(Bloomberg Businessweek) — Earlier this year, as she contemplated a presidential run, Elizabeth Warren faced a tricky decision, the consequence of which are hashed out in a new New York Times story: how to handle the charged issue of her ancestry. Decades earlier, the Massachusetts Democratic senator had claimed to have American Indian blood, an issue that bedeviled her 2012 Senate race when she couldn’t back it up. Warren won a Senate seat and a derogatory nickname, “Pocahontas,” that her political enemies gleefully deploy to portray her as a fraud. None does so with as much relish as the man she’ll face if she becomes the Democratic nominee, Donald Trump.
So looking to 2020, Warren faced a choice: prove her Native American ancestry or allow Trump-who hurls derogatory nicknames like hand grenades-to define her, perhaps fatally, as a racially insensitive fabulist. Warren chose the former, submitting to a DNA test by acclaimed geneticist Carlos Bustamante, who announced in a glitzy campaign video Warren rolled out in October that there was “strong evidence” of her American Indian pedigree “6-10 generations ago,” in line with her claims.
It’s not hard to grasp Warren’s thinking in taking this step. It would settle the question. It would do so before primary season got underway. And while Trump wouldn’t stop the name-calling, it would weaken the force of his attack because reporters would be equipped to answer the charge. By contrast, Barack Obama endured a years-long racist campaign, driven mainly by Trump, that questioned his U.S. citizenship before he finally relented and released his long-form birth certificate in 2011.
A DNA test also fits with Warren’s commitment to transparency-she released 10 years’ worth of tax returns in August-which differentiates her not just from Trump, but from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders (who never released his own taxes). Warren didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
But as today’s Times story illustrates, Trump’s ploy has mostly worked anyway-and that’s because it was never predicated on the genetic question of whether Warren has American Indian heritage. It was instead meant to racialize her candidacy in a damaging way. “Every day Democrats are talking about race is a day we’re winning,” Steve Bannon told me in June 2017, back when he was Trump’s chief strategist and already eyeing potential 2020 opponents. “That’s why the Pocahontas thing will kill her.”
Bannon’s hope was that Democrats could be lured into a fight over identity politics that would overshadow and undermine Warren’s populist appeal. Eighteen months later, that’s precisely what’s happening. As the Times story notes, some American Indians are upset because they mistakenly believe Warren is trying to claim tribal citizenship (she isn’t); one liberal critic complains that she didn’t incorporate “Native voices” and “their stories of loss and theft of identity” into her announcement. Warren’s rollout also gave a platform to what the Times calls “racial justice advocates” who believe race is a social construct, not biologically determined, and take offense at the very idea of a DNA test.
Other critics complain that Warren’s DNA test hasn’t silenced Trump. “The biggest risk in engaging a bully is that bullies don’t usually stop, regardless of what the truth is,” Charles Chamberlain of the progressive group Democracy for America, told the Times. “When you can’t win an argument,” he added, “then sometimes it’s not worth having that argument.” But silencing Trump is impossible and wasn’t the point of the test. Chamberlain doesn’t recognize the critical political distinction between an attack that Warren couldn’t answer (in 2012) and one that she now can.
Regardless, Trump’s instinct about how to drive a wedge between Warren and the liberal base of her party is being borne out exactly along the lines Bannon envisioned a year and a half ago, without any acknowledgement that it’s even happening. Her own party is too busy litigating the fraught issue of identity. And if things continue apace, Warren will be damaged in the much same way Clinton was by the early attacks on her candidacy. A Dec. 3 Harvard University-Harris poll found her badly trailing other marquee 2020 candidates, with only 4 percent support.
So at a moment when Warren would like to contrast herself with a newly weakened president, she instead finds herself trapped in the parochial grievances of the academic left with no resolution in sight and sentiment growing, at least in some quarters, that she should plunge farther into the racial morass. “The advisers say Ms. Warren will have to confront the issue again if she announces a presidential campaign, which is expected in the coming weeks, and several would like her to act soon,” the Times reports.
It’s hard to know how much the issue will hurt her campaign. But it’s likely to be a recurring problem, since Trump delights in making divisive personal attacks, and a vocal portion of the liberal base appears primed to respond to them in exactly the way he’d like.
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