Elizabeth Warren Knows How to Attack Trump. Why Doesn’t Hillary?

“What kind of a man does that?”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton.

Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Images by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

One thing that the expensive, experienced consultants running Hillary Clinton’s campaign must love about their jobs is all the pundits lecturing them about how they need to settle on a master narrative defining Donald Trump. This is a thought that never occurred to them, and they appreciate everyone instructing them on this basic concept of political messaging.

They get it. But that doesn’t mean they’ve figured it out.

They have to decide what role Donald Trump is going to play in the story they write about him, much as the Obama campaign in 2012 had to decide what Mitt Romney was going to be—or much as Trump has already decided what Hillary is going to be (“Crooked Hillary”). There was a debate early in the 2012 Obama campaign about whether to depict Romney as a conviction-free, flip-flopping opportunist or an evil plutocrat feasting on the bone marrow of the proletariat. They went the C. Montgomery Burns path and synced all of their tactics accordingly. It won them another four years. (And who supposedly helped them settle on rich monster over flip-flopper? Bill Clinton.)

Just because the Clinton people know they have to tell a story about Donald Trump, though, doesn’t mean such a story easily presents itself. There are so many options they don’t know where to begin. Romney could be cut pretty easily into the two archetypes of opportunist or plutocrat. With Trump, you have: opportunist, plutocrat, racist demagogue, sexist pig, business fraud, narcissist, clown who is completely unfit for the presidency both in terms of knowledge and temperament, and asshole. Which should the Clinton campaign go with?

The Washington Post on Wednesday came out with the big reveal about the Clinton campaign’s plan. If you haven’t already placed your bets, do so now before reading any further.

Clinton’s aides say they have settled on the big story they want to tell about Trump: He is a business fraud who has cheated working people for his own gain, and his ideas, temperament and moves to marginalize people by race, gender and creed make him simply unacceptable as commander in chief.

So they have whittled down the bountiful list of master narratives to … everything. Clinton people! When they say you have to fit your story into a single sentence, that doesn’t mean it can be a run-on sentence with clauses and nested lists and dormer windows and a carport and all.

It could be that the Clintonistas’ inability to settle on an overarching story about Trump is a reflection of their inability to settle on an overarching story about themselves.

As the Post’s Greg Sargent asks, what is Hillary Clinton’s affirmative master narrative for Hillary Clinton? There are a lot of substories floating around that haven’t congealed into an uber-story: a fighter, an advocate for women and children, a sturdy hand, an experienced leader. What does this add up to? It will be plenty easier for Clinton and Co. to settle on what they want Trump to be once they’ve figured out what they themselves are.

Take, by contrast, the example of another prominent Democratic voice who knows exactly what she is. Sen. Elizabeth Warren believes that Wall Street and other large corporations have rigged the economy to screw you over. Observe, then, the felicity with which this sense of purpose allows her to tear into Trump as she did at a gala Tuesday night.

“Donald Trump was drooling over the idea of a housing meltdown because it meant he could buy up more property on the cheap,” Warren said, touching on one of the more meaningful Trump opposition sound bites to emerge recently.

“What kind of a man does that? What kind of a man roots for people to get thrown out of their house? What kind of a man roots for people to get thrown out of their jobs? To root for people to lose their pensions? To root for two little girls in Clark County, Nevada, to end up living out of a van?

“What kind of a man does that? I’ll tell you exactly what kind of a man does that: It is a man who cares about no one but himself. A small, insecure moneygrubber who doesn’t care who gets hurt so long as he makes a profit off it. What kind of man does that? A man who will never be president of the United States.”

She then lit into him for wanting to eliminate the Dodd–Frank financial reform law, something he has always said he would do but which the political world has only recently seemed to notice: “Donald Trump is worried about helping poor little Wall Street? Let me find the world’s smallest violin to play a sad, sad song.”

Trump later responded by calling Warren “Pocahontas,” as he does.

Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton are very different politicians. Warren specializes in financial reform and corporate abuse, while Clinton, by nature of the job she seeks, has to represent the various constituencies that make up the Democratic coalition, and thus doesn’t have the luxury of being narrow in her attacks. Or something like that. What’s motivating Clinton to run for president beyond her belief that she has the appropriate skillset and experience to manage the federal government? If there is something else, it really hasn’t been communicated well. If she can change that, then defining Donald Trump will come naturally—and be an afterthought.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.