In her year-plus on the campaign trail, Sen. Elizabeth Warren met hundreds of little girls and told them the same thing: “I’m running for president because that’s what girls do.” She would then have them make a “pinky promise” to remember that.
On Thursday, after disappointing performances in the early states and on Super Tuesday — including a third-place finish in her home state — the Massachusetts Democrat announced her exit from the 2020 presidential race, according to multiple reports. But that pinky promise is something that women and girls across the country will remember, even as the White House continues to elude them. One woman — Tulsi Gabbard — is still in the race, but of the group of six women once vying for the Democratic nomination, Warren, who at one moment was considered among the strongest contenders for the nomination, has dropped out.
Warren, 70, was the most competent candidate in the race, even if former Vice President Joe Biden is running as the most qualified. She released dozens upon dozens of detailed policy proposals on a litany of issues throughout her campaign. “Warren has a plan for that” became a familiar refrain. It set her up as a stark contrast to President Trump and a White House often ridden with chaos.
Alongside Bernie Sanders, Warren represented the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in the fight for the 2020 nomination. She was often integral in shaping the conversation of the race and promised “big, structural change,” telling her supporters to dream big and fight hard for their cause. Unlike Sanders, Warren promised not to reject much of the political system altogether but instead to overhaul it from the inside, rooting out the corruption she sees as the cause of so many of the ills of American society today.
“Corruption has put our planet at risk. Corruption has broken our economy. And corruption is breaking our democracy,” Warren told thousands of supporters at a September rally in New York City’s Washington Square Park. “I know what’s broken, I’ve got a plan to fix it, and that’s why I’m running for president of the United States.”
Over the coming weeks and months, there will be much examination of Warren’s presidential bid, what went right, and what went wrong. As a candidate, she wasn’t perfect, nor was her campaign — the release of a DNA test purporting to show her Native American heritage early on in her bid was objectively a misstep, and in the midst of the race, her decision to get into the weeds on the Medicare-for-all debate bogged her down.
But more than what Warren’s exit says about Warren herself, it’s worth wondering what it says about us. In the face of a man with a plan for nothing, why not choose a candidate with a plan for everything? Under an administration rampant with corruption, why not elect someone who pledges to purge that corruption? Why have we, yet again, rejected an uber-qualified woman for the highest office in the land?
Elizabeth Warren, lady nerd
During the Senate impeachment trial just days ahead of the Iowa caucuses, many lawmakers made no secret of their boredom with the proceedings. Some of them snuck out to take breaks and fell asleep. Warren took notes, alternating between a blue pen and a yellow pencil.
Warren has worn her nerd identity on her sleeve throughout her career, and she brought it to her campaign. On the trail, she would joke about “nerding out” on policy questions and often seemed to relish doing a really deep dive into wonky issues. Beneath the nerd label is an impressive set of credentials that would have given her a unique set of abilities for the job, as Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote:
Warren went from being a public school teacher in 1970 to a Harvard Law professor in 1995. She published The Two-Income Trap in 2004. She was named to the TARP oversight board in 2008. She became director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010. She won her Senate seat in 2012. And now she’s a few good breaks in the primary away from becoming the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020. She has had an extraordinary, once-in-a-generation political rise, and it speaks to her once-in-a-generation combination of political talents.
In a society where women and girls often downplay their knowledge in economics and math and are underrepresented in those arenas, it was cool to watch a woman like Warren flaunt her skills. And women voters appreciated it: Warren was the only 2020 candidate with a majority of women donors and a majority amount of cash raised from women.
But her campaign also exhibited the pitfalls of getting too into the weeds and taking “nerding out” to an extreme. After months of simply saying she was “with Bernie” on Medicare-for-all, she eventually responded to critics pushing for details on her stance. She put out her own universal health care pay-for and a complete incremental plan on how to achieve it. The decision was criticized by the left and the right.
The ordeal highlights what was a pattern of Warren’s campaign that sometimes hurt her: She was hypersensitive to public criticism and tended to overcorrect in her efforts to ensure her competence. Her responses often earned her more criticism, not less.
Beyond the selfie lines
Speaking to a Republican digital operative in 2019, I asked who among 2020 Democrats they thought was doing something interesting online. I assumed the answer would be Sanders — the prowess of his online army is a well-known fact in current politics — but it wasn’t. It was Warren and the selfie lines. In taking thousands of pictures with supporters at campaign events that would eventually show up in people’s social media timelines, Warren was creating millions of dollars’ worth of advertising for herself for free. The selfie lines brought a joyful levity to her White House bid. They were also smart.
Warren’s bet was that in being the best candidate and the best campaigner, she would be able to convince enough Americans to back her White House bid. If she tried the hardest and did the most homework, she could rally others around her and win. The strategy has worked for her in the past, when she won her Senate race in 2012, but there have been times when it hasn’t, not only now but also in 2011, when President Barack Obama declined to nominate her to head the CFPB, the consumer agency she conceived of and built from the ground up.
There’s no clear answer as to why she didn’t succeed and why her campaign, while resonating with millions of voters, didn’t quite get there. Misogyny is almost certainly an element — many Americans still question whether a woman can win the White House, and thus far, a woman hasn’t. And Warren’s campaign in some ways exemplified the challenges women face in so many aspects of life: They often have to work harder and gather more credentials to even attempt to reach the same heights as men, and even then, there’s no guarantee of success.
There’s plenty of reflecting to do on Elizabeth Warren’s campaign and what she did right and wrong in her year-plus on the trail. But it’s also worth asking ourselves: Why wasn’t it Liz?