Elizabeth Warren is defining the terms of the debate—it’s the only way to beat Trump in 2020

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NBC News / YouTube Watch live Elizabeth Warren makes an 1549741218.jpg...
NBC News / YouTube

Donald Trump upended the 2016 election cycle by being such a vulgar purveyor of indecency that no other candidate successfully stooped low enough to go toe-to-toe with him. He managed to prevail partly because he forced people to play at his exceedingly abysmal depths of depravity—impossible for anyone with even the tiniest hint of integrity.

Ever since then, political observers have been wondering: How do you beat someone with absolutely no sense of shame? The answer, as House Democrats’ historic wins in 2018 proved, was that you play your game, not his. During the midterms, Democratic candidates ignored Trump entirely and focused on health care, health care, and health care. As Trump wildly beat his nativist drum hyping his crisis at the border and the caravan, Democrats just kept talking health care and other pocketbook issues. It worked to stunning effect.

But in 2020, the Democratic nominee won’t have the luxury of just outright ignoring Trump. The maniacal tweeter will surely be hurling daggers by the hour and eventually, the nominee will have to face him down on the debate stage. That means Democrats need someone so confident in their message, so certain about where they plan to lead the country, that Trump’s rampant carpet-bombing won’t throw them off their game.

In other words, Democrats need a candidate who will set the terms of the debate and just slough off of the rest of the drivel from Trump and the media like unwanted blubber.

The candidate that has repeatedly demonstrated that faculty is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has rooted her campaign so firmly in her personal biography and belief system that she is campaigning from the core of her being rather than a sheet of poll-tested talking points. Simply put, she’s authentic. And the more people see of Warren as she engages in the hard-scrabble work of person-to-person retail politics, the more they like her.

Crucially, Warren has over and over again decided to play on the field of her own choosing. Instead of doing the high-dollar fundraisers that every other candidate has been doing, she opted out to spend more time and energy on regular voters. Instead of shying away from the type of wonky policy talk that usually makes voters’ eyes glaze over, she released week after week of detailed explanations on how she plans to get the government back to working for the people. But beyond the overarching decisions that have distinguished her campaign from others, she has also proven to be deft at drawing her own battle lines amid the type of verbal sparring that often lures candidates into troubled territory.

No better example of that exists than the two-plus minutes Warren spent beating back a gotcha question from one of media’s most relentless attack dogs, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. The moment came just after Warren’s appearance in the second debate and Matthews was keen on pressing a question that Warren had left for dead on the debate stage—whether Medicare For All would require raising people’s taxes.

It gets really good about 40 seconds into the exchange (pasted below) as Warren demonstrates the mettle it takes to stay focused on the question that matters—the message she’s relaying—rather than the question a reporter insists on pushing.

“You guys dodged that tonight,” Matthews says of whether MFA would raise taxes.

“No, no, it’s not a dodge,” Warren counters, “It’s about where…”

Matthews cuts back in, “Jake Tapper kept saying, ‘How much are your taxes going to go up?’ and you’d say…”

“How much are your costs going to go down,” Warren interjects.

“No, no, different question,” says Matthews. “How much will your taxes go up?”

“No, it’s how much are your costs—because it’s how much will families end up spending?” Warren responds.

“I know that argument,” Matthews offers.

“Ya know, it’s not just an argument,” Warren redirects. “Republicans did a study, and they hoped to show that Medicare For All was going to bust the budget. Remember what it ended up showing? That Medicare For All is cheaper than our current system.”

Matthews, unmoved, takes another crack. “But will you pay more in taxes? Why won’t you answer that question?” he says.

“Because it’s a question about where people are going to come out economically,” Warren explains.

Matthews: “That’s not my question. My question is, how much will taxes go up?”

Warren stays the course. “I spent most of my life studying families that went broke,” she says, “and a huge chunk of them went broke because of high medical bills and many of them had health insurance. So the question isn’t, do you have health insurance or not have health insurance? The question is, how much are you going to have to dig in your pocket to pay?”

“I know that’s the answer you’d like to give,” Matthews says, “but will your taxes go up?”

“The question is your total cost,” Warren replies.

“But there’s no answer to the tax question,” notes Matthews.

“There is an answer to your question about the costs, because it’s costs that matter to people,” Warren says, staying focused on her bottom line rather than Matthews’.

It’s worth detailing the interaction to appreciate what a display of verbal hand-to-hand combat it was, with Warren repeatedly fending off Matthews’ insistence on what mattered.

The point isn’t that she was so slick that people didn’t notice her refusal to answer the question. Who could miss it? Indeed, the topic sparked a cycle of media coverage about whether middle-classes taxes and/or costs would go up. Naturally, the answer is, it depends on the plan and how it’s implemented. But the point is, Warren knew what was relevant to her message and she kept a laser-tight focus on it without getting flummoxed or defensive. And equally as important, Warren deprived Matthews of the soundbite he was looking for—one that would be quoted out of context in every opposition ad for the remainder of her candidacy.

Knowing what matters and what doesn’t with absolute certainty, understanding the message you need to relay to share your vision, and not allowing even the most persistent questioner/foe to throw you off your game is the stuff of a candidate who can step right over Trump on her way to higher ground. That’s the vision, focus, and fortitude necessary for Democrats to prevail in 2020 and that Sen. Warren has shown at multiple junctures throughout her campaign.

Watch it for yourself. The action begins about 1:30 into the clip and ends at about 3:40.

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