Politicians make promises. Elizabeth Warren made hundreds of them while courting voters at diners and in school gymnasiums around the country during her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Most of those promises weren’t even made to registered voters.
“Whenever I meet a little girl,” the Massachusetts senator once explained, “I say, ‘I’m running for president, because that’s what girls do,’ and we pinky-promise so they’ll remember.”
Maybe those future female voters will remember, but they won’t see her this November. As has been customary in American politics, they will watch two older white men battle for the Oval Office while Warren stands in support of one of them. She isn’t even on the ticket.
Kamala Harris accepted the vice presidential nomination on Wednesday night and with it the coveted heir-apparent status of the Democratic Party. This means that the senator from California, not the progressive from New England, will be the one — if a lot of things go right — to make good on those countless pinky promises.
The night’s playbill showed as much. Warren spoke after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Billie Eilish, who debuted her mournful new single, “My Future.” The final chorus:
And I, I’m in love,
But not with anybody here,
I’ll see you in a couple years.
It was MTV-meets-the DNC, a lamentation by a Gen Z luminary as fog machines blew her black and green hair back and forth. If the event had been live, maybe Warren would have felt and reflected on the emotion. But she wasn’t “there.” No one really was, aside from Harris, who accepted the nomination in a mostly empty auditorium in Delaware populated only by a handful of socially distanced reporters.
Warren was a polite afterthought Wednesday night, another stand-in, arguing again that President Trump had failed to competently address the pandemic. A Biden administration, she promised, would whip the virus and, not only that, the Democratic president would “make high-quality child care affordable for every family.”
And then, speaking from a schoolroom, the scourge of Mitch McConnell ended her remarks by plugging voting protocols: “Whether you’re planning to vote wearing a mask or vote by mail, please, take out your phone right now and text VOTE to 3-0-3-3-0.” It was dutiful political work; campaigns are built on data. But it was less than memorable. Warren did not trend on Twitter and she did not make the bullet points offered by the cable news talking heads in their post-convention night analysis.
Perhaps that closing pitch was appropriate. Technocrats like the one who helped create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have a head for spreadsheets. Rarely do those kinds of wonks have a heart to go with it. Warren does. The combination made hers a cerebral and emotional campaign when she was still pinky-promising across America.
Warren never seemed to care for the simplistic maxims of politicians. She was always explaining, but in the end she was losing. The best retail politics couldn’t make white papers win in Iowa or New Hampshire or Nevada. All her plans to use the government to transform society, to cut down the wealthy and elevate the downtrodden, fell flat. And when Warren walked away, she told her followers this: “If you leave with only one thing, it must be this: Choose to fight only righteous fights, because then when things get tough – and they will – you will know that there is only one option ahead of you: Nevertheless, you must persist.”
Righteousness did not include loyalty. She had cut her closest ideological ally, Sen. Bernie Sanders, to pieces during a debate over a non-ideological charge: that he allegedly told her, during a private conversation, that he thought a woman couldn’t win the presidency. He denied this dubious claim, which she never retracted. Then, when Sanders was in a dogfight with Joe Biden, a bout between a democratic socialist and an establishment champion, the woman who famously persisted hung back.
This was front page news, at least for a while, when a Warren endorsement was seen as an electoral elixir that could bring life back to Bernie. She never tested her abilities. Her endorsement went to Biden after Sanders relented and dropped out.
What to make of the Warren “convention” speech that was largely ignored? She ably delivered an address during a pandemic. She continues to rank at the top of the list of likely presidential appointees. She did not, however, make news. Her promises, for now, are someone else’s to keep.