And Warren’s press coverage of late has been overwhelmingly positive. Even the criticisms of her from Republicans have seemed almost halfhearted.
Now that she’s looking like she has a good chance to be the Democratic nominee for president, all that is going to change. Is she ready?
Candidates often aren’t; they frequently seem surprised when some initial success turns them into a target. If there’s anyone you’d expect to be prepared, it would be Warren, who is nothing if not a meticulous planner. If she was smart, when designing her campaign she would have considered the moment when controversy arises and everyone starts attacking her, and come up with a strategy to deal with it.
She isn’t facing that moment quite yet, but the first glimmers are appearing. We began to see it a couple of weeks ago, when staffers and supporters of other Democratic candidates began criticizing her, arguing either that the only true progressive champion in the race is Sanders or that her ambitious plans are too pie-in-the-sky to pass Congress.
And now, other candidates themselves are dipping toes in that water. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg called her “evasive” for not addressing how much taxes might have to increase to fund Medicare-for-all. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said, “We’ve got a lot of great people running, but some of these ideas are better left in the college faculty lounge,” a clear reference to Warren, the only former college professor in the race.
That’s obviously mild stuff. But the change is still notable, because it’s not until you begin to define the shape of the race that other candidates seek to define themselves in opposition to you.
The tone of Warren’s press coverage will change at some point, too. When she was in single digits, she wasn’t getting much coverage at all, but when she began rising in the polls and attracting huge crowds, the coverage not only increased but also became largely positive, as reporters wrote stories explaining her success. That’s still going on; here, for instance, is an episode of the New York Times podcast “The Daily” that goes deep inside everything that happens at a Warren rally, with predictably glowing results.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that kind of positive coverage. Explaining how a campaign works and why it is gaining supporters is worthwhile journalism. And there’s almost no way to write about, for instance, Warren’s almost inhuman ability to spend hours with supporters in a way that doesn’t reflect well on her.
But the press is a restless beast. There will inevitably come a time when reporters start thinking, even subconsciously, “enough of the love-fest. Let’s find the ugly side of this candidate.” When they get passed opposition research by her opponents, they’ll take more interest in it. As criticism of her mounts, that criticism will seem like more of a story in itself and get more prominent play. Don’t forget that there is probably no more powerful bias in the media than the bias toward conflict.
Which, depending on how it’s reported, is also fine. For instance, Warren and Biden have serious differences in both policy ideas and basic philosophy, and they have a history of conflict that goes back to a bankruptcy bill that Biden championed in 2005. If some voters are choosing between them, those disagreements offer helpful information.
Then there’s President Trump and other Republicans. Despite the fact that Trump has long used a racist slur to refer to her, the full power of the right’s apparatus of character assassination hasn’t been turned on her yet.
How will she react to all that? There’s no way to know yet. But my impression is that she has changed her approach. At the beginning of Trump’s presidency, she was eager to engage him directly in as pugnacious a manner as possible, to demonstrate that she could go toe-to-toe with him. It culminated in her decision to respond to his attacks by taking a DNA test to establish that she had Native ancestry, a mistake that she has probably learned from.
Lately you can detect something different in Warren: She’s as critical of Trump as the rest of the candidates, but she’s not trying to get in the muck with him and argue on the terms he sets. This is part of a wider realization on Democrats’ part, that taking his bait to get into juvenile squabbles only serves his purposes.
That’s one of the keys to handling attacks: knowing what has to be engaged and what you can, and should, just ignore. Warren, and any other candidate, might take a lesson from Barack Obama, whose “No Drama Obama” philosophy in 2008 was all about sticking to his strategy, rather than getting caught up in the frenzied news cycle and sidetracked by microcontroversies everyone would quickly forget about anyway.
Notwithstanding a few relatively polite disagreements in debates, the entire Democratic primary has been extremely friendly. But it’s not going to stay that way, and given who the incumbent is, the general election may be the ugliest we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Warren’s mantra is “I’ve got a plan for that.” We’ll she if she does.