Sure, she calmed nervous progressives. But it’s moderates who might be susceptible to Trump’s attack on her honesty.
By BILL SCHER
August 27, 2019Continue to article content
Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, and co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ.”
Elizabeth Warren came to last week’s Native American presidential forum in Sioux City, Iowa, with, as you might expect, a plan. And she executed it perfectly.
First, the Massachusetts senator expressed sorrow for the “harm I caused,” referencing her attempt to prove she had Native American ancestry through a DNA test. Then she pivoted to her literal plan, her sweeping and detailed set of ideas to expand tribal nation sovereignty and invest in social programs benefiting Native American communities. The long list of proposals was repeatedly praised by the forum’s attendees, several of whom excitedly predicted that they were speaking to the next president of the United States.
While Warren’s campaign staff might have breathed easier coming out of the forum, her Republican antagonists have made it clear they have no intention of forgetting the episode. Shortly before Warren’s appearance at the forum, the Republican National Committee released an opposition research memo titled, “1/1024th Native American, 100% Liar,” which quoted its deputy chief of staff Mike Reed as saying, Warren “lied about being [Native American] to gain minority status at a time when Ivy League law schools were desperate to add diversity to their ranks.” A few days earlier, President Donald Trump, after lamenting that “Pocahontas is rising” in the polls, assured his supporters at a New Hampshire rally that he still has the ability to derail her: “I did the Pocahontas thing. I hit her really hard, and it looked like she was down and out. But that was too long ago. I should’ve waited. But don’t worry, we will revive it.”
Has Warren effectively addressed the controversy? In conversations I had with Democratic and Republican political strategists, unaffiliated with any presidential campaign, there was no bipartisan consensus. The Democrats believed Warren’s rise in the polls is evidence she has weathered the storm. The Republicans argued Warren remains vulnerable to charges of dishonest opportunism.
They’re both right. Warren is enjoying a comeback because she has convinced many skittish progressives that she won’t let Trump disrupt her relentless focus on policy solutions. And she has convinced many Native American leaders that her policy proposals for indigenous communities are more important than what she has said in the past about her ancestry.
But because Warren’s comeback has relied on restoring her standing on the left, she has not done anything to address concerns potentially percolating among swing voters. A detailed white paper on Native American policy has no bearing on whether a moderate white suburbanite believes Warren is of good character. And since Warren has apologized for her past claims, she remains open to the charge she was dishonest when, during her academic career, she relied on nothing more than family lore to identify herself as Native American.
That means if she becomes the Democratic nominee for president, Warren would still face a “Pocahontas” problem, one that threatens the core of her candidacy.
“If she’s the nominee and says, ‘Trump’s dishonest,’ that’s just the immediate counter: You’re dishonest about the most fundamental thing, who you were and how you got to your positions,” said Republican strategist Chuck Warren of the political consulting firm September Group. He is of no relation to the candidate.
Dan Hazelwood, another Republican consultant and owner of Targeted Creative Communications, argued her apologies have missed the mark: “She’s never given the answer to the core of the Trump charge, which is: She cheated. She cheated for personal gain. She hasn’t answered that part of the attack.”
An exhaustive Boston Globe investigation in September 2018 concluded Elizabeth Warren’s “claim to Native American ethnicity was never considered by the Harvard Law faculty, which voted resoundingly to hire her, or by those who hired her to four prior positions at other law schools.” However, once she was hired, Harvard used her self-identification to help bolster its diversity statistics and tamp down criticism of its hiring practices. The Globe reported, “Warren doesn’t have a direct answer for whether her claims … might have harmed the efforts of others to press for more diversity at the overwhelmingly white institution.”
However, these Republicans don’t believe Trump’s preferred rhetorical grenade—the “Pocahontas” slur—poses the biggest threat to Warren. “I don’t think the Pocahontas thing sticks,” Chuck Warren said. “It’s a funny line to people at the rallies, [but] it doesn’t talk much about her character. It almost makes the point trivial.”
What would be devastating to Elizabeth Warren is if Trump were able to connect the underlying concerns about her personal integrity to the integrity of her agenda. She styles herself as a warrior for the people, fighting to fix a system “rigged” against them by elites. But if Trump can convince swing voters that Warren, as a member of the academic elite, rigged a system to benefit herself, he could turn what is now Warren’s main strength into a fatal weakness.
Key to making that connection is reducing her detailed plans to cheap pandering. “Everybody loves to call her a policy wonk, but everything she is presenting is ‘buy me a vote,’” Chuck Warren said. “She is willing to say, or put on any hat, to get ahead.” Hazelwood envisions Elizabeth Warren’s platform being characterized as “putting the government in charge of everything and giving away stuff for free. … And oh, by the way, the stuff that’s going to be given away is going to be given away by cheaters.”
Warren can insist that she never won a job because of how she described her ethnicity. But that hasn’t stopped Trump from attacking her, and Democrats shouldn’t assume the president’s own record of dishonesty will protect her either. “If you give Trump a tool to equalize the playing field, which is what this does,” Hazelwood said, “he will do exactly what he did to Hillary Clinton.”
In several presidential elections, Democrats have seen Republican attack dogs disfigure their nominees beyond recognition by turning their strengths into weaknesses.
In 2016, Republicans turned Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of State, essential to her case that she was the most qualified for the job,into a deluge of conspiracy theories centered on her private email server. In 2004, Democratic voters thought John Kerry’s war record would protect him from challenges to his patriotism, only to have his war record baselessly but effectively maligned by the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.” In 2000, Al Gore had a reputation as a Boy Scout, until George W. Bush’s campaign used some of his minor flubs and sloppy phrasings to brand him as a “serial exaggerator.”
But when I talked to Democratic operatives who were part of some of these campaigns, and know all too well the potential dangers that lie ahead of any Democratic nominee, they praised Warren for how she, after her DNA test misstep, has seized control of her own narrative with her seemingly unlimited appetite for policy plans.
“Warren has successfully defined herself as a candidate, instead of letting others define her,” said Peter Daou, a veteran of the Kerry campaign and the 2008 Clinton campaign. Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for Clinton’s 2016 effort, concurred, noting Democrats have “struggled” during the Trump era to “drive our own message and not be entirely tethered to his.”
“She’s shown an ability to do that, and that allows you to navigate his nonsense but also drive your own point,” he said.
The Democratic operatives are understandably impressed with Warren’s rise. She is the only 2020 presidential candidate to have a rise. In the Real Clear Politics poll average, no other candidate has increased his or her share of the vote more than 0.5 percentage points since May 1. Warren’s support has nearly doubled,from 8.4 percent to 15.4 percent.Since the first of the year, when Warren began the exploratory phase of her campaign at 4.3 percent, Warren’s support has nearly quadrupled.
But Warren started 2019 scraping bottom in the polls, giving her more room to rise, because of the Native American controversy. In early 2018, Warren was scoring in the low double-digits in Democratic primary polling. But her numbers began to sag by the fall, and the obvious cause was Trump’s repeated “Pocahontas” jabs—most prominently, his July “offer” of $1 million to her favorite charity if she proved her Native American ancestry with a DNA test.
When Warren took him up on it in October, she made her problem worse. She had let Trump dictate the terms of their engagement. Her test results—she had Native American ancestry 6 to 10 generations in the past—did little to defuse the situation. She angered the Cherokee Nation, which rejects the whole concept of DNA to determine tribal heritage. Then in February, when the Washington Post uncovered that Warren self-identified as American Indian on her 1986 State Bar of Texas registration card, she shifted from proudly defending her family lore to sheepishly apologizing for “furthering confusion on tribal sovereignty and tribal citizenship.” Her prospects looked bleak.
Her comeback began once she stopped talking about her ancestry and started talking about her plans. Progressive commentators, livid at mainstream media obsession with the Native American saga, as well as with speculation about her “likability,” pushed back by celebrating the substance and reach of her policy proposals. The Nationsplashed her on a March cover declaring, “Elizabeth Warren isn’t scared of Trump—or her own party.” In April, the feminist site Jezebel summed up her candidacy with the headline, “Elizabeth Warren Has a Plan.” By May, it was Timemagazine that had Warren on the cover with her common refrain, “I Have a Plan for That.”
On top of the pile of plans, many voters began to recognize Warren was much better on the stump than some had presumed, leading them to, well, like her. Before the Democratic debate in June, she was back in double-digits. The ancestry controversy went unmentioned in both summer debates. Warren otherwise avoided any serious attacks, and her numbers kept inching up.
But her rise has been propelled largely by the left flank of the Democratic Party. In one of her better poll showings, the August Quinnipiac University poll that placed her in second nationally with 21 percent, she won among “very liberal” voters with 40 percent but was well behind Joe Biden among moderate and conservative voters with 11 percent. It’s one thing to make uberprogressives forget about “Pocahontas” with uberprogressive plans, but it’s another to do the same with moderate swing voters.
When I asked Democratic operatives whether Warren needs to do something different in order to connect with swing voters and inoculate herself against general election attempts to dredge up the ancestry controversy, they said no. They see in her existing campaign style and persona the ingredients for a favorable matchup against Trump.
Tracy Sefl, who handled Kerry’s rapid response operation for the Democratic National Committee and also advised the 2008 Clinton effort, sees a “powerful contrast” between Trump “impulsively shouting out these things and gleefully hurling slurs” from “a stage” and Warren’s “far more engaging and dignified” approach in which she is “literally among voters,” spending “hours worth of [time in] photo lines.” Sefl also praised Warren’s web strategy, creating a webpage—elizabethwarren.com/pocahontas—that tells the story of the real Pocahontas’ abuse and early death to raise awareness of the high rate of violence against Native American women today, mostly perpetrated by nonnatives.
Ferguson didn’t buy the Republican argument that Trump would be able to challenge Warren’s honesty. “In 2016, he was seen as a straight talker,” Ferguson said. “But in three years as president, he’s gone from straight talker to straight bullshit artist.” Therefore, “it’s hard to see Donald Trump winning a debate with anyone about honesty and integrity.”
These Democratic operatives are hardly naive about the potential power of Republican attacks. “The Republicans are excellent and skilled at taking [what] they can find in their opponents,” Daou said, “and hammer and hammer and hammer away at it, until it becomes a mainstream news story.”
Yet he graded Warren as having “passed the test with flying colors—the test of withstanding right-wing attacks.” Ferguson further argued that the Native American controversy isn’t like the Clinton email server episode. “One of the challenges of 2016 was the drip-drip-drip of the email news [and] the investigation news,” Ferguson said. “This isn’t drip-drip-drip. This is Trump beating a dead horse.”
But Hazelwood contends the old tricks can still work to drive news. “We’re all kidding ourselves if you [think Trump] can’t find people who are going to stand up and say, ‘I was wronged in this process’ or ‘I’m a Native American and I think this is still inappropriate, and she never actually properly accounted for her misdeeds,” Hazelwood said.
Most Native Americans might be disinclined to continue criticizing Warren. Mark Trahant, the editor of Indian Country Today and the moderator of this month’s Native American presidential forum, relayed to me via email that the forum’s attendees “gave her more than a warm reception.”
“She had one of four standing ovations,” he wrote, and attendees were “far more interested in the candidate’s policy proposals” than the ancestry controversy. But, he also noted, “There are a number of people that will consider Elizabeth Warren’s actions and the DNA test egregious and will never come around.”
In fact, four days after the forum, Rebecca Nagle, a Cherokee Nation member and the host of the “This Land” podcast produced by the progressive Crooked Media, published a devastating essay in HuffPost. Nagle argued Warren’s apology was insufficient because her 19th-century and early 20th-century ancestors were white people who occupied Cherokee land with military force and through broken treaties. “Warren’s ancestors replaced the truth of their complicity in Cherokee dispossession with a tale of being Cherokee,” Nagle wrote. In her view, Warren can only make things right by stating she “does not have a Cherokee ancestor and that she was wrong to claim one.”
Nagle has no interest in helping Trump. She responded to Warren supporters on Twitter writing, “Warren isn’t running against Trump, she’s running against” the Democratic field. She added: “It’s silly to think not talking about this issue will make it go away. Ppl who want Warren to be prez should press her to resolve this issue now.” But even if Nagle and most Native Americans wouldn’t publicly side with Trump in a general election against Warren, Hazelwood warns Democrats to “not pretend that you can’t find those people, because a presidential campaign can.”
Whether Warren has the skills to overcome the expected attacks can only be proved in real time, and perhaps Democrats should be thankful that, as Sefl observes, Trump is so impulsive. If Warren continues to rise in the polls and becomes the front-runner, Trump won’t be able resist early engagement. In preparation for that likely confrontation, Warren might want to consider how the last successful Democratic nominee survived a major controversy during a primary.
Barack Obama, in March 2008, had to answer for anti-American sermons delivered by his pastor Jeremiah Wright. Obama’s response, the famous “A More Perfect Union” address, was not solely aimed at Democratic primary voters. He delivered a broader discussion of race relations designed to unify all Americans by encouraging a deeper understanding of coarse sentiments harbored by blacks and whites. This not only helped Obama connect with swing voters for the general election, it also helped soothe nervous Democrats who wanted to know if he could handle whatever Republicans threw at him. Warren, in contrast, has yet to tailor a message for swing voters, betting that the ambitious populism that progressives love will also resonate with voters outside of the Democratic primary electorate.
The Democratic operatives I spoke with may well be correct that Warren can survive any Republican-manufactured storms by simply being Warren—strong, substantive and on message. That presumes the DNA debacle was an anomalous case of Warren failing to be Warren. Yet it’s risky to assume the Republican operatives are wrong. If her reputation among swing voters gets poisoned by accusations of dishonesty, she will find that extremely hard to remedy, and as before, might respond to pressure by making matters worse.
To avoid that pitfall, she should invest energy now in defining herself as “honest.” Without direct mention of the past controversy, she could collect testimonials from her professional past vouching for her integrity and promote them in ads and on the trail. That way, when attacks on her integrity are launched in full force, she will have already fortified her defenses—and in a way that is not reliant on political ideology.
“It is risky business to look backwards for the answers to what’s ahead,” Sefl told me, cautioning against the assumption that what worked for Republicans in the past was destined to work again. It’s true that Warren is a different candidate than Clinton or Kerry. And Trump’s weakened political standing as an embattled incumbent might mean he can’t easily run on his playbook from 2016. No two campaigns are the same.
But it’s a simple fact that the Native American controversy did once damage Warren’s presidential aspirations and that her recovery has yet to reach most moderate voters. If she has a plan for reaching them before Trump does, we haven’t seen it yet.