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From The Start, Elizabeth Warren Has Treated Her Family History Politically – And That’s A Problem

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US Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at a Massachusetts Democratic Unity party in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Sept 9, 2018.
Meredith Nierman

Six years ago, in the midst of her first campaign for U.S. Senate, Elizabeth Warren dismissed all interest in using a DNA test to determine the legitimacy of her family’s oral history. She publicly held to that position ever since. Two months ago, we now know, she changed her mind.

The result—strong evidence that Warren likely has some Native American ancestry—might hold considerable personal meaning, but says little of public interest. After all, nobody seriously claims that she made the story up out of whole cloth; they charge, rather, that she exploited a racial claim years ago, while having no legitimate basis for believing it.

Nothing about that accusation changes, retroactively, by virtue of a DNA test today.

More revealing, and problematic, is the fact that she had the test, and how she’s using it.

It’s in line with how Warren has always approached the issue, since the Boston Herald first reported in April 2012 on speculation that Warren’s claim to Cherokee lineage might be incorrect, and might have been used as a basis for her career advancement.

Her treatment of the topic has been purely pragmatic and political: a combination of rapid-response damage control and opportunistic public relations. She and her team have searched for the expedient, effective, and poll-tested actions, rather than authentic, honest, and human ones.

It’s been almost, dare I say it, Romneyesque.

Warren finally sent her DNA to be tested for Native American markers this August. That timing presumably coincides with her making a final decision to run for President, or at least to prepare for such a run.

Virtually no effort has been made to hide the raw political nature of this newfound interest in her genetic composition.

She announced the results in a slick, coordinated cross-media campaign, built around a five-minute, campaign-style video, and a “Fact Squad” web page. https://elizabethwarren.com/fact-squad/heritage/

It doesn’t take much of a skeptic to believe that the results would never have received such an airing, had they found no Native American markers. The Boston Globe, which was given the story first as part of the PR blitz, also noted that “Warren’s aides would not say whether she or any of her siblings had previously done a commercial DNA test that would have provided them with some assurance” that this new test would validate her claims.

This is all produced and paid for by Warren’s Senate re-election campaign—but is obviously not intended to influence that race, which she has well under control and in which the issue has played very little role. Her Republican opponent, Geoff Diehl, has steered clear of the heritage question in the campaign, and continued to do so after Monday morning’s news broke. The Massachusetts Republican Party, under the control of Governor Charlie Baker, has taken an even wider berth.

The only locals raising the issue are attention-seeking troglodytes such as Howie Carr, and bizarre independent candidate Shiva Ayyadurai—and those flamethrowers have done nothing to affect Warren’s high favorability ratings in the state, or her 30-point lead in the polls.

It’s not about re-election. It’s not about her self-identity, or family pride. It’s certainly not about Native Americans. It’s all about Trump.

Everything Is Ammunition

The Warren campaign video about the DNA test shows a purported conversation in which Dr. Carlos Bustamante reveals the results to Warren—conveniently video-taped at both ends of the phone call. Warren asks for the outcome not by expressing interest in her heritage, but by framing it entirely as ammunition in a political feud: “Now, the President likes to call my mom a liar. What do the facts say?”

The Senator quickly took to social media on Monday to challenge Trump to make good on a pledge he made at a campaign rally earlier this year, to donate $1 million to charity if Warren took a DNA test that showed her to be Native American.

That was yet more aggressive posturing, showing the point of the test to be purely political, rather than self-reflective.
That sense was only heightened by her choice of charities: an organization that serves Native American women who have been victims of sexual assault—deliberately adding a #MeToo spin to the issue.

One has to wonder what Native Americans think of this. Many were genuinely offended, in 2012, by Warren’s attitude, which seemed dismissive of the importance of Native American heritage and the process of tribal claims. She insisted upon treating her family’s oral history as truth, as if her faith was all that mattered on the topic. She expressed no interest in seeking input from Native American experts or tribal leaders.

To be sure, most Native Americans have been more offended by the mocking exploitation of the issue by Republicans, including Trump. But the grotesquery of her opponents does not absolve Warren.

Warren’s glossy treatment of the topic in her 2014 memoir, A Fighting Chance, didn’t help on that score. In it, Warren treated the whole issue as a Republican hit job, while giving no indication that she had even considered how Native Americans felt about her claims (let alone members of other historically aggrieved races and ethnicities).

Warren has since tried to make amends, most notably in a speech to the National Congress of American Indians this past February. Along with considerable Trump-bashing, she used the speech to recognize the importance of tribal membership claims, and commit herself to fighting for Native American causes.

“I’m here today to make a promise,” she told the tribal leaders in that speech; “Every time someone brings up my family’s story, I’m going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities.”

The call for Trump to give a million dollars to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center—though vanishingly unlikely—is presumably meant to fulfill that pledge. But, it sure looks like Warren is raising the story herself, for her personal political gain—and, at the same time, emphasizing the blood test as dispositive despite the absence of tribal membership.

And indeed, Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. released a statement Monday very critical of Warren’s latest shenanigans, saying that her touting of the DNA test results is “dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens.”
Some national Democrats have also reacted badly, accusing Warren of stepping on the party’s national closing messages for the midterm elections.

That message, in a nutshell, is that the country needs people who will go to a broken Washington and work toward solutions on family-budget problems, including health insurance, job protection, and college affordability.

Warren has made her reputation as a fighter, on behalf of middle-class families, for those very issues. But the battle she undertook Monday wasn’t for anyone’s benefit, and doesn’t advance any policies. It was just fighting Trump for the sake of being the candidate who fights with Trump.

For example, it doesn’t spark a debate on how to end our 18-year war in Afghanistan; or start a conversation about developing real jobs that pay sustainable wages; or wrestle with the idea of finding common ground on environmental issues.
Seeking: fighting mad Dems, looking for same.

Warren is in this position partly because of her own failure of frankness, but mostly because of the relentless, often racist hounding by her political opponents, who have persisted despite all evidence that Warren’s career owes nothing to her claim of Native American heritage.

However, that cohort is not the audience for Warren’s new outreach on the issue. She and her advisors know that those detractors will not change their minds (and have demonstrated as much in response to the DNA test results), and would never vote for her regardless.

Warren, then, is targeting the fighting-mad Democratic primary voters across the country. Warren is using this rollout to portray herself to them as their natural fighter to get in the ring with Trump—because she is already there, being taunted as “Pocahontas,” and firing back with venom.

There is a sizable cadre of Democrats who love her for engaging in these spitball fights. For that crowd, every insult hurled at Warren—such as last week’s revelation that General John Kelly once called her an “impolite, arrogant woman”—is another T-shirt and coffee mug to buy from her political action committee.

Despite that, it’s unclear that her style is what the bulk of the party is looking for in a Presidential nominee. In party primaries across the country this year, those same angry Democratic voters mostly selected relatively calm, establishment-approved candidates over divisive rhetorical punchers. And in a new CNN poll, a mere 8 percent of Democrats and Democratic-voting independents named her as their preferred 2020 Presidential nominee, despite her strong name recognition and favorability among liberals nationally.

It’s obviously very early in the 2020 process. But it might be that part of Warren’s problem lies in the inauthentic, opportunistic political instincts evidenced in this carefully packaged rollout of her DNA test results—and, days earlier, in the quick exploitation of Kelly’s remarks for campaign cash.

Authenticity, many political insiders say, is the hot quality for today’s candidates. It’s a quality that can become very difficult to maintain in the overly-advised and -consulted stratosphere that a national figure such as Warren inhabits. Ironic, perhaps, that a test of her true genetic makeup might have just revealed her lack of authenticity.

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