Elizabeth Warren nailed it (Opinion)

Elizabeth Warren nailed her CNN town hall Monday night. And even though she’s not getting the breathless headlines of the B-boys — Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg — she’s adeptly setting the bar for every other candidate in this race. The question now isn’t her skill, style or substance. It’s whether she’ll get fair coverage from a political media eager to glom on to the shiny new thing, and unable to give a steady, competent woman her due.

Warren’s performance wasn’t perfect. She answered a question about affordable higher education and the rich being able to buy their way into nearly everything by talking about the influence of money in Washington, instead of addressing the college admissions scam in greater depth. Sometimes she dodged questions, such as when host Jake Tapper asked her specifically about reparations for slavery in the form of cash payments and about the possibility of eliminating private health insurance companies.

But more often, she connected. There were multiple times when she seemed near tears: When she recounted seeing men, women, girls and boys in cages near our southern border, I found myself watching in jaw-clenched silence; the auditorium, too, went still and soundless.

Later, she told the story of her dad nearly dying of a heart attack and her mother, who had never worked outside the home, donning her best dress to go get a minimum wage job at Sears that kept the family afloat. The slightest waver crept into her voice as Warren talked about her own family’s past. But when she connected it to our political present (“Today, in America, a full-time minimum wage job will not keep a mama and a baby out of poverty; I am in this fight because I believe that is wrong”), she got loud — she got mad. It was real and it was righteous.
Warren’s strategy, in her campaign and in this town hall, is start big and move to the granular. In response to question after question, she led with a broad, values-driven idea (“Health care is a basic human right and we fight for basic human rights;” “we are a country that is built on our differences, that is our strength, not our weakness;” “I believe we need a constitutional amendment that protects the right to vote for every American citizen and to make sure every vote gets counted”) before outlining a more specific policy plan. And much of what she outlined was crucial, substantive and careful.

She talked a lot about research, wanting to get experts and stakeholders in the room to come up with the best plan possible — that was on the table for everything from maternal mortality to reparations for slavery. She talked a lot about the impact of race on inequality, and the impact of a self-interested class of highly influential millionaires and billionaires on fueling inequality. You can see why she made a great professor: It took her just a few sentences to explain her proposal to break up the big tech companies in digestible terms, and to get the audience quickly on her side. Most viewers, I imagine, walked away from this town hall having actually learned something.

Warren’s strength this cycle has come from two places: First, her ability to think big while actually planning out the details of how to achieve the sprawling policies she proposes; and second, her aptitude at talking about inequality as a class issue and a race issue and a gender issue.

On Monday, she told us a little more about who she is, including about her faith. To be honest, I cringed a bit when Tapper asked about the role of faith in Warren’s public and private life. Too often statements of faith (or lack thereof) can become a weapon for the religious right to attack progressives such as Warren; plus, the broad evangelical support enjoyed by a thrice-married philandering habitual liar has pretty much neutered any argument that this segment of the American faithful genuinely cares about morality. Nevertheless, Warren brought it, telling a Bible story with the fluency and vigor of someone behind a Sunday morning pulpit.

Her challenge now is getting her due. Media narratives get set early (especially, it seems, for women), and hers so far is “boring wonk.” Putting aside that after several years of “dramatic cretin,” boring wonks should perhaps be met with a little more enthusiasm, Warren’s time on the national stage Monday night showed depth, charisma and authenticity, all of the things voters say they want and the political press claims to value. Those of us with the privilege of platforms, and anyone who opines even in the most intimate quarters about the presidential race, owes Warren — not the narratives or caricatures or assumptions about electability, but the woman herself — a watch and a listen.

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