Warren’s words stick like glue

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden looks to shore up lead in S.C. Hillicon Valley: Dems cancel surveillance vote after pushback to amendments | Facebook to ban certain coronavirus ads | Lawmakers grill online ticketing execs | Hacker accessed facial recognition company's database Push for national popular vote movement gets boost from conservatives MORE (D-Mass.) won’t have a sticky problem.

In 2016, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDNC warns campaigns about cybersecurity after attempted scam Biden looks to shore up lead in S.C. Stone judge under pressure over calls for new trial MORE had a bunch of sticky notes on her campaign wall listing dozens of policies staff members believed she would support, had she won the White House. Early on, the wall of stickies made me nervous. Clinton should have been fighting for one big change and each of those policies would have been a way to achieve it. A candidate who proposes dozens of policies without an overarching message might confuse voters.

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That’s not Elizabeth Warren’s problem. If anything, Sen. Warren’s priority is too well defined (as if that’s a thing). People wonder if she’s a one-issue woman. She came to national prominence taking on Wall Street banks and elites. In Washington, she helped create the Consumer Financial Protection Board and in the United States Senate, she demanded accountability from bank CEOs. Lots of pundits believe the big ideological fight in Democratic politics is left versus right. Perhaps it’s more of a 3-D confrontation, with outsiders battling insiders who take mushy stands. Warren is on the right side of that divide, raising her fist outside the tent.

It’s too early to pick a favorite for the 2020 Democratic presidential race, but Sen. Warren impressed me with a speech she gave a few weeks ago at historically black Morgan State University. She charged the students to do more than just work hard. “(T)he government itself had systematically discriminated against black people,” she said. Then she challenged them to “change the rules.”

Before Hillary Clinton, most political analysts and strategists believed that a woman running for president of the United States had to prove she was tough enough. Clinton was always tough enough and so is Warren. We don’t hear that as much anymore, and women political leaders are becoming more common. In the last election, Democrats won seven governors’ races, four of them with women candidates.  

Those are Warren’s strengths. She has a few hurdles to jump, too. First, she’s from Massachusetts — not exactly a proving ground for presidential nominees lately, and former Harvard Law School professor is not the first attribute that comes to mind when picking a populist champion.

Her speech to Morgan State planted her feet in the language of institutional racism, but what was her record on issues that impact African-Americans before she thought about running for president?

Democrats were enamored of Warren in 2016. Many thought she should have run against Hillary Clinton. I thought she should have been Clinton’s vice presidential nominee. Surely her addition to the ticket would have helped bring home some of the voters who rejected Clinton in favor of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDNC warns campaigns about cybersecurity after attempted scam Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Biden looks to shore up lead in S.C. MORE (I-Vt.). That didn’t happen, but did Warren miss her moment? In 2008, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Hill's Campaign Report: Gloves off in South Carolina 6 ways the primary fight is toughening up Democrats for the fall general election Bloomberg called Social Security a 'Ponzi scheme' as mayor MORE didn’t wait and he won. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pushed off a 2012 campaign and barely made a dent in the Republicans’ race in 2016. It’s hard to reignite the unrequited flame of first love.

And then there is the “Pocahontas” thing. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump passes Pence a dangerous buck Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Trump nods at reputation as germaphobe during coronavirus briefing: 'I try to bail out as much as possible' after sneezes MORE baited Warren into a debate about the extent of her claim of Native American heritage and she took the bait. Releasing a teeny-weeny DNA tie to a distant Native American relative was a mistake. It causes lots of Democrats to worry the Massachusetts senator is more prepared for a legislative or regulatory fight than the street brawl coming in a campaign against Trump.

That said, let’s not write off Sen. Warren for the Native American faux pas. Yes, that’s her “thing,” but before the campaign is over, every candidate will have a “thing” of their own to battle. Obama famously refused to wear a flag pin, had a lumpy ethical relationship with an Illinois fundraiser and had to wrestle publicly with the racially inflammatory rhetoric of his former pastor. Don’t even get me started on Trump’s lumps. Still, both made it to the White House. It’s not a candidate’s mistakes, but how she handles them that tells us about her mettle.

I love the prospect of a crowded, bruising nomination contest. Democrats have some ideological and definitional cobwebs to work out. Sen. Warren is not the first candidate to declare her formal interest, but she is the biggest and the more big fish who run, the better. Either one of them will prevail, or an upstart will win, looking even stronger for taking down a titan.

In a multi-candidate primary, candidates will fight to define themselves, to let voters know who they are and what they stand for. We know what Elizabeth Warren stands for. Her challenge to the students at Morgan State to “change the rules” may not be her campaign slogan, but it sticks more firmly than any notes tacked onto a wall.  

Jamal Simmons is a Democratic strategist who has worked for the Clinton White House, Congress and the Clinton, Gore and Obama presidential campaigns. He is a liberal host for The Hill’s new Hill.TV video division.