In relentlessly grinding it out, the Democratic presidential contender is showing America what a president should be: an overachiever. Mari Uyehara on the sharp rise of Senator Warren.
There is an old quote: “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”
It was uttered in 1963 by feminist and politician Charlotte Whitton, the first female mayor of a major Canadian city (Ottawa). Now, Whitton was not without her faults—she was an outspoken and virulently anti-immigrant eugenicist—but the quip, itself, still holds true.
Take 2020 Democratic presidential contender and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. For the first six months of her campaign, Warren seemed stuck in single digits as first choice among Democratic voters for national polling, seemingly bogged down in questions of “likability” and residual sexism.
But there’s been some movement as of late. In Tuesday’s Economist/YouGov poll, Warren just hopped into second place of Democratic primary voters’ first-choice candidate, at 16 percent, behind former vice president Joe Biden and just ahead of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. And in the Monmouth poll for swing-state Nevada, the same: Warren debuted in second place at 19 percent, while in Des Moines Register/Mediacom/CNN poll for Iowa, she’s nipping at Sanders’ second-place heels within the margin of error (15 percent versus 16 percent).
After a stumble out of the gate, launching her campaign with a video on her heritage that angered some Native Americans and rejecting PAC money to a collective shrug, Warren has managed to kick-start her own momentum by grinding it out—out-policy-proposing, out-tweet-thread-explaining, and out-hustling every other contender in the race. In other words, she’s running like a woman.
Beyond cheeky aphorisms, we have some pretty solid evidence that girls, on average, work harder than boys. In a New York Times opinion piece asking why girls beat boys in school but lose to them in the office, psychologist Lisa Damour asserts, with a litany of studies, that: “from elementary school through college, girls are more disciplined about their schoolwork than boys; they study harder and get better grades. Girls consistently outperform boys academically. And yet, men nonetheless hold a staggering 95 percent of the top positions in the largest public companies.”
While sons do “just enough to keep the adults off their backs,” Damour writes, “daughters relentlessly grind, determined to leave no room for error.” Her solution was not to probe at the policies, like childcare or housework, which some research points to in accounting for gender inequality in the workplace (or the possibility that girls may very well intuit that society was not set up for them to glide by in the ways in which straight white men do). But to suggest, like Sheryl Sandberg before her, that it was the girls who needed to be less like Tracy Flicks and Hermiones and more like, well, Joe Bidens, confident in their just-enough-ness.
Warren, however, seems to reject the premise of winning on the appearance of inspiring ease—of running like a just-enough man, like former C-student president, George W. Bush, or the current one, Donald J. Trump, who rode his way to the presidency on school-yard slogans (build that wall! lock her up!) and simplistic promises (repealing and replacing Obamacare will be “so easy”).
Instead, Warren not only wants to work for the job but to show us that she’s relentlessly grinding for it. In a New York Times article on the ascendent campaigns of Warren and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, he is described as riding “a wave of positive press about his personal story,” while she, rather “than lean into her biography… rolled out unusually detailed domestic policy plans to grab headlines and inspire activists…and [taken] photographs with every attendee at her events who wants one—more than 30,000 to date.” In the early going, as she started putting out policy proposal after policy proposal, it seemed like a lost cause, but slowly and surely, she has reframed the Democratic race, making her opponents look like slouches by comparison and birthing the meme and unofficial campaign slogan, “Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that.”
As overperforming female politician, she’s hardly alone. A study in the American Journal of Political Science shows that, between 1984 and 2004, women congressional members, on average: raised $49 million more than men for their districts, introduced three more bills per session, and co-sponsored 26 more pieces of legislation than men. The study’s co-author theorized that it wasn’t that women were just better than men, but: “If it’s harder for women to succeed in politics, then those that do succeed are likely to be the most talented and hard working.” They had to, in other words, not merely be twice as good but exponentially better. (See: the last Democratic presidential nominee.)
Warren wasn’t just slapping up policies, pulled together by a team of nameless, faceless wonk underlings, on her website, either. With each ambitious, detailed plan, Warren made an event of it, with an explanatory Medium post and long Twitter thread written with the patience and clarity of a favorite professor (which she also was). Her plan for providing Puerto Rico with debt relief was released in both English and Spanish. Her plan for cancelling student loan debt includes specifics on both alleviating current debt and preventing it in the future—and, the icing on the cake, a calculator for estimating how much of your own student debt would be alleviated by it. In the process, Warren transformed a rote political act—typically the point at which eyes glaze over watching the debate stage—into a point of civic excitement. At a recent rally in Lansing, Michigan, Washington Post reporter Michael Scherer reports: “her fans start jumping from their seats like pistons, firing with cheers and applause each time she rattles off another new policy punchline.”
Meanwhile, Biden—aptly dubbed That Guy by New York’s Rebecca Traister—put a climate change plan on his website that appeared to include passages lifted from literature from a fossil fuel-backed group. And that’s not the first time he’s fielded accusations of plagiarizing.
It’s not just the policy proposals either. Warren has also staked out principled, thoroughly argued positions on moral issues. While fellow Democrats—Sanders, Buttigieg, and Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar—appeared on their own Fox News town halls, she turned one down, calling the network a “hate-for-profit racket” in a long tweet thread, clearly laying out her reasoning. You might not agree with her conclusion, but she showed her work.
Likewise, she was the first Democratic presidential candidate to call for the impeachment of Trump after reading all of the three-volume Mueller report investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. “[When] the Mueller report came out, and the afternoon it came out, I sat down and started reading it. And I read it all afternoon. And I read it all night. I read it into the next morning, all 448 pages,” said Warren breaking down its implications when host Chris Hayes asked her about impeachment on an MSNBC town hall. “If he were any other person in the United States, based on what’s documented in that report, he would be carried out in handcuffs.” Meaning Warren pulled an all-nighter, and, in doing so, made the rest of the political establishment hemming and hawing about impeachment look like they hadn’t done the reading for their book report.
Warren doesn’t sound like a politician who has focus-grouped and consultant-calibrated every position to maximal inoffensiveness to various constituencies—she sounds like someone who wants to do what’s right. You know, the student that does the extra homework assignment and doesn’t throw spitballs when the teacher’s out of the room. So while Biden is still the Democratic front runner, he’s slipped in the polls since launching his campaign, down 8 points since an April high in Quinnipiac, while Warren is picking up steam. And the debates haven’t even started yet. You can bet that Warren, a literal high-school debate scholarship champ whom a former student described as a “Socratic with a machine gun,” will be ready to roll.
Some time ago, the argument went that Democrats needed to “fight fire with fire”: Michael Avenatti, the disgraced lawyer formerly representing adult film actress Stormy Daniels, claimed that the next Democratic nominee “better be a white male.” He flamed out in a poof of Trump-like fraud accusations. But as any student who paid attention in school very well knows: it may very well be better to fight fire with water. And after two years under the current administration, it is indeed a cold drink to hear a law school professor propose policies and principled stances.
Wouldn’t it be a better America, after all, if we held the highest office in the land, not to the standards of the guys doing “just enough,” but to the overachievers? On the campaign trail when Warren meets young girls, she asks them to “pinky swear” to remember: “I’m running for president because that’s what girls do.” More and more voters seem to agree.