Elizabeth Warren Is A Policy Heavyweight. The Media Is More Interested In Rockstars.

PHoto: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

Welcome to Hindsight 2020, Refinery29’s weekly column reflecting on the women running for president and the lessons learned (or not!) from 2016.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s policy positions are rooted in her clear-eyed understanding of how capitalism in its current form benefits some, but not all Americans. During her appearance at a CNN town hall Monday, her first major introduction to the national stage this election cycle, the Massachusetts senator embraced this ethos by speaking about her family’s economic struggles throughout her childhood and how her mother’s minimum wage job saved them from financial disaster.

The problem, she said to raucous applause, is that “today in America, a full-time minimum wage job won’t keep a momma and a baby out of poverty.” She added: “I’m in this fight, because I believe that is wrong.” This belief that the system has allowed for inequality that is morally wrong has been at the core of Warren’s political history — and it’s the driving force behind her presidential bid. Her vast vision to overhaul systems and allow for a more equal America is best illustrated by the comprehensive policy proposals she’s been rolling out over the past three months.

“When I was growing up, my daddy had a heart attack and we nearly tumbled over the financial cliff. I’ve spent most of my life studying how working families are getting squeezed,” Warren told Refinery29. “It’s no accident: Over the course of a generation, Washington has been deliberately rigged to work for the wealthy and well-connected. Winning in 2020 won’t be enough. Democrats need to identify what’s broken in our country, lay out exactly how we’ll fix it, and fight for big, structural change.”

From her wealth tax targeting Americans whose net worth exceeds $50 million, to her universal child care proposal, to her plan to break up Big Tech, to addressing the housing crisis, to endorsing reparations for slavery, Warren has used her personal history to inform her policy, and her campaign says there’s more to come. When she unveiled her child care plan, Warren centered her own experience as a young woman juggling motherhood and her law career. “I got lucky. My Aunt Bee moved in and took care of my kids. And I’m grateful to this day for that,” she said in her announcement video. “But not everybody has an Aunt Bee.” This ability to tie in her policy proposals to her experiences and those of millions of Americans should be worthy of national media attention, and yet, it has barely made a blip.

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In many ways, the 2020 presidential election is already shaping up to be a redux of 2016 when it comes to how the women candidates are treated. In the crowded field of Democratic presidential hopefuls, Warren has distinguished herself from her rivals by showing off her chops as a policy heavyweight with a sharp vision for a better America. But it has been candidates such as former Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, whose policy proposals and even ideological standing are hard to pin down, as well as Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who have gotten a disproportionate amount of positive media attention for months even before announcing their presidential bids (Biden still has not).

In a splashy Vanity Fair cover story published one day before his 2020 announcement, the magazine played up O’Rourke’s assessment that he was “just born” to be in the race. Just two months earlier, the same magazine asked whether Warren is “unlikable” — a framing that off the bat ignored that voters could potentially connect with the life story and policy proposals of the two-time senator and former Harvard professor.

2 candidates, same mag. 1 is a 2nd term senator with detailed policy proposals that have driven the substantive side of the 2020 primary conversation, the other just lost a Senate race to a guy everybody hates. What else is different about them?? Hm gonna need a thinking cap pic.twitter.com/JngsGo7OTi

— Erin silent adoring wife Ryan (@morninggloria) March 13, 2019

Questions of likability and qualifications have haunted women running for office since the dawn of time. Insidious gendered adjectives have been deployed to undercut women’s candidacies over and over again despite research showing that female legislators outperform their male colleagues in sponsoring bills and securing spending. “Women have an extra burden proving that they are qualified,” Celinda Lake, a pollster and Democratic political strategist, as well as president of Lake Research Partners, told Refinery29. “People never ask that question of a man.”

In Warren’s case, the bulk of her policy proposals are aimed at showing that she’s already prepared to be in the Oval Office. “But, is she qualified?” is difficult to aim at someone who has already thought out several plans a full 19 months before the general election. The question, however, is what voters will do with that information.

According to RealClearPolitics, Warren is so far polling at about 7% and there’s still a long way until the primary kicks off for real, with the Iowa caucuses in February 2020. It’s clear, however, that her policy plans are already setting the agenda for the Democratic primary. “Issue proposals can reflect on character and leadership,” Lake said. “She’s doing a powerful job of communicating what she is fighting for. Lots of candidates have policy positions; not too many of them have a comprehensive economic message. That’s what we need, and that’s what she is doing.” If history is any indication, Warren’s primary rivals will have two roads: Either “match” her issue proposals with their own plans or simply jump on board. The third option, and the most unlikely, would be for them to try to convince Democratic voters that Warren’s ideas are too progressive at the risk of alienating an electorate that’s becoming more left-leaning each day.

Of course, Warren has made some serious missteps in her candidacy so far. The rollout of the DNA test associated with her claims of Indigenous ancestry backfired, leading to her apologizing privately and in public. But earlier slip-ups shouldn’t color her entire candidacy, and nine-second sound bites and glossy photo shoots shouldn’t take precedence over policy. One of the biggest media mistakes of the 2016 presidential election, driven in part by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ inability to introduce comprehensive policies in an appealing way, was an oversized focus on personality, charisma, and drama.

Take the Clinton email debacle, for example. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, “in just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.” And remember how TV networks gave then-candidate Donald Trump wall-to-wall, unfiltered coverage of his rallies and speeches? As of March 2016, Trump had already obtained about $2 billion worth of free media. That number would only increase as the race came to an end. While the cult of personality drives ratings and puts money in the pockets of America’s media moguls, it’s a disservice to voters who deserve to hear proposals from Warren and every other candidate in the race. Her ability to marry her policy with her values may not be as sexy as some of the other candidates’ reliance on vague calls for unity and healing, but the latter does not make for a stronger America. Can we start correcting course before the train wreck repeats?

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