Massachusetts Senator and surging Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren is so adept at not taking the media’s bait, she even managed to shut down friendly interviewer Rachel Maddow at every turn.
On Tuesday night’s edition of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, Warren sat for an extensive interview, and somehow managed to evade answering two questions — out of six — from an interviewer who could not be more supportive of a Warren presidency.
Most glaringly, Maddow noted that Warren and Bernie Sanders are “both so popular right now in this primary that it’s possible that you two may split the progressive vote down the middle, thus resulting in a more centrist candidate winning the nomination instead of either of you,” and asked Senator Warren “How do you and Senator Sanders avoid that fate?”
Warren expressed her warm feelings for Sanders, explained how she will make the case for her candidacy, and launched into a lengthy answer that somehow involved being a baby in Oklahoma, but did not, in any way, address the question that Maddow asked, which was how do the two progressives in the race avoid splitting their natural constituencies and handing the nomination to someone like Joe Biden?
Maddow also asked about this remark Warren made at her rally Monday night, which pretty clearly seemed directed at Biden:
“When you said last night in that clip that I just played from your speech — we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else. Democrats can’t win if we’re scared and looking backward,” Maddow said, adding “I think, broadly, that was perceived as you talking there about Vice President Biden. Was it?”
“No. It’s talking about whether we’re going to turn backwards and just say, the only problem is Trump. If we get rid of Trump, everything is going to be just fine,” Warren said.
“What Democratic choice would imply that?” Maddow pressed.
Warren replied that “we can’t even think of the problem that way,” then launched into her stump speech about corporations and the wealth tax.
Now, anyone with any sense knows she was talking about Biden, and if they didn’t know it before, they definitely knew she wasn’t talking about Trump. But, once again, bait avoided.
A few hour later, CBS would air Warren’s master-class in bait avoidance, when she once again refused to say whether middle class taxes would go up under Medicare for All, even with overtly sympathetic framing by Stephen Colbert.
Not taking the bait is something to which all politicians aspire, to the consternation of the media. It is a well-known axiom among political reporters that a politician’s main job is to not make news, to stay “on message.” Some are more successful than others, but that’s why every question you ask Bernie Sanders eventually results in him answering the question he wanted you to ask.
There is some limited utility in not taking the bait. Supporters — particularly liberals who see themselves as being above red meat politics — love it when their candidate frustrates some journalist’s attempt to pry loose a newsworthy soundbite.
“Yes! This should be about substance!” they cry, in the disillusioned tone of Bill Paxton’s Twister character observing that Cary Elwes is “in it for the muh-nee, not the science!”
Well, I’m here to tell you, Virginia, that as sure as there’s a Santa Claus, not taking the bait is stupid AF, as the kids like to say. I think this has always been true, but even more so today than in the past.
First of all, if you refuse the bait in a way that seems dishonest or evasive, you risk alienating potential supporters, and even existing ones. Stephen Colbert was clearly sympathetic to the policy, understood the overall reasoning behind her focus on the net cost, but was also annoyed at the buildup of evasions.
Warren has the right idea about this question, but the wrong execution. She’s trying to avoid giving Republicans — and a news media that is prone to amplifying this kind of thing — a video clip of her saying “Yes, I will totally raise taxes, but then [jump cut].”
Bernie Sanders did take the bait, and wound up constantly having to explain, and when you’re explaining, you’re losing.
But Sanders also had the right idea for how to deal with this bait, albeit a few months too late. After already conceding the point for months, Sanders screamed at Jake Tapper for asking the question during July’s debate, calling it a “Republican talking point.”
This wasn’t exactly fair to Tapper, who doesn’t control how candidates answer legitimate questions or how Republicans then use those answers in 30-second ads, but it was basically the right strategy.
The best answer would be to not have a plan that would leave millions of Americans paying more, but barring that, you answer in a way that resolves the question, and renders it useless as an attack ad.
So for Colbert, I might have said something like “I am not going to deliver a sound bite that Republicans will use to destroy Americans’ chance to have health care as a right, and cause tens of thousands of deaths a year, Stephen. I’m not going to do it. America and Americans will pay less for health care and will not die from lack of health insurance any more under Medicare for All, periodt.”
An answer like that accomplishes everything you need it to, and your supporters will still appreciate your redlining policy.
There are also wrong ways to take the bait, as Senator Kamala Harris learned when she claimed she could deliver Medicare for All without raising taxes on the middle class. That just leads to annoying reporters asking “How’s that?” over and over again.
In fact, Warren is the proud owner of one of the most epic bait-mishandlings of all time. For years, she unwisely resisted addressing the controversy over her claim of Native American heritage, hoping the bait would eventually fall off the hook. Then, when the hook was the size of a grapefruit, she suddenly decided to swallow the whole thing. Sometimes, you can’t avoid getting hooked, and you’re better off doing it early so you can wriggle yourself off the line.
The most glaring flaw in bait-avoidance is the notion that if you just don’t give the media what they clearly want, they will instead cover your press release about your new plan to address redlining, or some other substantive issue. They won’t, and Beto O’Rourke will steal your news cycle by saying “Fuck.”
So on the Biden question, for example, Maddow — in good faith — clearly wanted to discuss Warren’s views on the former VP’s candidacy, his ability to meet the moment, whatever. And every other reporter wants to see some fur fly.
There are good reasons for Warren not to want to engage in this way — not wanting to be seen as “going negative,” wanting to keep the focus on her own candidacy, and the great headlines she’s been getting about enthusiasm and having a plan for that — in which case she shouldn’t have said that shit in the first place. It couldn’t have been more clearly about Biden if she had added “Not a joke! I’m not being facetious!”
The answer Warren gave came off as dishonest, at best, and at worst, made people who don’t already like her think “Jesus, she’s even shitting Maddow?”
Once you’ve said it, you’ve got to own it. “I don’t want to single Joe out, there are a lot of Democrats pushing so-called ‘safe’ policies, but he is the best example of the silly notion that not fighting for fundamental change makes you more ‘electable’; I don’t buy that,” would have been one way to answer that question.
There are benefits to staying on message, as Warren’s “I have a plan for that” has demonstrated, but you can do both. Whether you take it or not, the bait will persist. People won’t stop asking about the taxes, but the story can either be “Candidate evades question” or “Candidate takes bait and makes sushi out of it.”
In 2019, “earned media” is going to be more important than ever. Whoever the nominee is will be outspent by Trump, and will face the nonstop coverage of his every utterance. They will amplify his every attack. Every Democrat should be practicing how to take the bait, and make it into news they can use.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.