Nevertheless, Elizabeth Warren comes out swinging

Why We Wrote This

Some of Senator Warren’s self-branding has colored opinions about her political viability. Now the would-be nominee is testing her party’s taste for second chances – and its calculus about winning – as much as her own persistence.

Elise Amendola/AP
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts, addresses an enthusiastic crowd of supporters at the formal launch of her presidential campaign, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, in Lawrence, Mass.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 7 Min. )

Desperate to oust an incumbent president whom many regard as racist, Democrats have been moving swiftly to condemn any insensitivity within their own ranks – part of a burgeoning reckoning on racism that’s being compared to the MeToo movement. In this new climate, the controversy over Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s claims to Native American heritage have undercut her position as a 2020 frontrunner, not to mention as someone who has fought for decades to help the most vulnerable in America, including minorities.

Boston Globe editorial said Senator Warren had “missed her moment” in 2016. Even in her neighborhood of Cambridge, Mass., some who laud her work as a senator say they wish she would just focus on that role. If there’s one consistent theme in Warren’s life, however, it’s refusing to give up.

As she formally announced her bid for the White House on Saturday, she pointed to surrounding textile mills where, a century ago, a group of women launched a strike that grew to include 20,000 workers and led to one of the nation’s first minimum wage laws. “These workers – led by women – didn’t have much,” she said. “Nevertheless ... they persisted!”

America is a country of second chances. 

Bankruptcy tests that principle, Elizabeth Warren once told a Harvard law student of hers. “Bankruptcy is about how our system treats people when they lose everything,” she said, when he asked her why she chose to study one of the most arcane areas of the law.

He was the scion of one of America’s most storied political families, she the daughter of a janitor father who suddenly fell ill and a mother who got a minimum-wage job at Sears to keep them afloat.   

This weekend, Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D) of Massachusetts recounted that story before welcoming his former professor to the stage in Lawrence, Mass., introducing her as “the next president of the United States, Elizabeth Warren” to ebullient cheers from the crowd.

But before Senator Warren can dole out second chances from the White House, she may need one herself.

A torrent of criticism over her claims to Native American heritage – given new life last week with the unearthing of a handwritten 1986 registration card for the Texas bar in which she identified her race as “American Indian” – has generated doubts about her political judgment and viability. 

Desperate to oust an incumbent president whom many regard as racist, Democrats have been moving swiftly to condemn any taint of racial or cultural insensitivity within their own ranks, such as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook photos – part of a burgeoning reckoning on racism that’s being compared to the MeToo movement. In this new climate, Warren’s Native American claims have cast a pall over her nascent campaign, undercutting her position as a 2020 frontrunner, not to mention as someone who has fought for decades to help the most vulnerable in America, including minorities.

Democrats are “doing a lot of soul-searching,” says Steve Jarding, a Democratic consultant and professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, adding that the party needs a candidate who lives up to its values. “But you can’t be too severe in the other direction either.... I can find a saint – but if the saint is a horrible candidate, the saint isn’t going to win.”

An op-ed in The Sacramento Bee, while lauding Warren’s smarts and unapologetic progressivism, called the Native American controversy a “devastating scandal for a campaign, with questions of character wrapped in explosive racial issues.” Democratic strategist Mike Feldman tweeted that “it’s hard to overstate how much damage Warren has done to herself in the invisible primary,” the behind-the-scenes contest for money, staff, and flattering media coverage in the run-up to next year’s primary elections.

Before the latest Native American claims emerged, a Boston Globe editorial said Warren had “missed her moment” in 2016 and cast strong doubt on whether her progressive agenda would garner enough appeal in 2020 – noting that even in liberal Massachusetts, the Republican governor got more votes than she did last fall. Even on the streets of her upscale neighborhood in Cambridge, Mass., some who laud her work as a newly reelected US senator say they wish she would just focus on that important role.   

If there’s one theme in Elizabeth Warren’s life, however, it’s refusing to give up.

A metaphor in brick

As Warren took the stage on Saturday, dressed in a long black pea coat and turquoise scarf, she told the crowd a story – a story that had unfolded in the brick buildings towering above them.

A century ago, in these textile mills, she recounted, business was booming, but workers were suffering, surviving on beans and scraps of bread. Outraged by a sudden cut in their pay, a group of women launched a strike in the dead of winter that eventually grew to include 20,000 workers. Soon after, Massachusetts passed one of the nation’s first minimum wage laws.

“These workers – led by women – didn’t have much,” she said. “Nevertheless ... they persisted!” That line, of course, has been a rallying cry for Warren ever since Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said it about her, after Senate Republicans voted to silence Warren while she was in the middle of objecting to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions’s nomination for attorney general. 

The enthusiastic crowd included a diverse range of voters, from high school students to military veterans in Rolling Thunder motorcycle jackets. And although some in the crowd said it was too early to pick a favorite candidate, many were already sold on Warren.

“If she gets to be my president, I will be the happiest man alive,” said Oscar Burgos, a high school senior who walked three miles to get to the event, his hooded sweatshirt cinched tight over his forehead.

“We’ve seen her start the race as an underdog before,” said Boston city councilor Michelle Wu, citing Warren as a major reason for her own foray into politics. 

Indeed, when Warren entered her first race for senator of Massachusetts, she trailed Republican incumbent Scott Brown by nearly 20 percentage points. She went on to beat him, 54 percent to 48 percent.

Former Senator Brown hit Warren hard on claims she had identified herself as Native American to advance her career. She countered by saying she had believed the stories her mother had told her of their Cherokee heritage, and while proud of that family history, she had never used it for professional or political gain. Trump later revived the issue, taunting her as “Pocahontas,” and Warren responded by getting a DNA test showing she had Cherokee ancestry somewhere between six and 10 generations back – a move that many saw as tone-deaf, conflating heritage with tribal affiliation. Last week, Warren apologized.

Multiple Boston Globe investigations have determined that race did not play a role in Warren’s hiring at Harvard Law School, and even the Texas bar card unearthed last week by the Washington Post was issued after she already had been admitted. Still, her handling of the entire issue has been widely lambasted as showing poor political judgment, with critics saying it shows a proclivity for dishonesty.

Democratic strategist Mark Mellman says it will ultimately be up to the voters to decide whether Warren is the best candidate to go up against President Trump.

“The decision those voters make is very likely going to be a wiser decision than the decision any pundit makes before the campaign starts,” he says, cautioning against premature calls for her to step down.

Voters will care far less about her Native American heritage claims than about the issues that affect their day-to-day lives, says Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, whose organization recruited Warren to run in the 2012 Senate race.

Instead, Mr. Trump’s jabs at Warren over the issue – such as calling her “Pocahontas” – may come across as out of touch and offensive. Trump is already drawing fire for a weekend tweet in which he asked whether Warren will “run as our first Native American presidential candidate,” and added “See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!” – a line some took as a reference to the Trail of Tears.   

“If voters are at their kitchen tables talking about their high medical bills, college costs, and a corrupt political system, and Elizabeth Warren is directly addressing those issues while Donald Trump is yapping about a form that zero real voters care about, Trump will make the choice easy for voters,” Mr. Green says. “He fears her. That’s why he’s attacking her.” 

Still, some Democrats are concerned that her handling of the issue so far has revealed a lack of political deftness that could be detrimental in a campaign against the president.

“People will look at it and say, ‘If this is how you handled this, how are you going to come up against him if you’re the nominee, and every day he’s throwing grenades at you?’ ” says Mr. Jarding of Harvard.  

‘The man in the White House’

When Warren gets going about how the wealthy have rigged the economy and political system of America, she doesn’t sound like a woman who lives on a quaint street in Cambridge, amid Victorian homes restored to perfection and Priuses bearing bumper stickers like “War is not the answer.” There is a raw indignation that makes her have to pause for breath.

Significantly, she wastes hardly any time talking about the man in the crosshairs of her supporters and her party.

“The man in the White House is not the cause of what’s broken; he’s just the latest – and most extreme – symptom of what’s gone wrong in America,” she says, calling Trump the product of a system that boosts the wealthy at the expense of the poor. “It won’t be enough to just undo the terrible acts of this administration. We can’t afford to just tinker around the edges – a tax credit here, a regulation there. Our fight is for big, structural change.”

In a 14-page speech, she lays out plans to readjust the balance in economics and politics, generating some of the biggest cheers with her vows to tackle student debt, hold Wall Street bankers accountable, and refuse to take their money for her campaign.

“I’m really committed to her,” said Brian Perry, a bricklayer and Air Force veteran wearing a Red Sox hat and plaid shirt. Like everyone interviewed at the rally, he sees the criticism of her Native American heritage claims as a “nonissue.”

“Her greatest resistance is going to be from the Democratic Party bosses,” he says. “It’s not necessarily because the Native American issue is a liability. It’s because she doesn’t want to accept corporate money.”

Back in Warren’s Cambridge neighborhood, Kimbell DiCero is worried that Democratic infighting in general is killing off the party’s momentum from the midterm elections and could undermine its larger goals.

“It’s like toddlers,” says Ms. DiCero, a child psychologist who says she racked up a lot of student debt while pursuing a PhD. “These guys are just fighting over something – I don’t know what – in order to find the candidate who has both ideological and personal purity.”

But Warren has proven her chops with toddlers, too.

As a young mother, she had lined up everything she needed to accomplish her dream of entering law school – except for child care for her nearly 2-year-old daughter, Amelia. When she finally found a place, they required all children to be reliably potty-trained. Warren had five days to clear this last hurdle.

“All I can say is, I stand before you today courtesy of three bags of M&Ms and a cooperative toddler,” she told the crowd. “Since that day, I’ve never let anyone tell me that anything is ‘too hard.’ ”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.