Elizabeth Warren has always described herself as a “fighter,” someone unafraid to take on corporate interests and even members of her own party to demand what she believes is right. Her pugnacious willingness to methodically shred CEOs and Wall Street executives, after all, is what, in the late 2000s, built her base of supporters and made her a phenom—even before she entered the Senate. Which is why her campaign over the past few months has been so curiously out of line with the Elizabeth Warren we thought we knew, and so dispiriting. Warren the fighter turned into Warren the uniter, a candidate who has tried to remain above the fray and ended up pleasing few except her most dedicated supporters, looking oddly weak along the way. It’s as if a terrible advisor whispered in her ear that voters don’t like angry, aggressive women, and she took it to heart, despite her righteous anger being one of the qualities that many find so appealing about her.
But on the debate stage on Wednesday night, with Michael Bloomberg as an almost-too-perfect embodiment of the hubris and corruption of the CEO class, all that Warren has railed against since she entered politics, Warren displayed the qualities that first made her such a political star. She was ready to fight.
She began by eviscerating Bloomberg. “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians,’” Warren said. “And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.” She continued: “Look, I’ll support whoever the democratic nominee is, but understand this: Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”
It was a brutal, beautiful (metaphorical) murder that we saw on stage on Wednesday night, a reminder from Warren that the billionaire has no clothes. For every defense that Bloomberg tried to offer—on stop-and-frisk, on his and his company’s treatment of women, and on the NDAs his company forced women to sign—Warren was ready with a takedown. On stop-and-frisk: “This isn’t about how it turned out, this is about what it was designed to do to begin with. It targeted communities of color. It targeted black and brown men from the beginning,” Warren replied when he attempted to apologize. When Bloomberg attempted to paint himself as a friend to women, Warren was ready: “I hope you heard his defense. ‘I’ve been nice to some women.’ That just doesn’t cut it.” And Warren called out his refusal to release the many, many women who sued his company for sexual harassment from the NDAs they had been forced to sign (a process that Bloomberg tellingly described as “consensual”). “This is not just a question of the mayor’s character,” Warren said. “This is also a question about electability. We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who knows how many nondisclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against. That’s not what we do as Democrats.”
While Bloomberg was Warren’s main target at the debate, she showed a willingness to criticize her other opponents that had been markedly missing in previous debates and on the campaign trail. She was ready with pithy arguments against her fellow candidates’ health care proposals, a response to the attacks she had faced from all sides on her Medicare for All proposals that had contributed to her decline late last year. Amy Klobuchar’s plan was like a “Post-It note,” Pete Buttigieg’s plan “was a Power Point” that was “thought up by his consultants.” And Bernie Sander’s plan was a “good start,” she said, then adding, in a nod to the criticism she faced when she released her plans for Medicare for All, “But instead of expanding and bringing in more people to help, instead his campaign relentlessly attacks everyone who asks a question or tries to fill in details about how to actually make this work.” It was a stark move away from her previous pitch that she’s the unity candidate. Her new pitch? That she’s the apt maneuverer who is able to transfer ideals into reality.
If Warren’s supporters felt she was being erased from the media narrative after a decent third-place showing in Iowa and a disappointing fourth-place finish in New Hampshire, that’s no longer the case after Wednesday’s night debate, which had everyone from MSNBC’s Chris Matthews to CNN’s Van Jones praising her performance. If nothing else, cable news, always hunting for their short-term fix, loves a good comeback story.
On Wednesday, Warren had her best fundraising day since she entered the race, raising more than $2.8 million and giving her much-needed resources to continue her campaign. (Bernie Sanders, who continues to be the frontrunner, raised almost as much on the same day.) Her campaign has clearly made another pivot, highlighting during the debate a 2011 quote of hers about the creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau: “My first choice is a strong consumer agency. My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.” It may be too late for Warren to make up enough lost ground, but I find that quote apt. If she can’t win the nomination, on Wednesday night, she did her fucking best to leave the blood and teeth—and presidential ambitions—of at least one candidate on the floor.