Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Elizabeth Warren vs. a ‘hateful’ president

Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke to a crowd at Cape Cod Community College on Sunday.

Steve Haines for The Boston Globe

Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke to a crowd at Cape Cod Community College on Sunday.

Holding his daughter Lucy, who can’t see or talk, Bill Engler stood up near the end of a town hall meeting hosted by Senator Elizabeth Warren and called out President Trump for once mocking a disabled reporter.

Given his family’s experience, said Engler, Trump’s behavior on the campaign trail “hurt to the core” — and Trump’s refusal to apologize offends him even more. “The real point is, words matter,” Engler said. “Words matter,” agreed Warren. Pledging to fight for Lucy, she added: “That’s the kind of people we are. . . . We cannot let a hateful man take that away.”

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Yes, Warren was talking about Trump, and no, she didn’t back down when asked about it: “I think he has behaved in a hateful way,” Warren said afterwards. “When he makes fun of someone who has palsy . . . and then when it’s pointed out and he won’t apologize, that’s hateful.”

Republicans are threatening to turn Warren into the kind of unlikable female lefty who can’t sell beyond her base — “as toxic as Nancy Pelosi” promises a Washington Times headline. If they think that will scare Warren away, they have a lot to learn about the senator from Massachusetts.

At Saturday’s town hall on Martha’s Vineyard, her voice shook with outrage at the Republican appetite for tax cuts over Medicaid, with special scorn reserved for Trump. She called upon the overflow crowd of more than 1,000 to stay in the fight to defeat the GOP health care bill and the rest of the Trump agenda: “I went to the inauguration. . . . I witnessed it. . . . I watched it. If ever there’s a time I get tired, it’s now burned on my retina,” she said, “and I’m back.”

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The audience of mostly boomers, sprinkled with women wearing “Nevertheless she persisted” T-shirts, loved it. No surprise. Dukes County gave 72 percent of its vote to Hillary Clinton last November and 67 percent to Warren in her 2012 Senate race against Republican Scott Brown. Warren is up for reelection again in 2018. But during this town hall, she made only one passing reference to running for the Senate. And when state Senator Julian Cyr introduced her, he called her “the leader of the Democratic Party.” Routinely identified now as a potential 2020 presidential candidate, Warren talks national issues, reclaiming the populist campaign that fired up Bernie Sanders supporters.

Only now the fire is coming from an in-your-face woman, who already has Trump’s taunting attention. He calls her “Pocahontas,” a reference to Warren’s claim to Native American roots. Sexist or not, after what happened to the last woman who ran for president as the Democrats’ nominee, people are going to ask if gender makes Warren more vulnerable to attack. But the core concern is whether Warren can appeal to voters beyond friendly, progressive turf.

A recent WBUR poll, conducted by Mass Inc. pollster Steve Koczela, showed Warren swamping any potential Republican challenger currently in the Senate race mix. Yet one of them — computer scientist and MIT grad Shiva Ayyadurai — went from virtually ignored to earning mentions after he quipped on cable TV, “Well, I think only a real Indian can defeat a fake Indian.” Even in Massachusetts, there are pockets of voters who are not in love with Warren. The same WBUR poll showed that in Southeastern Massachusetts, 49 percent of those surveyed have an unfavorable view of her. Polling shows her highest unfavorability ratings come from Republicans, unenrolled voters, and men. Multiply that across America and you can see challenges to a presidential run.

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What Warren does have are unflinching political beliefs, passion, intelligence, and fearlessness. She will fight for policy that helps the Lucys of the world and against behavior she’s unafraid to call hateful. Words matter. She’s choosing hers carefully, not cautiously.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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