If there was any doubt that the Democratic primary race has a new frontrunner, last night’s debate settled it.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren – who has lately inched ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden in some polls, and whose fundraising and crowd sizes show even more momentum – came under attack from all sides. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar called her Medicare for All plan a “pipe dream.” Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke accused her of pitting one group of Americans against another. Mr. Biden charged she’d accomplished very little during her time in Congress.
Underneath all the jabs on policy was a more pointed critique.
“Every attack on Warren so far is subtly (and not so subtly) about honesty and not policy,” Politico’s Ryan Lizza tweeted during the debate. “This is very similar to how Obama went after Clinton in the fall of 2007 – character instead of white papers.”
Republicans have been mapping out this line of attack for some time. The recent brouhaha over Senator Warren’s assertion that she had been fired from a teaching job in the 1970s for being pregnant was a direct strike at her truthfulness.
And while it may have echoes of Barack Obama’s strategy against Hillary Clinton, it’s even more reminiscent of the attacks against former Vice President Al Gore during the 2000 election.
During that cycle, George W. Bush’s camp pounced on Mr. Gore’s statements – such as his claim that he “took the initiative in creating the Internet” – to cast him as a serial exaggerator. It wound up being a devastating critique, as the media began scrutinizing all of Mr. Gore’s remarks for inaccuracies. The effect was to undercut Mr. Gore’s squeaky clean, Boy Scout-like image (in contrast to his boss).
Senator Warren has, for now, seemingly survived the “Pocahontas” attacks from President Donald Trump – referring to her past claims to Native American heritage, for which she has apologized. The underlying thrust of that whole episode, however, was to raise questions about her honesty. Those questions hit right at the heart of her brand as someone who will call out corruption and speak truth to power.
Of course, Democrats will note that President Trump is hardly in a position to question anyone else’s truthfulness. But if he can succeed in muddying Senator Warren’s image on that front, he will have neutralized one of her main strengths.
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