Trump isn't afraid of Elizabeth Warren. But he should be.

Jerry Adler
Senior Editor
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Photo: Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Elizabeth Warren is having a moment.

The Massachusetts senator, whose presidential campaign almost self-destructed before it began over her clumsy use of DNA testing in a pointless argument about whether she is descended from Native Americans, has picked herself up and fought her way into third place, or a third-place tie, or a close fourth, among Democrats in recent polls. This was as unexpected as the simultaneous rise into serious contention of Pete Buttigieg, an unknown Midwestern mayor in a same-sex marriage. Warren is a tenacious campaigner but an inexperienced candidate who got rattled by Donald Trump’s “Pocahontas” gibes; she has a compelling personal narrative as a child of the working class who rose to Harvard and the U.S. Senate, but she can’t seem to sell it convincingly to voters; her attempts to project homeyness come off as forced and self-conscious. She has risen by her own tenacity, a detailed and coherent set of policy ideas, and her uncanny ability to persuasively explain and defend them to voters.

And that would seem to make her a natural as a candidate to challenge the most policy-ignorant, belligerent and verbally incoherent president in American history. But there is an undertow of anxiety that pulls Democrats away from Warren: a pessimism, born of Hillary Clinton’s shocking loss in 2016, over the prospect of a woman ever actually winning the White House absent some unforeseen and dramatic shift in the electorate, such as an epidemic spread by tainted beer that selectively wipes out adult white males.

It can be seen in comments like this, from a black female activist named Catrena Norris Carter, who likes both Warren and Sen. Kamala Harris, but is reluctantly supporting another candidate she thinks has a better chance of winning: “We really need to be taking the temperature of the entire country. Not just people who think like us.”

In her estimation, the national thermometer is pointing to Joe Biden, who is leading in all the Democratic polls. A lot of his support seems to come from Democrats like Carter, who base it on his hypothesized appeal to other people, which seems like a somewhat insubstantial foundation on which to build a successful campaign. To be clear, a Quinnipiac poll released June 11 shows Biden way out in front of Trump, 53-40. But it also shows Trump losing to all the other leading Democratic contenders, by 9 points against Bernie Sanders, 8 against Harris, 7 against Warren, and 5 versus Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg.

The overwhelming desire for a winner is understandable. The writer Dahlia Lithwick thoroughly examined this mindset in Slate and managed to wring out a glimmer of hope that the country might come around to appreciating Warren’s credentials and ideas, notwithstanding that “it has always been utterly obvious that part of Clinton’s loss was due to misogyny — a misogyny that, if anything, has only become more apparent in the years since.”

But I don’t think the role of misogyny in Clinton’s defeat was quite so obvious, and Democrats who believe that arguably have overlearned the lesson of 2016. This is not just because Clinton in fact got more votes than Trump, or because there were many other reasons besides misogyny to account for her loss. The significant point is that if some people voted against Clinton because she was a woman, clearly others supported her for the same reason.

That’s a conclusion based in part on anecdotes like this one — which happens to come from Lithwick’s own article — about Election Day photographs of “[w]omen posed outside of public schools, and churches, and rec centers, wearing pantsuits and beaming into the camera with elated looks that said, I just voted for the first woman to be president of the United States!

And here’s the thing: They still can have that chance.

There’s a characteristic Democratic fatalism in the conviction that the country won’t vote for a female president, barely a decade after it elected a black man with an exotic name and background. If Barack Obama had lost the election, we would be hearing from Democrats who say they like Cory Booker but are supporting someone else because, you know, 2008. Warren’s persistent climb in the polls after having been written off at the start is the best response to that kind of argument. But for her and all the women running this year, “2008” should be the discussion-ending answer to the assertion that “the American people will never elect an ‘X’ president,” where X is some category other than ‘white man.’

Warren may have other obstacles to overcome, such as her asserted lack of “likability,” which is an occupational hazard faced by many female candidates, caught between the need to come across as a plausible leader of the free world and the rule that women shouldn’t discomfit male voters by appearing too smart or assertive. But I call BS on that idea, which ought to have disappeared along with red-tipped Marlboros that don’t show lipstick smudges. Smart and assertive is Warren’s brand. If she’s going to win, it will be on those qualities.

The 2016 electorate has been dissected by every statistical method known to science, but you can’t learn very much by comparing a generic male candidate to a generic woman. Elections are between individuals, not archetypes. An organization called Presidential Gender Watch published an exhaustive study on the Clinton-Trump race, which tied for the largest gender gap (the difference between how the winning candidate performed with men versus women) of any of the last 10 presidential elections. Clinton got 54 percent of women’s votes, about the same as Bill Clinton in 1996, Al Gore in 2000, and Obama in 2008 and 2012.

The assumption that a female candidate in the race would dramatically affect the results, one way or the other, didn’t hold up. As the study notes, “Some pundits and observers expected women voters to set aside partisan differences to elect the first woman president and appeared shocked when they voted — like men — based on party, ideology, and policy priorities.” If the 2024 race pits, say, Nikki Haley against Sherrod Brown, there’s no reason to think the white male patriarchy will line up behind the Democrat.

Women are no strangers to struggling to rise in competitive and male-dominated fields. Undoubtedly Warren, and the other well-qualified female candidates, faced these obstacles in their own careers. But office or faculty politics are different from national politics. Men who are used to exercising authority may feel challenged by dealing with women as equals or superiors, although I believe those attitudes are becoming less widespread. But voters don’t interact personally with the president of the United States. If President Warren issues an executive order on, say, tariff policy, men may disagree with it, but not because it reminds them of the time Mom ordered them to get a haircut or else.

There appears to be another dynamic at work here, which is that Trump quite visibly feels threatened by Biden, whereas he has mostly left off attacking Warren lately: He has issued 32 tweets about Sleepy Joe in 2019, but only four referencing Pocahontas. The evidence is in Trump’s own words, which are a reliable negative indicator of what he actually thinks. Leaving the White House Tuesday for a rally in Iowa, the same day Biden was appearing there, Trump told reporters “I’d rather run against Biden rather than anybody — I think he’s the weakest mentally. I like running against people who are weak mentally. I think Joe is the weakest up here” — pointing to his own head. “The other ones have much more energy.”

The more Trump mocks Biden, the more apparent it is that he genuinely fears his populist appeal, whereas running against someone like Warren is right in his comfort zone. “I see Pocahontas is doing better I would love to run against her, frankly,” he said on Fox News Friday morning. Democrats who buy into the notion that Trump is a natural-born political genius in the rough, rather than a blowhard who blundered into an electoral gold mine with rants about immigration and trade, can take heed if they wish. But they should also think about what kind of contrast they want their candidate to draw with Trump in the debates. And whatever lesson they want to draw from the last presidential election, it shouldn’t be that the country will never elect a female president.

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