Opinion by: Krystal Ball
Throughout this campaign, Elizabeth Warren has cultivated an image as relentlessly cheerful and unflappable. Never cross. Always ready with a plan or a folksy quip or a tale from her upbringing on the ragged edge of the middle class. A sort of peppy silver sneakers cheerleader with the right answer always ready to go. But every once in a while, Warren’s mask slips. And always in circumstances when she is caught off guard.
You see, mostly she hasn’t faced that much tough questioning. Unlike Sanders and Buttigieg and others, she refuses to go on Fox News, she’s extraordinarily careful about the interviews she sits for and so is usually fully in control. So you end up with things like this CNN interview with her husband which was so extraordinarily fluffy that Saagar did a whole monologue on it. Toughest Q was to Bruce Warren: “If she does become the nominee, she will go up against President Trump. Are you ready for that?”
Warren also gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly on her favorite TV show, which is allegedly Ballers. Most of the media is more interested in exposes on her selfie lines than on really challenging her in non-stupid ways. But every once in a while, she gets hit with a real question. Remember this moment on the campaign trail when right after dropping a 7 figure ad buy focused on anti-corruption she had asked whether her plan would have barred Hunter Biden from sitting on the board of Burisma?
You can just see the political calculation in real time. She wants to say no because she knows that Hunter serving on that board is wrong but she doesn’t want to say no because she doesn’t want to miss the chance to be Biden’s VP or Treasury Secretary or whatever if he does end up in the White House. There’s no way to get the answer “right” and so she sort of panics.
And how can we forget this one when Charlamagne tha God asked when she knew that she wasn’t Native American?
No answer for the question that has dogged her most consistently since she entered political life. Because answering would require an admission of some sort. An admission of dishonesty or potentially unfair benefits or cultural appropriation. There’s no way to get the right answer. You can’t get an “A” on this one, so she goes evasive and doesn’t actually answer when she first found out the truth about her heritage, just as she dodged the question on Hunter.
Well there’s a new one to enter into the books and it was not pretty. At this weekend’s Environmental Justice Presidential forum in South Carolina, the incomparable Amy Goodman asked Warren a very fair and important question about the primary process. Watch the exchange.
I’m just a player in the game. Wow. This entire interaction was so revealing.
First of all, Warren thought this question, which again, was totally reasonable and fair especially given the context of the forum, was out of bounds. That it was unreasonable for her to have to answer a question that could put her in politically treacherous waters. She objects straightaway. How dare Goodman put her in a tough spot. As with questions about her heritage, and her corruption plan vis a vie Hunter Biden, this was not in the range of questions that goodman was supposed to ask her. And Goodman isn’t supposed to ask her this question because there is no safe answer. Say yes the process is flawed and you piss off key voters in early states. Say no the process is great and risk the wrath of people of color who are subordinated in this process by the fact that two extremely white states get to set the tone for the entire primary. There’s no briefing book you can study or expert you can consult and Warren finds herself flummoxed and pissed about it.
But then her answer was even more revealing: I’m just a player in the game. Honestly, if Warren ever was the nominee, Trump could just run this on a loop on every ad. He could plaster it on billboards because it is so unintentionally honest and damningly so. It strikes to the core of the problem with Warren’s campaign. What makes her feel so inauthentic. She’s an insider, a player in the game, pretending to be a revolutionary. Co-opting the language of movements. Talking about big structural change. Play-acting the part of the class warrior. And while there are good things to be said about effective players in the game, the public has made clear that they are done with all the players in the game. Because if you’re playing the existing game, the working class always loses.
As a friend of the show Irami put it:
“This is the person that’s going to lead large structural change?”
In the grand scheme of things, answering a question about Iowa and New Hampshire really is nothing. It requires the smallest modicum of political courage just to answer what she so obviously thinks but does not want to say, that yes the primary process is less than ideal. But Warren can’t get a “B” on the test, she has to get an “A”. And as a natural pleaser, “A” student, rule follower myself I get it, I really do. But it is such a massive and easily exploited weakness. First of all, if she were to ever become president, the only questions that come to you are of the unsafe, no win type. But also, when you have to get an “A” it makes it easy for people to screw with you, trust me, I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. That need to get an “A” is why she did this whole catastrophically stupid DNA test to avoid admitting that she had screwed up by claiming Native heritage. It’s why she went to such elaborate and counterproductive lengths to avoid saying ‘yes, middle class taxes will go up’ under Medicare for All. It’s why she waited until the outcome was clear and then endorsed Hillary Clinton. And it’s why despite all her protests to the contrary, she will never be a revolutionary, always just a player in the game.
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