Elizabeth Warren, in new book, muses on why she didn’t win
By Annie Linskey,
In late 2019, Elizabeth Warren had skyrocketed to the top of the Democratic primary pack, and late one evening, after a town hall and lengthy photo line, she ducked into a bar for a hamburger with her husband, Bruce Mann. “Babe, you could actually do this,” Mann told her. “You could be president.”
Warren allowed herself to imagine what her inauguration would look like: photos lines instead of balls, “pinkie promises” for the country’s little girls, all 81 of her policy plans ready to become law. But the moment faded; Warren’s poll numbers plummeted, and she withdrew in March 2020, never finishing above third in any primary contest.
Now, in a new book, Warren is reflecting on why she failed — in an unusually public way. “In this moment, against this president, in this field of candidates, maybe I just wasn’t good enough to reassure the voters, to bring along the doubters, to embolden the hopeful,” Warren concedes. Known for her steely confidence, Warren admits that possibility is “painful.”
She offers this rare glimpse of dashed hopes in “Persist,” to be published in early May, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. The book, and an expected round of accompanying interviews, will mark a reemergence of sorts for Warren, whose profile has been relatively low during the Biden administration after a campaign in which she was a major, sometimes electrifying figure.
Warren attributes her loss in large part to her fumbling effort to explain how she would pay for her sweeping health plan. And she says that “I had to run against the shadows of Martha and Hillary,” referring to the failed candidacies of Martha Coakley for Senate and Hillary Clinton for president, suggesting that Democrats were wary of nominating another woman they feared might lose to Donald Trump.
Beyond that, “Persist” is an effort to reassert the power of Warren’s ideas, despite the fate of her campaign.
“This book is about the fight that lies ahead,” Warren writes on the back of the hardback volume, which, like everything she undertakes, has been meticulously designed: The cover looks like one of her campaign signs — it’s blue, the color of the Democratic Party; her name is the liberty green she adopted as her campaign color; and the title is in white, a color long associated with female suffragists.
Now secure in her perch as a leader of the Democratic left, at times wielding quiet influence on President Biden and at others muted criticism, Warren offers few hints on whether she might run again for president. At 71, she is younger than Biden and could plausibly launch another campaign in 2024, particularly if he does not seek a second term.
In the book, she offers a heavy dose of praise for allies and competitors and little score-settling or tale-telling, which will probably reinforce the notion that she is keeping her options open.
Biden, she writes, is a “steady, decent man.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is “fearless and determined.” Warren glosses over her spat with Sanders during the campaign over her recollection that he had told her that a woman could not beat Trump, something he denies saying.
The book is coming out as Warren, like the left wing of the Democratic Party in general, is at a crossroads. Some in the party blame liberals for the party’s disappointing defeats in House and Senate races, even as some of their ideas are being championed by Biden.
Warren now must reckon with her own career. She has risen to the top of highly competitive, male-dominated professions, a pattern that ended in dramatic fashion when she dropped out of the presidential primary.
“In 2012, I was new to politics,” Warren writes in the book’s prologue, referring to her successful Senate race in Massachusetts. “In 2020, I was new to losing.”
And her disappointments didn’t stop when she dropped out. She was passed over as Biden’s running mate, then as his treasury secretary. Some allies had even floated her as education secretary, where should could have sought to erase millions in student debt.
Warren also suffered personally, losing her oldest brother, Don Reed Herring, last year to the coronavirus. She has rarely spoken in detail about her three brothers, but “Persist” offers a candid tribute to Herring, describing his service flying B-52s loaded with nuclear weapons and his difficulty recovering his bearings after his wife’s death.
Still, the 2020 presidential campaign was hardly a total loss for Warren. She attracted big crowds, built a far-reaching organization and often dominated the conversation. Along the way, she attracted an enthusiastic following, especially among women.
Biden has stocked his administration and the Democratic hierarchy with a dozen of Warren’s brightest aides. Bharat Ramamurti, one of her top policy minds, is now on the National Economic Council at the White House; her longtime political aide Roger Lau holds a senior position at the Democratic National Committee.
Although Warren’s signature wealth tax idea is languishing, Biden has adopted much of her framework for taxing the wealthy. She writes that the Democratic Party must “shake off this old notion that all tax increases are bad” — a notion that Biden’s top allies are increasingly embracing.
“Persist” is the third book Warren has written as a politician. She also has written several popular academic volumes, including “The Two-Income Trap,” co-written with her daughter.
Her new book covers much of the same biographical and policy ground as her other two political volumes. But there is new material, including a lengthy section on her techniques as a Harvard law professor, which she compares to an exercise class. “People get better and stronger when they sweat hard,” she writes.
But the most notable element is Warren’s theory on why she lost momentum in the primary, which she attributes largely to her struggle to explain how she would pay for her Medicare-for-all plan. That allowed rivals to tag her as a reckless spender, and it undercut her central argument that she had a plan for everything.
“It can be risky to learn on the run, particularly if some of that learning is happening in public,” Warren writes, referring to the dozens of detailed policies she churned out during the campaign.
Although she never flat-out states that sexism was a reason for her loss, she offers her fullest comments to date on the role that gender played in the campaign and throughout her career.
She points to the previous history-making efforts of Coakley, the first female Senate nominee of a major party in Massachusetts, and Clinton, the first female presidential nominee for a major party — both of whom suffered crushing defeats after starting as strong favorites. Coakley’s loss cost Democrats a veto-proof majority in the Senate; Clinton’s gave the country Trump.
Warren notes that she “swam in the boy’s end of the pool” her entire career, and generally thrived. But that doesn’t mean she has not felt the sting of sexism, she recounts.
She provides the most detailed accounting of her troubles with Eugene Smith, a University of Houston law professor who made “sexual remarks” and chased her around his office when she was a young law professor.
“He made a last lunge just as I wrenched [the door] open and escaped,” Warren writes, adding that when she got to her office after the encounter, she “sat there by myself for a long time, trying to stop shaking and steady my breathing.”
Warren has told pieces of the story before, but in this account, she focuses on its long- term effect. Smith would call her throughout her career to check in, and others called him for references on Warren, including when she was under consideration for a position at Harvard.
“It was an unintentional but not-so-subtle reminder that everyone knows everyone, and that good or bad recommendations trail you forever,” Warren writes. “Hearing that comment made me believe I’d been right to keep my mouth shut.”
Warren juxtaposes that story with her determination to go after former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg during the Democratic debates, a withering salvo that essentially ended Bloomberg’s candidacy. That included a debate in Nevada, where Warren drew uncomfortable parallels between Bloomberg and Trump.
In her book, Warren says she was startled that Bloomberg initially did not respond to her attacks. “Like so many women in so many settings, I found myself wondering if he had even heard me,” she writes.
Unlike her other political books, this one includes sketches of officials who helped Warren along the way. Among them is now-Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, whom Warren met at an event for Haaland’s 2018 House campaign, which resulted in Haaland being one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress.
When asked about child care, Haaland revealed that she had taken a job as a cleaner in the facility her daughter attended, because she could not afford to pay the fees. “I knew from the start that Deb’s commitment to expand access to child-care was bone-deep,” Warren wrote. “And I also knew I was all in to help her get elected.”
Haaland returned the favor, traveling the country as a surrogate for Warren during the presidential campaign and serving as a campaign co-chair.
Haaland’s support, in turn, later helped inoculate Warren against one of her major political blunders: her claims that she was a Native American and a subsequent DNA test she took to prove it.
As Warren works toward defining a new role in the Biden era, she suggests that she’s looking for a way to exert influence at a potentially pivotal juncture.
“This remarkable moment is an opportunity for change,” she writes, “but not a guarantee that it will happen.”