anyway it was primary day, so there was no time to waste. Warren cut straight to the point. “If you actually want to get something done, you oughta have a plan.” She went on. “I know people kid me about my plans. But to me, this is the part that expands my heart. This is the thing that shows how you make real change.”

Warren ticked through some of her ideas, urged people to get out and vote, and gave back the mic. Warren was on a tight schedule and didn’t have time for a full-fledged selfie line, so she posed for a group photo with the people seated in the first few rows of seats. As it was breaking up, she noticed a young girl in the second row wearing a Warren campaign sticker on a pink T-shirt with white letters that read “Future Voter.” Warren was in a hurry, but she stopped to shake the girl’s hand and say hello.

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