Warren's marriage quip excites and distresses
By ANNIE LINSKEY | The Washington Post | Published: October 12, 2019
About 90 minutes into Thursday's forum on LGBTQ issues in Los Angeles, a gay rights leader posed a question to Sen. Elizabeth Warren: How would she respond if a voter approached her and said, "I'm old-fashioned, and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman?"
Warren, D-Mass., responded with a theatrical seriousness. "Well, I'm going to assume it's a guy who said that," she deadpanned, pausing a beat for the audience to catch the joke. Then she added, "And I'm going to say, 'Then just marry one woman - I'm cool with that.' "
She finished with a zinger: " 'Assuming you can find one.' "
After landing her punchline, Warren turned, took a few steps and smiled broadly as the room exploded in laughter. Her response went viral online, and by Friday afternoon, Warren's campaign team, which rarely brags about such things, was crowing that the clip had garnered more than 12 million views on Twitter.
The glitterati gushed. "The single greatest response to this question, in or outside politics," wrote actress Minnie Driver. "Made my day," added actress Alyssa Milano. Javier Muñoz, who recently played the title role in the smash musical "Hamilton," posted seven emoji of clapping hands.
But Republicans and some Democrats warned that the quip at the CNN-sponsored forum would play poorly among a big swath of voters.
"It's about telling people who don't agree with you that they are backward by definition," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist who advised Bill Clinton's presidential reelection campaign. The line was a "stab" to those who don't agree with her, he said, and "it is a battle cry for men to turn out against Elizabeth Warren."
The 44-second exchange captured the promise and peril of Warren's candidacy. She is quick-witted and sharp-tongued in a way that has played well in the Democratic primary and could prove effective against President Donald Trump. But conservatives warn that she can come off as condescending and dismissive.
Warren is working hard to present herself as a scrappy fighter from Oklahoma, in other words, but to critics she can come off as the lecturing Harvard professor.
For many liberals, the rapid-fire answer showcased her ability to take on Trump. "It was genius - it shows the real Elizabeth Warren," said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist who is not affiliated with a presidential campaign. "It was off-the-cuff and it was devastating, with a smile, a wink, a turn of the heel and a chuckle. Everybody got it."
But Sheinkopf suggested Warren was playing to her liberal studio audience, and he warned that such comments could alienate voters in the South and upper Midwest. "Would she say the same thing at a dinner in Birmingham, Alabama?" he said. "The answer is no."
Republicans noted that Warren's comment went beyond stating a position to ridicule those who have a different view on same-sex marriage.
"It's insulting," said Ari Fleischer, the former spokesman to President George W. Bush. "The notion that there is only one thought that is acceptable, and if you don't hold it there is no one on earth who should find you attractive, is insulting and demeaning."
Fleischer said politicians should avoid disparaging those who disagree with them, stressing that he has also criticized Trump when he has insulted opponents.
"You cannot call people to a higher purpose if you yourself are going to sink to a lower one," he said.
Warren is hardly the first Democrat to be accused by conservatives of being condescending toward white working-class Americans. Candidate Barack Obama angered some voters in 2008 with his description of "bitter" working class Americans who "cling to guns or religion."
Hillary Clinton prompted a backlash in 2016 by labeling some of Trump's supporters "deplorables." That remark haunted her throughout the campaign and beyond, and some analysts contend that it helped drive up turnout for Trump.
Warren's supporters say her acerbic tone Thursday was appropriate, given that it was aimed at people who want to deny gays and lesbians the fundamental right to marry.
Several Democrats noted that support for same-sex marriage has grown quickly in the United States, putting Warren's views in line with many voters. More than 60 percent of Americans favor same-sex marriage, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Roughly three-quarters of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters support it, the poll found. Among Republicans, about 44 percent of voters favor the policy.
And those who do not, Warren's supporters say, would be unlikely to support her in any case.
Still, one issue for Warren could be how such comments play with black voters, some of whom are socially conservative. Warren will likely need to appeal to African-Americans to secure the Democratic nomination and win the White House, but has so far made few inroads with the black community.
Older and more religious black voters in particular may be less likely to find Warren's joke funny, several strategists said.
"I'm not sure how that resonates with older African-American voters, especially African-American women," said Antjuan Seawright, a black Democratic strategist based in South Carolina. "I'm especially not sure what discussions might carry over to the barber shops this weekend."
Warren's staff argued that the comments will not hurt her standing. They pointed to the second, less viral portion of the answer.
These additional remarks came after CNN host Chris Cuomo pressed her on whether, in her earlier years as an Oklahoma Republican, she had ever opposed same-sex marriage. She said her position has been consistent, citing her religion.
"It is about the worth of every human being," Warren said. "The hatefulness frankly always really shocked me, especially for people of faith, because I think the whole foundation is the worth of every single human being."
John Ziegler, an anti-Trump conservative, said Warren's words conveyed no such generosity. Her message and her body language, he said, telegraphed a dislike of men.
Trump voters in places such as the Florida panhandle and central Pennsylvania, he said, will think, " 'Oh my God - this woman hates us.' "
"It plays right into the narrative about her, which is that she's an out-of-touch liberal from Massachusetts, and this whole obsession with wokeness that the Democratic Party has where the white male is under attack," Ziegler said.
Warren's viral moment was the latest example of online combat at which she has often excelled. She recently batted down a conservative troll who made an unsupported accusation that she had an affair with a much younger man by pivoting to her hardscrabble upbringing. She even found a way to play on the term "cougar," slang for a woman who is involved with a younger man.
"It's always a good day to be reminded that I got where I am because a great education was available for $50 a semester at the University of Houston (go Cougars!)" she wrote in a tweet that was shared more than 24,000 times. "We need to cancel student debt and make college free for everyone who wants it."
She also hit back quickly this week when conservatives pushed the idea that she had lied about being fired from an early teaching job in the 1970s due to a pregnancy. Women across the country came to her defense, reacting with their own stories of losing work because they were starting a family.
One pollster who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they work for a competing campaign said the LGBTQ joke highlighted Warren's sense of humor, which the pollster said can be tricky, especially for female candidates. The joke could appeal in particular to younger voters, the pollster said.
Warren's regular stump speech shows flashes of offbeat humor, though it usually follows a fairly rigid script. Thursday, in contrast, Warren appeared to let her guard down.
"I thought it was funny," offered former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, who is supporting former vice president Joe Biden. "I would not say in any way shape or form that it will slow her candidacy down."