DES MOINES, Iowa — The best way to kill a whisper campaign is to say the quiet part out loud.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., did just that here Tuesday night when she pressed fellow Democratic presidential candidates to confront persistent insinuations that a woman can’t beat President Donald Trump at the ballot box.
“It’s time for us to attack it head-on,” Warren said at the final debate before the first-in-the-nation Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses. “Look, don’t deny that the question is there. Back in the 1960s, people asked, ‘Could a Catholic win?’ Back in 2008, people asked if an African-American could win. In both times the Democratic Party stepped up and said yes, got behind their candidate and we changed America. That’s who we are.”
It was the culmination of a two-day theft of the national political narrative in which Warren positioned herself as a victim-turned-slayer of shadow sexism in the Democratic primary, delivered sharp elbows to top rivals, and compared any Democratic woman who would win the presidency — herself, really — to trailblazing Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.
If Warren energizes her campaign with what is now an explicit appeal to women voters and their allies, particularly those who believe 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was hurt both by overt misogyny and unspoken sexism, her maneuver may not only stand out as the pivotal moment of an otherwise sleepy six-way debate but also as a turning point for her in Iowa and beyond.
Of course, like any high-risk play in politics, this one could backfire. But there are reasons to think it’s more likely to pay off for Warren.
At a time when Democrats are arguing over which of them is best equipped to go toe-to-toe with Trump, the elegance of her execution telegraphed an ability to reset the rules of a game to her benefit and win it. That’s reminiscent of the way Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has dealt with Trump in the times she’s gotten the better of him. And there was a precision decision about which rival to target that could give Democratic voters clues about Warren’s political sophistication.
Just a couple of days ago, the storylines surrounding Warren heading into the debate mostly dealt with allegations that she is deceptive, which her backers read as the fruit of detractors playing on voters’ fears that Trump could run a misogynistic campaign against her and win.
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But on Monday morning, CNN reported that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had told Warren a woman couldn’t beat Trump, according to four of her associates. Sanders denied making the remark in a conversation the two had in December 2018 — 13 months before the story appeared and roughly 36 hours before the debate. When Sanders accused her aides of lying about him, Warren responded on the record to reiterate her recollection. At that point, Warren was no longer in much danger of playing defense on whether she was deceptive.
Instead, Sanders would have to answer whether he thought a woman could win the presidency. So would former Vice President Joe Biden.
That’s what happened.
“Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes,” Sanders said. “How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States?”
Biden chipped in with “I agree women can win.”
That may have sounded a little more sanguine than what Biden said recently on the campaign trail, when he explained to voters that he’d fare better against Trump than Clinton did because misogyny wouldn’t be a factor.
Clinton faced “unfair” attacks, he said. “But that’s not going to happen with me.”
His campaign later clarified to say he definitely didn’t mean a woman couldn’t win. But he certainly left himself open to being criticized for suggesting to voters that chromosomes are determinative.
Now, with Biden and Sanders both on the record saying a woman can win — and with Warren having driven the conversation to that point — it’s harder for them to suggest, hint or imply anything else later to any audience. That’s a win for Warren, both because it pushes back on the whispers and because it positions her as the champion of a larger cause than herself, even if she’s obviously a beneficiary of it.
Just flipping the frame away from her own defense to one where she was on offense was a coup for Warren, and an indication of some political dexterity. It’s not easy to grab attention in the modern media environment, to hold it for a day-and-a-half or to turn a political vulnerability on its head, even briefly.
But none of that was as sophisticated as skipping over Biden, who had more recently and publicly questioned the viability of a woman candidate, and instead smacking a friend and ideological conspirator in Sanders on the same issue. Whether Warren wanted the story to break when it did or not, she clearly chose to elevate it once it did.
Had Warren gone after Biden, she might not have gotten a reaction; she might not have gotten the reaction she wanted; or she might have alienated voters she’s trying to attract — former Clinton backers who are open to both her and Biden.
But with Sanders, she could expect he would keep his cool. They’re close enough, there are enough connections between their camps and there’s enough incentive for each of them to avoid a war — namely, the progressive strategy depends on teaming up to beat the centrist wing of the party — that he would only push back so hard. His response allowed her to get her point across without the return fire a candidate on the attack usually takes.
Surely, some voters will see Warren’s moves as “calculating” rather than “strategic.” But they’re a little less likely to whisper about that as a reason she can’t be president.