An odd thing happened to the woman who came onto the scene as an anti-banking, anti-establishment, burn-down-the-castle revolutionary: Elizabeth Warren became the castle.
In the past few years, she raised millions of dollars to build a political machine. She began talking up policy issues beyond the bread-and-butter economic proposals she became famous for. She bolstered her foreign-policy credentials with trips abroad. She built up a large team of staffers who carefully engineered policy rollouts and email blasts. She became a front-runner in the 2020 presidential race.
But as she announces her exploratory committee—which is really announcing her presidential campaign—Warren wants to be the outsider again.
As always happens with front-runners, Warren has become a target. She’s considered less shiny than some of the newer firebrands, who have themselves become the anti-establishment. Operatives working for several other Democratic candidates about to make their own announcements have insisted she’s the Hillary Clinton of 2020—and not in a complimentary way. They describe her as overly cautious and cold, carefully curating her “authentic” moments and struggling to escape a relatively small issue—her claim of American Indian heritage—that’s threatened to overtake her entire candidacy. Her big speech just after Thanksgiving on “a foreign policy that works for all Americans” sounded a whole lot like Clinton’s focus-grouped emphasis on “everyday Americans,” several operatives argue. She even has Bernie Sanders threatening to run to her left.
Along the way, each spot of drama—from the heritage controversy to whom she might pick as her campaign manager—has been hungrily covered by the press.
No other candidate has experienced anything quite like this this cycle. Then again, no other candidate has built herself up into quite this kind of dreadnought.
On Monday, Warren tried to rewind history, reminding voters in a launch video of who she was before. With home movies and old news clips flashing on the screen, she talks about being the daughter of a janitor who became a university professor—and later, after the 2008 crash, a central figure in the national reckoning over the economic system.
“These aren’t cracks that families are falling into—these are traps. America’s middle class is under attack. How did we get here? Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie, and they enlisted politicians to cut them a fatter slice,” she says in the video, narrating from her kitchen.
At the core of the video seems to be a Clintonesque assessment of the 2020 campaign: This isn’t going to be pretty, this isn’t going to be poetic, but it’s too important to get caught up in all of that. Even her announcement’s timing of New Year’s Eve morning—to the bewilderment of the chattering class—had that feel: The whole announcement game is silly, so she might as well just get it out of the way now and move on to the real stuff.
“If we organize together, if we fight together, if we persist together, we can win—we can and we will,” she says toward the close of the video.
According to Warren associates who’ve spent the past year with her preparing for her bid, she sees the road ahead as a long, hard slog, where she puts together enough of a coalition between Clinton and Sanders voters to win. Will it be a movement like the ones that propelled Barack Obama and Donald Trump to the presidency, or like the one her primary run against Clinton might have been in 2016? No.
But, her advisers believe, she will win. That’s the thing about a dreadnought: It might not have as flashy a design, but it blows a lot of other ships out of the water.
“She knows that this is going to be a fight,” said a current Warren campaign adviser, who requested anonymity in order to discuss internal thinking. “She’s a fighter.”
Warren’s team doesn’t like the Clinton comparisons. They see any of that talk as reeking of sexism, people seeing one woman as the same as another woman because of their gender and aspirations. But so far, at least, the Clinton comparisons aren’t being made about any of the other women who have been just as obvious in recent months about their 2020 intentions.
Some Clinton-campaign veterans say they’re sympathetic to what Warren is going through, but their own trauma from two years ago makes them skeptical she’ll be able to get out of it. “I’ve just seen how hard it can be to escape the tailspin of negative stories,” one former Clinton confidant said recently.
The comparisons have turned other Clintonites into loud Warren defenders—witness, for example, the recent backlash at The New York Times on Twitter when it ran a story about Warren staffers’ alleged backbiting around her decision to take a DNA test to prove her American Indian heritage. As with the endless Clinton-email-server stories, they raged. They insisted that the Times was blindly taking down a strong woman over an issue that Republicans have tried to drum up.
Warren and her team have a response to anyone who tries to make her into Clinton: Martha Coakley.
Coakley, the former Massachusetts attorney general, lost what should have been an easy win—Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in the 2010 special election—with a parade of gaffes. As a result, Scott Brown ascended to the Senate, ended the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority, blew up hopes for Obamacare, and set the tone for the 2010 Republican wave.
Two years later, when Warren launched her own campaign against Brown, all she got at first were stories about how she was the second coming of Coakley.
As in the launch video she released on Monday, she played up her Oklahoma roots and her economic-policy work—the likes of which made her a regular on The Daily Show and in appearances with Obama. In the end, the Coakley attack didn’t go on for long.
“What happened in Massachusetts is she had a chance to tell her story—her upbringing, what her background really is,” the Warren adviser said. “And on top of that, she was able to tell people about her fight.”
Now, with all the attention on her campaign and with trackers and reporters following her every move, Warren and her team think she can slowly, slowly do that again.
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