Elizabeth Warren Plays the 'Sexism' Card
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for president in 1932, it was from a wheelchair. He was a paraplegic who had lost the ability to walk after contracting polio, and some of his advisers worried that opponents might use his handicap against him, exploiting public ignorance for political gain.
Certainly there was criticism of FDR from Herbert Hoover, the Republican incumbent he was challenging. As the campaign intensified, Hoover blasted Roosevelt’s “nonsense,” “tirades,” “ignorance,” and “defamation,” and warned that “grass will grow in the streets of a hundred cities” if FDR became president and implemented his proposals. But no one ever claimed that those criticisms were surreptitious digs at Roosevelt’s physical impairment. FDR didn’t complain that he was being held to a higher standard than an able-bodied candidate. His loyalists didn’t interpret every political sling and arrow as an example of veiled bigotry against the disabled.
When John F. Kennedy sought the White House in 1960, many voters were biased against him on religious grounds. Anti-Catholic prejudice was widespread, and Kennedy gave a major speech confronting it directly. But he didn’t harp on his Catholicism, repeating at every appearance that he was running for president “because that’s what Catholics do.” When Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, criticized Kennedy’s lack of executive experience, or suggested that in a JFK administration the federal government would “be telling our teachers what to teach,” Democrats didn’t huff that it was an oblique way of raising the “Catholic issue.” On the contrary, Kennedy at times played the subject for laughs. After former President Harry Truman told Southerners that if they voted for Nixon they deserved to go to hell, JFK urged the venerable Democrat with mock solemnity to “refrain from raising the religious issue.”
Elizabeth Warren, alas, is no FDR or JFK.
The senior senator from Massachusetts has been running for president as a progressive warrior, a hard-left scourge of billionaires with Oklahoma roots and a multitrillion-dollar plan for everything. She is also running as a woman, something she and her surrogates underscore constantly, though she is far from the first female candidate for president. (She wasn’t even the first woman in the 2020 presidential race.) Warren makes a point of telling every young girl at her campaign events that she is running for president “because that’s what girls do,” and has her “pinky swear” to remember.
Well, politicians engage in all kinds of transparent gimmicks, and if Warren wants to pretend that a woman running for high office in America is something unusual and wonderful, more power to her. Pinky swears with little girls? That’s actually kind of charming.
But there is nothing charming about the way Warren and her allies loudly cry “sexism!” at the least hint of political scorn or disapproval.
This month Joe Biden faulted Warren for being inflexible in her policy proposals, saying she reflects “an angry unyielding viewpoint that has crept into our politics.” Pete Buttigieg, another Democrat in the race, voiced similar criticism, faulting Warren’s “my way or the highway approach” and suggesting that she is “so absorbed in the fighting that it’s as though fighting were the purpose.”
Is there anything more conventional than rebuking a candidate’s anger and high dudgeon? Presidents from George Washington onward have been notorious for their rages. “Bill Clinton … had the mother of all tempers, vying for that title with John Adams,” observed Politico in a 2017 article on presidential fury. John McCain’s angry outbursts were much discussed during his run for the White House. In 2007, CBS anchor Katie Couric grilled 10 presidential candidates about their tempers.
For two centuries, no one ever protested that it was underhanded to accuse a candidate of being too anger-prone, or implied that only bigotry would lead someone to raise the issue.
But the mild criticism voiced by Biden and Buttigieg set off a flood of recrimination about how Warren was being held to an unfair and misogynistic standard.
“It’s the same old ugly caricatures of women,” liberal strategist (and Warren donor) Rebecca Katz, told the Washington Post. In The Atlantic, Megan Garber tied the charge that Warren is too angry to “the dark and ugly history in which the anger displayed by a woman is assumed to compromise her [and] render her unattractive.” The headline in The American Prospect bristled with outrage: “Biden’s and Buttigieg’s Sexist Attacks.”
Warren’s media claque routinely plays the sexism card. Pundits who wonder about Warren’s likeability, they say, are being sexist. So is anyone who presses Warren to explain the details on her Medicare-for-All plan. So is anyone who likens Warren to Hillary Clinton.
These are ridiculous charges. Worse, they’re demeaning. Warren isn’t a victim. Her sex isn’t a handicap. Voters have been electing women to powerful positions for years, and Warren is competing at the highest levels of American politics. Like everyone else aiming for the White House, she will come in for her share of trash talk and sharp elbows. If you can’t stand the heat, Harry Truman used to say about public life, get out of the kitchen.
Of course, if he said it today, he’d be called a sexist.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).