“What friendship have you had that would surprise us?”
That was the odd, Ellen-DeGeneres-inspired question the moderators asked of the Democratic presidential candidates at the end of Tuesday’s CNN/New York Times debate, prompting predictably heartfelt pleas for bipartisanship, multiple references to John McCain and some sentiments worthy of a Hallmark card.
Elizabeth Warren should have answered, “Joe Biden.”
Biden did a lot for Warren on Tuesday night, beginning with fully ceding the front-runner status to the senator from Massachusetts. It was Warren who took the heat all night from her fellow Democrats, be it Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar — who tag-teamed to represent the fiery-but-pragmatic-Midwesterner wing of the Democratic field — to Cory Booker, who seemed to blame her most for engaging in Democratic infighting rather than channeling all negativity onto Donald Trump. (But isn’t infighting what a primary is for?)
Biden’s most enduring gift to Warren, though, was a spontaneous moment that will go down in the annals of mansplaining — and underscored Warren’s ability to think on her feet and lob a serious clap-back when warranted. Warren was making a version of her central argument in the race: that it’s better to push for big, structural ideas than to settle for more supposedly achievable but incremental change. (She has a T-shirt for that.)
Her example, in this case, was the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the government agency she fought to create in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. At the time, she said, fellow Democrats advised her, “Don’t even try, because you will never get it passed.” And yet, it came to be.
Biden, who had spent much of his time Tuesday night deriding the cost of Warren’s “Medicare for All” plan, forced himself into the conversation. “I agree with the great job you did,” Biden said, extending a hand in Warren’s direction. Then — Oh, Joe — he started jabbing with the hand. And raising his voice. And lecturing. “And I went on the floor and got you votes. I got votes for that bill!” he said. “So let’s get those things straight, too!”
It was, as someone on Twitter noted in real-time, a “live version of your male coworker taking credit for your work.” But there, on live TV, Warren had the presence of mind we all wish we could have in those workplace meetings. “I am deeply grateful,” she responded, pausing deliciously here, “to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law.” The audience let out the kind of yelp you hear on a schoolyard when someone burns a bully.
Even Biden had to smile: Respect.
The moment was strong enough to overshadow some of Warren’s weaknesses as she parried off the new Democratic attacks. She had her worst moment early in the debate, during yet another discussion of health care that barely skimmed the surface of health care’s problems, to deliver a Clintonian parsing of whether her “Medicare for all” plan would raise taxes on the middle class. (“Costs will go down,” she kept repeating, and mercy, we’ve all seen this one before.)
Warren also raised some understandable hackles when she suggested that her fellow Democrats, pushing for more incremental change on issues like health care, were merely lending aid and comfort to the one percent. Klobuchar had the night’s best line in response: “No one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires.” It was the only time in the entire debate when Tom Steyer’s presence seemed useful.
But thanks to Biden’s setup, Warren’s punchline still won the night, creating a moment more powerful than Kamala Harris’s “Dude gotta go” line (she, too, has a T-shirt), or Bernie Sanders’s vigorous defense of his health (he looked good), or Buttigieg’s attack on Beto O’Rourke. (“I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal.”)
the presidency is, above all things, a sales job ... You have to be persuasive, but also entertaining.
In truth, Warren and the Obama White House quarreled a lot, in 2010 and 2011, over her single-minded push to create and lead the consumer protection bureau. As Politico has reported, it’s possible to trace her U.S. Senate run against Republican Scott Brown in large part back to those tensions — the White House was as interested in finding Warren a new fight as it was to regain a Senate seat. Now, here she is, doing her best to turn the tables on the Obama White House pragmatists, her old friend Biden included.
It’s the turning-tables part, though, that will fare Warren best in the end. There is a reasonable debate to be had, after all, about whether, in fact, some incremental change is acceptable, even necessary, and how many of Warren’s detailed policy proposals will travel an inch through a hopelessly gridlocked Congress.
But what Warren proved, on Tuesday night, is that she knows the presidency is, above all things, a sales job — and that in order to sell your programs, you need the right combination of good one-liners, possibly oversimplified statements and firm declarations of what you believe in. You have to be persuasive, but also entertaining. You have to be able to take advantage of the moments given to you with an outstretched hand. In a general election debate against you-know-who, those traits will matter more than any specific policy idea. And it seems that, in those circumstances, Warren has a plan.