As expected, Elizabeth Warren won last night’s first Democratic presidential primary debate. She acquitted herself as the sharpest, toughest, most polished, and strongest candidate on stage, albeit among a particularly weak group of inevitable also-rans. She came off as a battle-axe—in Warren’s case, a battle-tomahawk—to an audience that more than anything wants a fighter. She evaded difficult questions. Warren even managed to turn her non-answers into applause lines.
“Do you have a plan to deal with Mitch McConnell?” asked moderator Chuck Todd.
A simple “I do” was all it took for the audience to burst into cheers.
Warren has managed for now to get beyond her traditional weaknesses. Sure, she lied about her ancestry to gain professional advantage at Harvard and elsewhere. But politicians lie. After her husband had finished putting her through college and law school, she left him for a professor. Politicians cheat.
But voters may not so easily forgive Warren’s worst quality: her shrillness. Every word she whines sounds like a desperate lament; each insufferable sentence another plaintive cry, invariably urgent and demanding. The less she has to say, the shriller she becomes.
At one point, Chuck Todd confronted Warren for failing to answer his direct question. “You didn’t address, do you think the federal government needs to go and figure out a way to get the guns that are already out there?” he asked.
“What I think we need to do,” she started indignantly—head-bobbing, jaw-clenching, pitch-rising—“is we need to treat it like SER-ious re-SEARCH PROB-lem, which we have NOT done!” Lines that ought to inspire instead deflate. She scolds when she should sing. She’s always riled up, and so it all seems disingenuous.
Shrillness is not the inevitable curse of the fairer sex. Neither Tulsi Gabbard nor Amy Klobuchar suffered shrillness last night. Kamala Harris sounds fine, though she might consider losing those contrived fits of laughter. And men can be shrill too—think Ron Paul. After Warren, the next shrillest candidate in the race is Cory Booker.
Warren ignores the problem at her own peril because sound is the most important sense. As Plato observed in The Republic, “More than anything else, rhythm and harmony find their way into the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it.” Throughout the Bible, God acts through His voice: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Isaiah describes “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” A full six times in the synoptic gospels, Christ commands, “He who has ears, let him hear.” The command appears another five times in the Book of Revelation. Sound stirs the soul.
Warren needs to fix her voice. She has already proven her willingness to tell Democrat primary voters what they want to hear. Little good it will do her if no one can stand to listen.