Elizabeth Warren’s flailing campaign got a much-needed boost of energy after she used the debate in Nevada to pummel Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire who bought his way into the race. In previous debates, Warren had positioned herself as the party unifier, the one candidate who could bring together the warring factions of leftists and moderates. The unity pose fit well with Warren’s persona as a consummate wonk, the policy expert who could calmly work through the thickets of competing ideas to come to the best possible answer.
Warren the wonk had some appeal, especially to her loyal fans who loved the catch phrase “She has a plan for that.” But as the first two contests revealed, this could carry Warren only so far. Warren came in a credible third in the Iowa caucus, but her achievement was buried by the failure of the Iowa Democratic Party to announce results until long after the caucus ended. Unlike the Sanders campaign, the Warren campaign wasn’t willing to pick a fight with the Democratic National Committee or the Iowan Democratic Party about this fiasco. So Warren’s hard-won achievement was ignored in the press.
And unlike Amy Klobuchar, Warren wasn’t willing to pick a fight with the candidate who was taking the most support from both of them, Pete Buttigieg, who has been dominating among college-educated whites. New Hampshire proved that Warren the wonk wasn’t working. Klobuchar and Buttigieg picked up the supporters Warren was shedding.
Nevada has allowed Warren the wonk to reboot herself as Warren the warrior. As The New York Times noted, Warren had “shied away from direct conflict in past debates.” The Warren in Nevada wasn’t shy at all. She went after Bloomberg directly for being a plutocrat trying to buy an election and for his use of nondisclosure agreements to hide sexual harassment allegations against both himself and other executives at his media company.
“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians,” Warren said very early in the debate, setting the tone for the verbal fisticuffs to come. “And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
Warren the warrior galvanized her supporters. Her campaign reported that it raised $425,000 during just 30 minutes of the debate. Warren also started winning plaudits from pundits. Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times noted, “I don’t know how anyone could watch Warren filleting Bloomberg tonight and not want to see her onstage with Trump.”
Radley Balko of The Washington Post argued, “Warren hasn’t just been throwing haymakers. She’s been precise, almost surgical. First time in these these debates I’ve thought it would be a pleasure to watch one of these candidates go at Trump. My guess is he’d refuse to debate her.”
Zach Carter of HuffPost argued that it would’ve been good to see that Warren earlier. “The Elizabeth Warren on stage at tonight’s #DemDebate doesn’t finish third in Iowa and fourth New Hampshire,” he contended.
Warren was fierce, focused, and polemical. She displayed the revolutionary power of women’s anger. But it’s worth noting that this power is still constrained by sexism. For one thing, by being so openly brusque with Bloomberg, Warren risked a backlash. Not everyone was pleased to see Warren be so aggressive. “Mean and angry Warren is not a good look,” asserted Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post.
Christina Reynolds of Emily’s List argues that there’s sexism in the fact that women can get attention only by displays of anger. “It’s funny—if a woman doesn’t attack much in a debate or doesn’t speak as much, she disappears from the coverage,” Reynolds notes. “If a man does, according to my Twitter feed, he is viewed as having a good night and avoiding the back and forth.”
Pushing the argument further, one can observe that there still seem to be strict rules about women’s anger in politics. A woman can’t be angry all the time in the way Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders is angry. The anger has to be more focused and directed at specific targets.
Warren was able to display anger because she had such a large target in Michael Bloomberg, a smug, condescending, and fundamentally unlikable man. If Warren had gone after male politicians that are more generally liked, such as Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden, her anger might have met with disapproval.
A shrewd politician, Warren found the loophole in cultural rules that allows for female anger to be displayed on certain occasions. Bloomberg proved to be the perfect foil. The trick, going forward, will be for Warren to expand the loophole, to make Bloomberg a stand-in for larger social forces like patriarchy or plutocracy. Leveraging her anger against Bloomberg into permission for a greater expression of rage might be Warren’s way forward to the presidency.