When Elizabeth Warren unveiled a 5-minute video aimed at putting to rest questions as to whether she actually was Native American in mid-October, it was, um, not well-received. It turns out that the damage done to Warren’s political prospects in 2020 was significant, and has forced her allies to consider more drastic methods to take the issue off the table.
“Advisers close to Ms. Warren say she has privately expressed concern that she may have damaged her relationships to Native American groups and her own standing with activists, particularly those who are racial minorities. Several outside advisers are even more worried: They say they believe a plan should be made to repair that damage, possibly including a strong statement of apology.”
That is a very big deal – especially because this wound was entirely self-inflicted.
During her 2016 Senate victory, Warren had dealt with questions about why she had listed herself as Native American in some staff directories during her time in academia – and whether she had reaped any benefits as a result of that status.
“I am very proud of my heritage,” Warren said in 2012. “These are my family stories. This is what my brothers and I were told by my mom and my dad, my mammaw and my pappaw. This is our lives. And I’m very proud of it.”
She won – and won relatively easily over then Sen. Scott Brown (R).
That victory didn’t stop President Donald Trump from attacking her – he referred to Warren as “Pocahontas” – and rousing some low-level concerns among Democratic activists that the Massachusetts senator might need to tie the whole issue up in a bow if and when she ran for president in 2020. Even Democrats who wanted more clarity from Warren on the issue were struck when she released – out of the blue – the video. “Why now?” was a refrain I heard repeatedly from Democrats – including many who regard Warren warmly.
And unfortunately for Warren, the video – and the DNA test which Warren took in it – didn’t clarify much of anything. When the “wow” moment of the video is when a geneticist tells Warren “the facts suggest that you absolutely have a Native American ancestor in your pedigree,” you know the attempt to button this whole controversy up has failed. Estimates that Warren possesses from 1/64th to 1/1024th Native American heritage – and those from people who were on Warren’s side! – didn’t help matters.
Trump, of course, had a field day. “Pocahontas (the bad version), sometimes referred to as Elizabeth Warren, is getting slammed,” he tweeted. “She took a bogus DNA test and it showed that she may be 1/1024, far less than the average American. Now Cherokee Nation denies her, ‘DNA test is useless.’ Even they don’t want her. Phony!”
In the after-action report, it was clear how badly Warren’s strategy had failed: Rather than get the issue off the table in advance of the start of the 2020 campaign, she had pushed her heritage (and the questions around it) into the national spotlight, offered nothing even close to definitive proof of anything and, in so doing, made herself an incredibly ripe target for the President of the United States.
“Three people close to senior members of Ms. Warren’s team, who were granted anonymity to speak freely on the issue, said they were ‘shocked’ and ‘rattled’ by the senator’s decision to take the DNA test, which they described as an unequivocal misstep that could have lasting consequences, even on 2020 staffing.”
Bringing attention to a weak spot is never a good thing for a politician. But that’s even more true when you are asking Democratic voters to choose you to beat Donald Trump in two years’ time. Trump has one approach as a candidate (and as President): He bullies. He picks somewhere where you are vulnerable and just picks and picks and picks at it. Low-energy Jeb Bush. Crooked Hillary Clinton.
If you are Warren, and Trump already has a ready-made nickname for you even before the 2020 campaign starts, you have to demonstrate that he won’t be able to hurt you with it. That unlike Clinton, who was dogged by her decision to use a private email server as secretary of state, you can stand up to Trump’s bullying in a way that will make people – and not just hardcore Democrats – believe you are in the right.
She did, literally, the opposite of that with her October surprise. Now, if you are a talented and ambitious staffer or a major donor or a voter looking for a candidate in the 2020 sweepstakes, you are almost certain to see Warren as a less solid bet than she was even two months ago. A much less solid bet.
Momentum and perception matter in every aspect of life, but are particularly important in presidential politics. Warren lost both with her DNA debacle.