There is a lot to like about Elizabeth Warren as a presidential candidate. She’s well-versed in facts and policy and understanding problems. She’s right about income inequality, financial corruption and the need to expand health insurance to every American. Her rise in polling of likely Democratic voters suggests she could be the one who surpasses Joe Biden and gets the party’s nomination to challenge Trump. But Warren has a problem. It’s not about substance. It’s about style, and the problem was on display in the CNN video that went viral last week.
Keep in mind: I did not see the show. Like many Americans, I only saw the clip. What I heard and saw: A guy with a microphone stood up in the audience of a televised forum and asked Warren a question: “Let’s say you’re on the campaign trail and . . . a supporter approaches you and says, ‘Senator, I’m old-fashioned and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman.’ What is your response?”
“Well,” Warren replied from the stage, “I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that. And I’m going to say, then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that. . . .”
Then she added this punchline: “Assuming you can find one.”
Warren’s comeback provoked a lot of laughter and applause, and her supporters have been using it as evidence of the senator’s feisty style.
I was on board until I heard that zinger: “Assuming you can find one.” I suddenly felt sorry for the fellow who asked the question. It seemed Warren was ridiculing him before millions, suggesting that any man who disagrees with her view on same-sex marriage must be a loser with no appeal to women. Only after reading news accounts of the exchange did I understand that the guy who asked the question was a champion of gay rights — Morgan Cox, chairman of the board of the Human Rights Campaign — and that the televised forum was on LGBTQ issues. I then understood Cox’s question to be hypothetical. I didn’t get that the first time.
So this is key: Without that knowledge, without context, any viewer of the short video clip would think Warren was Trump-like nasty, putting down her questioner (real or hypothetical) as if he were some pathetic schlemiel who can’t get a date. That clip could be used against Warren as easily as it has been used in her support. It shows her feisty, yes. But others will see her as smug, elitist and dismissive. The Washington Post had a story this weekend addressing this very issue, something that has been bothersome to a lot of Democrats who would really like to get behind Warren but wonder how she’ll play through moderate and conservative areas of the country key to electoral victory.
I agree with Warren’s views on marriage, and frankly, it’s hard to imagine many Democrats or independent voters disagreeing with it. The change in attitudes over the last decade have been remarkable. Still, what Warren supporters applaud as a zinger, many others will hear as an unnecessarily mean put-down.
This is where I invoke Barack Obama. He’s the gold-standard for addressing the most emotional, provocative and potentially divisive issues of our time with facts, eloquence, grace and respect. I can’t imagine him finishing a response to Morgan Cox’s question with, “Assuming you can find one.”
What was that Michelle Obama said? “When they go low, we go high.” I know: Democrats need to show some brass. They need to stand for progressive principles. They need to be combative with Republicans. Hell, they need to defend our country. But they don’t need to be nasty. We’ve had enough of that.