The question came at a campaign cattle call in April 2019, just a few months after Elizabeth Warren announced her presidential bid: How would she address “the urge to flee to the safety of a white male candidate?”
After a question-and-answer session spent presenting her plans to address maternal mortality, criminal justice, housing, redlining and tribal sovereignty, that remark came as “a big bucket of cold water,” Warren, the Massachusetts senator, writes in a new memoir about her failed campaign.
“We all knew the fear she was talking about,” she writes. “Could we — should we — support a woman?”
Her book, “Persist,” addresses Warren’s effort to grapple with that question. Obtained by The New York Times before its release this coming week, it offers a peek into Warren’s personal view of her loss — a defeat she largely blames on a failure to explain how she would pay for her health care plan; the established following of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; the name recognition of Joe Biden — and her own shortcomings.
“There’s always another possibility, a much more painful one,” she writes. “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 is determined not to wallow in her defeat, focusing most of the book on her policy prescriptions, some of which have been adopted by the Biden administration. She offers reflections on the racial justice protests that roiled the country after the primary, devoting a significant portion of a chapter on race to her decision to identify as Native American earlier in her career — a “bad mistake,” she says. And she writes a moving tribute to her oldest brother, Don Reed Herring, attributing his death from the coronavirus last year to a failure of government.
“This book is not a campaign memoir,” she writes. “It is not a rehash of big public events. It’s a book about the fight that lies ahead.”
Yet, frank discussion of her gender — and the obstacles it poses — runs throughout the 304-page book. Although she never directly attributes her loss to sexism, she provides plenty of evidence that it remained a serious factor in the race. She recounts the struggles of her own career trajectory and offers prescriptions for changes like paid leave and affordable child care.
Again and again, Warren suggests that Democratic voters were wary of nominating a second woman, fearing another defeat to Donald Trump. She “had to run against the shadows of Martha and Hillary,” she writes, a reference to Martha Coakley, who lost two statewide campaigns in Massachusetts, and Hillary Clinton.
While Warren expected to face some sexism, she details in the book, her plan was simply to outwork those expectations with a strong team, vibrant grassroots organizing and plenty of policy plans.
“I would do more,” she says. “I would fill up every space with ideas and energy and optimism. I would hope that my being a woman wouldn’t matter so much.”
That idea collided with the reality of the contest fairly quickly. When calling donors early in her campaign, Warren was taken aback by the number of times potential supporters mentioned Clinton’s defeat. “I wondered whether anyone said to Bernie Sanders when he asked for their support, ‘Gore lost, so how can you win?’ I wondered whether anyone said to Joe Biden, ‘Kerry lost, so clearly America just isn’t ready for a man to be president,’” she recounts thinking as she lay in bed after her first day spent raising money for her presidential bid. “I tried to laugh, but the joke didn’t seem very funny.”
After being passed over as vice president and Treasury secretary, Warren has kept a lower profile in recent months, preferring to exert her influence through private conversations with the White House. Her top aides have been tapped for powerful posts throughout the administration and Democratic National Committee.
She offers praise for Biden — “a good leader and fundamentally decent man” — and most of her former rivals throughout the book. A dust-up with Sanders — “fearless and determined” — over whether he told her in a private 2018 meeting that a woman could not defeat Trump is largely ignored.
But one former opponent gets far more withering treatment. Warren spends several pages detailing her determination to take down Mike Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, in a February 2020 debate, saying she believed his decision to spend nearly $1 billion of his personal fortune to skip the early primaries “undermined our democracy” by essentially handing the nomination to the richest man.
Warren describes herself as “stunned” when Bloomberg ignored her early attacks: “Like so many women in so many settings, I found myself wondering if he had even heard me,” she writes.
Her debate performance was largely credited with ending Bloomberg’s bid. But Warren can’t resist mentioning “an unexpected kick” in response to her attacks — a comment that she was too “mean and angry.”
“And there it was, the same damn remark made about every woman who ever stood up for herself and threw a punch,” she writes. “Repeat after me: fighting hard is ‘not a good look.’”
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