In 2010, after Ted Kennedy’s death left a Massachusetts Senate seat open, Martha Coakley ran one of the worst, most utterly presumptuous campaigns in history to fill it. Believing completely in the idea that no Republican could ever win that office in that state, she barely left her own state attorney general’s office to campaign.
When the dust settled from that special election, a contest that saw statewide turnout barely crack 30 percent, a relatively unknown conservative Republican named Scott Brown had won handily, primarily because that low turnout included virtually every voting-age Republican in the Commonwealth. On that day, in that deep blue state, it was enough.
Two years later, Sen. Elizabeth Warren took Kennedy’s seat away from Brown in a rout. I had voted for her in 2010 to no avail, and again in 2012, both times with pride. I moved out of the state a year later, but I always felt like one of her constituents because of that election in ‘12.
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It was a constituency of innocence, born in that moment eight years ago when it seemed like reasonable people were regaining a foothold in the ways and means of government. President Barack Obama was reelected that same year, and though I disagreed with him vehemently on any number of issues, he and Warren brought an intellect to their leadership that seemed a shining beacon after so many years of right-wing reactionary rule under the likes of George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.
So much for all that.
Warren ended her 2020 presidential campaign on Thursday, after absorbing a humiliating defeat in the Massachusetts primary and placing no better than third in the other Super Tuesday contests. She will probably return to the Senate, to Kennedy’s seat, where she is also most desperately needed, though a vice presidential nod is not out of the question.
“We didn’t reach our goal,” said Warren in a conference call with her campaign staff, “but what we have done together — what you have done — has made a lasting difference. It’s not the scale of the difference we wanted to make, but it matters, and the changes will have ripples for years to come.”
After Warren’s decision was made public, Sen. Bernie Sanders offered these remarks: “Elizabeth Warren has taken on the most powerful corporate interests because she cares about those who have been left behind…. Without her, the progressive movement would not be nearly as strong as it is today. I know that she’ll stay in this fight and we are grateful that she will.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden echoed a similar message: “Senator Warren is the fiercest of fighters for middle class families. Her work in Washington, in Massachusetts, and on the campaign trail has made a real difference in people’s lives. We needed her voice in this race, and we need her continued work in the Senate.”
At one point last year, there were six women running for president: Senator Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and author Marianne Williamson. Today, only Gabbard — who scarcely registered her presence in Tuesday’s slate of primaries or in any of the races before then — remains.
Gabbard and two septuagenarian white men — that is where the widest and most diverse field of Democratic presidential candidates in history now stands.
Only this summer, Warren’s ambitious and detail-oriented agenda had carried her to the front of the pack. Wall Street grew worried because Warren’s specific talent is knowing how money games the system down to the last nook and cranny, and her mission in life is to bring the tyranny of big finance to heel. This fear, as much as Biden’s early weakness, was what brought former New York city Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his billions into the race.
But despite an exquisitely organized ground game, Warren struggled to match the popularity and fundraising prowess of Sanders. Some progressive voters saw her as a candidate who would sap support from Sanders and ease the way for another doomed “centrist” to seize the nomination. Had she stayed in the race much longer, such accusations would have dogged her every step.
There were, of course, other flaws in Warren’s campaign that hampered her rise. Her attempt to use the results of a DNA test to back her claims about Cherokee ancestry drew ire from Native activists, providing “an unwitting assist to … Republican initiatives that are attempting to take away tribal sovereignty,” as Truthout authors Kelly Hayes and Jacqueline Keeler argued at NBC. Warren’s own bungled handling of the controversy over her claims to Native ancestry also opened her to attacks from Donald Trump and his supporters.
Another struggle for Warren’s campaign was her cautious approach to conflict with members of her own party who were seeking the same office. She was so devoted to the concept of unity in the face of Trump that she spent much of her campaign seemingly unwilling to criticize her rivals. Of course she overcame this tendency eventually — most memorably when she obliterated Bloomberg during the Las Vegas debate — but her campaign’s decision to prioritize a message of unity constrained her from showing this sort of fire at other times in the race.
Warren’s summertime surge ultimately failed to broaden her support with a wider demographic swath of voters, despite her repeated evocation of her upbringing in Oklahoma and her struggles as a working mother. When her campaign stumbled trying to explain how she would pay for her $20 trillion health care proposal, her momentum faded and never returned.
In the end, though, history may remember Warren’s campaign as ending not for any particular fault of the candidate, but because of the sexist attitudes that were activated when she began leading in the polls throughout the summer and into the early fall. When that threshold was crossed, the talk of “electability,” “likeability” and “she can’t win” began in earnest. Senators Klobuchar, Harris, Gillibrand and the other women in the race did not endure these loud whispers in the same way because they did not rise as high as Warren in the polls.
They would have heard them the way Warren did had they enjoyed similar early success, and therein lies the rub.
“She has been the best candidate by almost every measure,” writes Yvonne Abraham for The Boston Globe. “She set the policy agenda for the race with detailed policy proposals; as a debater she is fleet of foot, and funny; she has a compelling backstory, and an unlikely and brilliant career aiding those this country leaves behind. But it’s often the case that better than isn’t good enough when you’re a woman. Especially when you’re running in a primary where even the most evolved voters, including many women, are terrified a woman — even one as spectacular as Warren — can’t beat Trump.”
Many will disagree with the notion that Warren was “the best candidate by almost every measure,” but it is hard to argue with the notion that her path to the nomination was made unreasonably arduous by dint of this nation’s sexist attitudes and the way it continues to devalue the women within it. The weakness is not hers but our culture’s and its deeply embedded misogyny, and we are all the poorer for it, once again.
Warren’s presidential campaign has ended, but her good work in the Senate will continue. She may be a candidate for vice president, but Warren is not done with Wall Street yet, and thank God for her because of it. I helped vote her into the Senate eight years ago to do exactly that, and I would be glad to see her return.
“One of the hardest parts of this is … all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years,” said Warren during her announcement, emotion filling her voice. “That’s going to be hard.” When it happens, and it will, whoever it is who ends that long wait for a woman president will have Warren, among others, to thank for it.