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It's Time, Senator Warren

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks to supporters during a campaign event on Feb. 1, 2020 at West High School in Iowa City, IA. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks to supporters during a campaign event on Feb. 1, 2020 at West High School in Iowa City, IA. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“Nevertheless, she persisted,” is exactly what Elizabeth Warren should not do.

That contemptuous dismissal of the senior senator from Massachusetts by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dates back three years when the Kentucky Republican tried, to no avail, to silence Warren during the confirmation debate for Jeff Sessions as attorney general.

The moment cemented Warren’s reputation, especially among women, as a relentless fighter and a formidable foe of the regressive agenda of President Donald J. Trump.

Democratic presidential primary voters in Massachusetts did not reject that assessment yesterday. They told her to keep the job she does so well in the United States Senate. She should listen, ditching any fantasy that a deadlocked convention this summer in Milwaukee might turn to the smartest woman in the room as an alternative to the white male septuagenarians that emerged yesterday as the face of a skittish Democratic party.

That’s not going to happen.

“Nevertheless, she persisted,” is exactly what Elizabeth Warren should not do.

The fear that propelled former Vice President Joseph Biden to Super Tuesday victories from Virginia to Texas over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders explains Warren’s coast-to-coast defeats, as well, including in Massachusetts and her home state of Oklahoma. Democrats want to win, and a fierce female candidate was a gamble many of even her staunchest admirers were unwilling to take against the unhinged autocrat in the Oval Office.

That so many voters are willing to take a flyer on a self-described Democratic Socialist with a non-existent record of legislative accomplishment underscores the double standard women still confront in American politics.

That said, Warren’s bid for the White House was a long shot from the start for reasons that had nothing to do with her demonstrable competence or her progressive ideals and everything to do with this fraught political moment.

The distorting effect of the Trump presidency has been to elevate the trivial and demean the substantive. We would be hearing chants of “Pocahontas” — Trump’s mocking reference to her disputed Native-American origins — at GOP rallies throughout the Fall had Warren gone the distance.

Warren’s upbringing in Norman, Oklahoma on what she calls the “ragged edge of the middle class” resonated on the stump where tens of thousands of people lined up to take selfies with the woman her girlhood friends called Betsy. But on the debate stage, voters met the Harvard Law School professor whose filleting of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg doomed his candidacy but it also defined hers.

Her formidable intellect was undeniable, not necessarily an asset in the hands of GOP admen who long ago learned how to exploit what the historian Richard Hofstadter identified as the strain of "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life."

Warren needs now to embrace her inner policy wonk. She ran for the presidency as a pragmatist who could work with Congress to get things done, not as an ideologue for whom compromise equals capitulation. She shares with Sanders the idealism of a social reformer who aspires to a more equitable society. She shares with Biden a recognition that progress often means incremental change, not seismic revolution.

Democrats want to win, and a fierce female candidate was a gamble many of even her staunchest admirers were unwilling to take against the unhinged autocrat in the Oval Office.

She said it herself on the debate stage in South Carolina:

“Bernie and I agree on a lot of things, but I think I would make a better president than Bernie. And the reason for that is that getting a progressive agenda enacted is going to be really hard, and it's going to take someone who digs into the details to make it happen. Bernie and I both wanted to help rein in Wall Street. In 2008, we both got our chance. But I dug in. I fought the big banks. I built the coalitions, and I won. Bernie and I both want to see universal health care, but Bernie's plan doesn't explain how to get there, doesn't show how we're going to get enough allies into it, and doesn't show enough about how we're going to pay for it.”

Box up all those detailed plans you have to change the trajectory of this country, Senator Warren, and walk them straight over to Joe Biden’s headquarters and roll up your sleeves and do what you do best — dig in.

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Eileen McNamara Cognoscenti contributor
A Pulitzer Prize-winning former columnist for The Boston Globe, Eileen McNamara teaches journalism at Brandeis University.

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