CONCORD, N.H. — Sen. Elizabeth Warren is “instructing” voters on what to believe. Her policy vision smacks of an “academic exercise.” Her advocacy style is “my way or the highway,” and she has displayed an “elitist attitude.”
In ways overt and subtle, Joe Biden, his campaign and his allies have begun mounting personal attacks on his most formidable rival in the 2020 primary race, portraying her as embracing a rigid, condescending approach that befits a former Harvard professor with an ambitious policy agenda.
It is a politically risky case to make against a leading female candidate, especially to a Democratic primary electorate that has so far signaled little appetite for intraparty warfare. Women historically make up a majority of Democratic primary voters, and for many, memories of attacks against Hillary Clinton in 2016 are still fresh.
The aggressive approach is also new territory for Biden, the former vice president who served for decades as a decorous senator and typically tempers rebukes of opponents with mentions of their good character.
Warren, who generally refrains from sparring with her rivals, has started to push back, denouncing criticism from “powerful men” who try to tell women how to behave.
The back-and-forth between the two candidates signals the start of a more combative phase of the 2020 race, with their jousting largely focused on Warren’s $20.5 trillion plan to pay for a sweeping “Medicare for All” program. Democratic pushback against that plan has buoyed Biden’s campaign, which is keenly aware of Warren’s political momentum in key states like Iowa, where the first nominating contest will be held in less than three months.
After the Biden team dismissed her Medicare for all plan, Warren suggested critics were embracing Republican talking points and even running in the wrong party — remarks that Biden found personally galling, advisers and allies said. He responded in a toughly worded statement and in a fundraising appeal Tuesday, casting Warren’s response as “condescending,” reflective of an “angry unyielding viewpoint” and “representative of an elitism that working- and middle-class people do not share.”
He repeated versions of that argument in a radio interview and at fundraisers throughout the week, decrying Warren’s “attitude” in a way that struck some voters and political operatives as sexist, and others as ironic, given that he sometimes made this populist argument at his own events with big donors.
On Friday, Biden told reporters at New Hampshire’s Statehouse here that “the next president of the United States is going to have to make sure that they’re able to get things done, pass things.” He added, “Going after people’s motives or instructing them on what they should believe is not the way that you get things done.”
Warren, who caught up to or surpassed Biden in some polls this fall and now faces the scrutiny that comes with being a leading candidate, fired back Friday, sending a fundraising email with the subject line, “I am angry and I own it.”
“Over and over, we are told that women are not allowed to be angry,” Warren wrote in the message, which did not mention Biden. “It makes us unattractive to powerful men who want us to be quiet.”
She added: “Well, I am angry and I own it. I’m angry on behalf of everyone who is hurt by Trump’s government, our rigged economy, and business as usual.”
Asked Saturday if she thought Biden would describe her as angry and condescending if she were a man, Warren replied, “Why don’t you ask him that?”
The confrontation between the two leading candidates reflects the unsettled nature of the Democratic primary race, where Biden and Warren are squaring off as the two leading candidates while she is also playing both offense and defense on Medicare for All. But just as apparent are the gender dynamics and dangers in personal attacks for a Democratic field that began with a record number of female candidates but is now dominated by three white men — Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana — and Warren, of Massachusetts.
Biden’s attacks, in effect if not intent, include descriptions that some voters and researchers on women and politics see as sexist tropes about female politicians: portraying them as overbearing, schoolmarmish or different from the norm.
“The question is whether Biden would use the same words to describe a male professor — and I suspect he would,” said Gloria Steinem, the feminist leader. “The larger problem is that they’re about style, not content.”
His criticism of Warren troubled some voters who came to see her on the campaign trail over the weekend.
“I think it’s sexist,” Savannah Johnson, a social worker who supports Warren and who attended a town hall she held in Goose Creek, South Carolina, Saturday, said of Biden’s criticism.
“I just don’t think that he’d be saying the same thing about a male candidate,” she added. “I think that all strong women kind of get labeled that unfairly.”
Niamh Cahill, 21, a college student who also came to the town hall, said Warren would not be getting as much grief if she were a male candidate. “Yeah, she’s fired up, she’s angry, but for a good reason,” she said. “There are a lot of things that are wrong in this country.”
Biden often discusses his record of advocacy for women’s rights by citing his championing of the Violence Against Women Act and his work combating campus sexual assault. And none of his remarks have come close to the audaciously sexist language and tactics that President Donald Trump used against female political opponents like Clinton and Carly Fiorina in the 2016 campaign or his offensive and demeaning language about Megyn Kelly, Stormy Daniels and the women he referenced in his taped interview with “Access Hollywood.”
Biden said in a CNN interview that his criticisms of Warren had “nothing to do with” gender. He and his allies said he was focused on debating the merits of policy and approaches to leading and governing.
“As an African American woman who serves as mayor of Atlanta, I know what sexism and racism looks and feels like and I don’t see it here,” said Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has endorsed Biden. “When people propose these great plans, how will they be paid for? I think people expect to have real answers to that. And I think to the extent that you’re touting plans I think you need to be prepared to explain it and not create distractions.”
Still, for Warren, being called elitist is squarely at odds with how she introduces herself to voters. She often discusses growing up in Oklahoma on the “ragged edge of the middle class” and is running for president as a corruption-fighting populist. Biden’s words conjured Warren’s career as a Harvard law professor — a title that could unsettle voters without college degrees, a demographic with which Biden is currently strong, polls show.
On the campaign trail, Warren talks about her time as a law professor but does not draw attention to her affiliation with Harvard, and she notes in her stump speech that she went to a public law school (she attended Rutgers).
On Friday, Biden’s campaign issued a news release slamming her Medicare for All proposal as unrealistic, arguing, “being president isn’t an academic exercise.” The message reminded some Democrats of how Sen. Scott Brown unsuccessfully sought to caricature Warren as an out-of-touch professor in their 2012 Massachusetts Senate race.
“I don’t think it will work for the Biden team, either, because first of all, her personal story is the antithesis of anything elitist,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist unaligned in the presidential primary, though some of her colleagues have worked on Warren’s prior races. “She’s done a very, very good job consistently defining her life story.”
Biden is hardly dismissing Warren as a “professor.” And his campaign noted that he had used words like “elitist” and “angry” to describe Republican men before. His allies are also trying to tap into increasingly vocal pushback against Medicare for All and its potential political consequences from Democrats in 2020 battleground states; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also recently warned that such a plan, and its elimination of private health insurance, carries significant political risk.
And he is plainly uncomfortable repeating in person the fierce criticism about Warren’s “condescending” style that he issued in his Tuesday statement. Asked directly if he felt Warren was out of touch, he replied to reporters, “I’m not saying she’s out of touch. What I’m saying is, the way to approach politics today to get things done is not to question people’s motives.”
“I wasn’t referring to Elizabeth Warren as being elitist,” Biden insisted at another point during an exchange with reporters here. “I said the American people out there, they understand what’s going on, and they don’t like being instructed on what they should believe and what they don’t believe.”
In big primary fields, attackers can often damage their opponent — but hurt themselves in the process. That has been the case for multiple Democratic contenders who have swung at Biden in personal terms, only to face blowback. For Biden now, the risk is especially great because he is seen by many voters as a warm and gracious figure in the party — and harsh attacks could seem out of character.
Still, for some voters, the clash between Biden and Warren was illuminating more than worrisome.
“I like that it’s personal,” said Stanley Brown, 49, of Tilton, New Hampshire, who attended a Biden event Friday and is considering Biden and Warren along with several other candidates. “They care. It’s not just a canned answer.”