Elizabeth Warren has been on the receiving end of an onslaught of jabs, swipes, missives, think-pieces and general bashing from opponents this past week, the likes of which she hasn’t experienced since she jumped into the presidential race.
But more surprising than the attacks — Warren, having risen to frontrunner status, had those coming — has been her response.
In two words: No comment.
Her surrogates and campaign aides aren’t going on cable TV to defend her — even as her rivals and their aides are constantly on shows bashing her. Warren advisers haven’t taken to Twitter to shape “the conversation.” There’ve been no statements from Warren HQ calling out rivals by name. Even when former Vice President Joe Biden portrayed Warren as an out-of-touch elitist — while he was attending a fundraiser with real estate moguls, offering the corruption-focused Warren a freebie rebuttal — the campaign kept quiet.
The only response of note to the elitist charge was a subtweet the Warren campaign posted Wednesday with a video about her humble upbringing and challenges as a young mother.
The campaign’s refusal to engage this week has baffled rival campaigns and some Democratic strategists. But it’s not an outlier. Internally, communications director Kristen Orthman refers to the approach as “blinders and bulletin board” — as in, put your blinders on to the horserace drama and stick your retorts on a bulletin board rather than tweeting them out. (Orthman has an actual bulletin board on which she also posts critical stories about Warren as a motivation tool.)
“Fighting on Twitter most of the time does not advance our goals,” said one campaign official in explaining Warren’s refusal to follow “The War Room” ethos that political campaigns have hewed to for decades. In short: All attacks must be publicly returned, and then some.
“How are you going to run for president — and run against President Trump — around a campaign that doesn’t answer questions and debate your own policy proposal? I don’t get it,” said James Carville, the man behind the original war room set up for Bill Clinton’s 1992 run.
Warren aides said they’re not adopting a pacifist posture; they expect that some attacks will require a response. Rather, they say they’re adapting to the modern media environment where responding to everything can distract from more important tasks and muddle their message.
This week, for instance, the campaign wanted attention focused on a high-profile endorsement of Warren given by Rep. Ayanna Pressley, as well as the candidate’s latest policy proposal focused on veterans. Warren also unveiled a tongue-in-cheek “Calculator for the Billionaires” that allows the ultra-rich to see how much they’d pay under Warren’s wealth tax proposal.
Still, there’s a question whether the unconventional approach will work as the attacks intensify ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire, let alone against Donald Trump in a general election. Democrats are watching closely which of the candidates will be able to stand up to the president: When asked to choose between a candidate who can beat Trump more than one who merely reflects their values, polls show Democratic voters prefer the former.
The political consulting class is split over the strategy.
“This is the most massive, ginormous and ambitious detailed plan we’ve seen in modern American politics and she’s not engaging,” Carville said of Warren’s Medicare for All proposal. “Maybe the fact of the matter is she doesn’t have a good response so that’s why she’s not responding. Or maybe times have changed and I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Dan Pfeiffer, the former senior advisor to Barack Obama and the author of “Yes We (Still) Can,” said there’s a real price for engaging in a volley of attacks against candidates who have their own sizable followings. Despite what he called the media’s “blood-lust” for conflict, Pfeiffer said candidates “who have gone negative have suffered mightily over time.”
Another Democratic strategist who is in touch with the Warren’s communications team, credited them for resisting the urge to fire back. “There is much more to be lost in attacking fellow Democrats than there is to be gained for a news cycle or two,” the person said.
Biden’s advisers said they’re just fine with Warren’s MO. Politics abhors a vacuum, they said, and her lack of a response amplifies their criticisms and makes it easier to define the former Harvard professor as an “elitist” who won’t deign to debate plans they argue won’t work in the real world.
“Some call it the ‘my way or the highway’ approach to politics. But it’s worse than that. It’s condescending to the millions of Democrats who have a different view,” Biden wrote in a Medium post this week, referring to Warren’s calls for Medicare for All. “It’s representative of an elitism that working and middle class people do not share.” He later echoing those criticisms at multiple fundraisers, and his campaign blasted out excerpts of the criticisms of Warren’s plan from her home-state Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the New York Times and several other publications.
Biden campaign spokesperson TJ Ducklo told POLITICO that the offensive will continue. “We are going to continue talking about this because we won’t beat Donald Trump with double talk on health care,” he said.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is now running in second in Iowa polls behind Warren, also accused Warren of adopting a “my way or the highway” approach and said of Warren’s message: “It’s definitely not unifying.”
But, for now — with Warren atop the polls in the early states and nationally, or close behind Biden — her team says they’re picking their battles. While she hasn’t bluntly attacked her rivals, she and the campaign have gone after big corporations and wealthy people such as Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon, and Jamie Dimon. This week, billionaire investor Leon Cooperman was brough to tears on live TV, as he took exception to a series of Warren tweets directed his way, following his own harsh words for her.
Asked Thursday in North Carolina the main differences between her and other Democrats running, Warren again declined to engage.
“[W]hat I’m gonna do is I’ll talk about why I’m running,” she said, while acknowledging that she has “really avoided this question.”