Elizabeth Warren’s Real Personality Flaw

Here’s a trend you’ve probably noticed this campaign season: the more Elizabeth Warren has climbed in the polls, the more her personality has come under attack. Joe Biden says she’s “angry” and has an “elitist attitude.” Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar suggest she isn’t being transparent and honest about the costs of her policy proposals. None of these critiques have it quite right. She does have a problem, to be sure, but it’s not what her opponents are saying.

First, let’s look at the misguided attacks. They say Warren is angry and divisive. But she’s really not particularly angry. Biden and Bernie shout way more than she does. She’s downright chirpy compared to Bernie. She’s actually pretty upbeat.

They say she’s doctrinaire or uncompromising.  But every single candidate makes a point about how they’re going to fight like hell for this or that. She may be further to the left, but don’t all the candidates argue just as forcefully for their positions as she does?

They say she’s polarizing. I suppose her policies may be, considering she’s pushing ideas that split the electorate, such as a single-payer healthcare system and free college. But every other candidate has their own windmills to tilt at, too. And every candidate attacks something or someone.

They said she’s elitist. That’s a cheap shot. Her policies certainly aren’t—if anything, she’s a working-class champion—‚and she has one of the humblest upbringings of any candidate.

What gnaws at me is a characteristic she shares with Bernie Sanders: she almost immediately goes toward questioning the MOTIVATIONS of those who disagree with her.

If you disagree with her, it’s because you don’t have the courage to fight off the powerful interests. Or you’re not a good Democrat.

Relatedly, there’s a whiff of contempt toward her opponents. I’m thinking of that joke she made about how a male opponent of gay marriage couldn’t get a wife or girlfriend.

In the long run, she will indeed alienate large numbers of people if she casts anyone who disagrees with her as corrupt or immoral. And those people will turn against her hard.

Warren has many strengths as a candidate. In fact, she’s probably the best in the field in terms of raw political skill and the ability to explain complex policies in a clear, compelling way. Perhaps her personality flaw won’t matter, but it does strike me as one of her two major downsides. The other is her squandering of the Democratic advantage on health care by endorsing Medicare for All—likely just to win over Bernie voters in the primary.

But calling her “angry” or “unlikeable” misses the mark (and it may well be sexist). Her problem is that she assumes that anyone who disagrees with her is driven by the darkest motives.

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Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman, a contributing editor, is co-founder and president of Report for America, which places talented emerging journalists into local newsrooms.