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Elizabeth Warren, the Long-Distance Runner of the 2020 Race

The senator is struggling to gain traction in the polls, despite releasing a flood of innovative proposals. But she is exactly where she needs to be.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Amid all the chatter about whether the old white dudes of 2020—Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Wafflin’ Joe Biden—are too long in the tooth to be running for president, it’s been remarkable, and revealing, how rarely you hear that question asked about Elizabeth Warren. Age doesn’t really factor into assessments of the Massachusetts senator, who turns 70 in June (though gender does—read on). You can’t chalk this up to her newly revealed Game of Thrones fandom, nor to the more pertinent fact that she has so much antic energy that you could easily imagine this woman crossing the finish line at the Boston Marathon and then, without being winded in the least, rolling out a brilliantly devious new plan for defanging the plutocrats of Silicon Valley.

More than anything, it’s the bracingly different kind of campaign she’s running that makes Warren seem like 69 going on 29. Though she’s been hard-pressed to get any credit for it, in the very early going Warren is conducting the most cutting-edge effort of any 2020 contender—the closest thing to what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, if she weren’t literally 29, might be offering herself.

Warren has given the finger to big donors—so much so that her finance director resigned in frustration late last month. She’s banking on small donors and a big ground game. And she’s broadcasting her message not in scripted bits, but in her own feisty voice—the one that called so resonantly last week for impeachment proceedings against Trump, while Bernie Sanders avoided the question, Pete Buttigieg punted, and Kamala Harris won the gold medal for mealy-mouthedness (“I think that there is definitely a conversation to be had on that subject, but first I want to hear from Bob Mueller”) before reversing course on Monday.

But nothing is edgier than Warren’s stubborn insistence on grounding her effort on—heaven help her!—big, bold, fully cooked policy proposals. At times, she’s seemed to roll them out with the same numbing frequency that Trump tweets “Witch Hunt.” And for the first few months of her campaign, the senator’s weighty and worthy ideas about financial and democratic reform fell like trees in the proverbial forest, largely unheard. Stunningly enough, the senator whom the left had begged to run in 2016 was polling in single digits for 2020.

If there’s any justice—which is, of course, always debatable—that’s about to change. Riding the plaudits she won for her impeachment stance, Warren caught fire on Monday with a canny proposal for “universal free college” and student-loan debt relief. Younger liberals, in particular, cheered the plan, which would make public college tuition-free, boost low-income kids’ prospects of matriculating, and cancel up to $50,000 in student debt for households that make less than $100,000. (Smaller benefits would go to those making up to $250,000.) Just as helpfully, in terms of her political fortunes, the idea also revived right-wing pundits’ interest in railing at Warren. “This pander will not only be incredibly costly,” Philip Klein fumed at The Washington Examiner, “but it will be a slap in the face to those who have already struggled to pay off their student loans without government assistance.”

There’s nothing like inspiring irrational bursts of fury from the right to jump-start a Democratic campaign. The notion that the older folks will despise their children and grandchildren for escaping the burdens they had suffered was nicely rebutted by Paul Blest at Splinter: “Social Security? Unfair to old people whose retirement plans consisted of dying in a ditch somewhere off the highway.”

Warren herself ably parried the other inevitable objection on Monday night—the one about irresponsible big-government spending—while she took her turn in CNN’s evening-long Town Hall-a-palooza. When an audience member asked about the proposal, Warren volunteered, “Do you want to know how I’d pay for it?” With that, she segued into her single most politically appealing policy plank: a two-percent “wealth tax” on every dollar above $50 million. “We say: Good for you,” she said. “You got this great fortune. But you gotta pay something back so everybody else gets a chance.”

Then she artfully linked this to her other greatest hits: her revolutionary plans for child care and pre-kindergarten for all. “Here’s the stunning part,” she said. “If we put that two-cent wealth tax in place on the 75,000 largest fortunes in this country—two cents—we can do universal child care for every baby, zero to five, universal pre-K, universal college, and knock back the student loan burden for 95 percent of our students and still have nearly a trillion dollars left over.”

The knock on Warren, stemming in large part from her horribly wrong-footed attempt to defuse the Trumped-up controversy over her claims of Native American heritage, has mostly been that she lacks the sort of political savvy that’ll be needed to dispatch the president. In policy terms, it’s always been hard to deny that Warren plays master-level chess while her opponents, left and right, dabble in checkers. But if she were to win the Democratic nomination, would she fall again into Trump’s traps? And with her tendency to frame everything as a “fight,” would she be a one-note wonder on the stump?

She’s gone a long way toward defusing those nagging doubts over the past week. Her initial response to the Mueller report was spot-on, both decisive and thoughtful. (And gloriously free of any tacked-on fundraising appeals.) On Monday night, Warren was even better when Anderson Cooper asked her about Democrats quailing at the idea of impeachment hearings because it might come at a political cost. “There is no political-inconvenience exception to the United States Constitution,” she began, sparking wild applause—and it only got better from there:

Warren easily outshone Buttigieg (who was smooth as ever) and Sanders, who played all the old folk hits, on Monday night. She leavened her answers with humor and homespun straight talk that came across as real and unforced, and bore not the slightest resemblance to the “preachy and angry” stereotype The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis summed up for the ages a few months back, when he called Warren “a combination of the horrible math teachers I endured in middle school, and a friend’s overly emotional mom.”

The only reason anyone’s ever cast Warren as “unlikable”—insert heavy sigh—has always been rooted in sexism. Nobody could say it better than Moira Donegan did in a Guardian column earlier this year: “The question of ‘likability’ as it is applied to women candidates has become a kind of cipher through which pundits, strategists and ordinary Americans discuss our collective discomfort with women in power.” But for the first month of her campaign, likability was pretty much the only story being written about her, alongside the remnants of the “Fauxahontas” flap.

For anyone who doesn’t believe the truism that women have to be considerably better than men to earn the same opportunities, the fortunes of Warren’s campaign thus far offer a fresh dose of powerful evidence. It helps explain polls like the one from New Hampshire, her neighboring state, that popped up yesterday: While Sanders led at 30, followed by Biden and Buttigieg at 18 and 15, Warren had sunk to 5 percent. That isn’t just weird; it’s downright disturbing.

Warren certainly has a steep hill to climb, even if she may have begun the ascent with her stellar performance in the past week. She’ll never match Sanders dollar-for-dollar. She can’t snap her fingers, turn into a guy, and assure anxious Democrats that she won’t get “Hillary’d” in a general election, as a town hall questioner put it. And she’s not going to stop hinging her prospects more on policy than personality or consultant-approved rhetoric. This is a candidate who will, come hell or high water, keep laying down epic poetry in an age when people can barely muster up the attention span to get through a sonnet.

But by eschewing so much of what politicos consider sound practice, Warren has given herself a potential edge, if Democrats are ultimately capable of judging their field with clear eyes: She’s running, defiantly, in a way that clearly suits her to a T. She is campaigning as her own damn self, wonky and fierce, occasionally funny and sometimes professorial. Can it possibly work in the end? Maybe not, if Democratic voters are too hopelessly shell-shocked by 2016 to “risk” picking the candidate who shows every promise of being the most consequential president in the bunch, simply because she’s a woman.

It’s early days in a long campaign, though. And we are living through a time when the old political rules not only don’t apply, but tend to backfire on their practitioners. As much as everybody talks about American voters being fed up with this, angry at that, and hopelessly divided about every last thing, what people on both sides of the partisan divide have most emphatically demonstrated in both 2016 and 2018 is that they’re sick of politicians who sound like politicians. Whatever they think of her, any fool can see that Warren is modeling the brand of politics she believes in. It might prove, in the end, to simply be an admirably doomed way to run. But you can’t actually watch her campaign and not admit that she’s awfully good at it.