Senator Elizabeth Warren thought she was solving a problem that presented a clear obstacle to her presidential ambitions. But it turns out that taking a DNA test to disprove President Donald Trump’s taunts disputing her claims of Native American heritage didn’t just fail to shut him or other conservative critics up: It also exposed her to the sort of criticisms from the left that may turn out to be fatal to her hopes of winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.
That was the upshot of a Thursday New York Times feature that made it clear Warren’s nascient 2020 campaign is already in deep trouble. With Native American groups and others on the left claiming that her actions betrayed insensitivity to the issues of tribal identity and racial oppression, some in Warren’s camp are speculating that her only way out of the mess is to apologize for taking the test. Other advisers, speaking off the record, assert that whether or not she apologizes, there’s no way for the senator to avoid confronting the issue before she formally announces her intent to run.
This is not exactly the position the Massachusetts senator thought she’d be in a couple of months ago. Most Democrats rated Warren a top-tier candidate in an overcrowded field of veteran politicians and newcomers. A Harvard CAPS/Harris poll just released ranked her fifth in the field with 10 percent support, behind former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton, and Oprah Winfrey. That places Warren — already a darling of her party’s liberal base — ahead of most of the presumptive competition, including other female senators such as Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar.
Which is exactly why the chorus of progressives criticizing the DNA test is so damaging to her.
The issue of Warren’s claims of Native American identity has been around since her first successful Senate campaign in 2012, in which she defeated incumbent Republican Scott Brown. Though she has always denied benefiting from her claims of Cherokee and Delaware ancestry, the blond and blue-eyed Warren was touted as Harvard Law School’s first female professor of color. At one point she even contributed to a cookbook of family recipes by Native Americans called Pow Wow Chow. She has continued to relate family lore about the Native American roots claimed by her mother’s family and even claimed that her father’s family opposed her parents’ marriage because of those roots.
But the problem for Warren — then and now — is that no one in her family has been listed as a member of either tribe in records that stretch from the present all the way back to the early 19th century.
Warren ignored the taunts from Republicans about the issue while easily beating Brown. But in recent years, President Trump has taken it up, claiming that she was a liar and calling her “Pocahontas.” While outraged liberals put that down as a racial slur, Warren was still vulnerable to charges that she had lied about her ancestry. Last winter, the Berkshire Eagle and the New York Post challenged her to take a DNA test to prove her assertions. Trump backed up the newspapers in July, promising that he would pay $1 million to a charity of Warren’s choice if a test proved that she had Native American blood.
In response, Warren claimed on Twitter that the president was “trying to do what he always does to women who scare him: call us names, attack us personally, shrink us down to feel better about himself. It may soothe his ego — but it won’t work.”
Apparently, though, it did work. Sometime in the last several months, Warren decided to take a DNA test and make the results public. We can’t be sure if she thought Trump would pay up or whether she imagined it would put the issue to bed. But the slick rollout of her results, with a video including a genealogical expert, didn’t have the intended effect.
Conservatives mocked the test’s conclusion that Warren had one Native American ancestor six to ten generations ago, making her 1/64 to 1/1,024 Native American. It made her seem as if she was grasping at straws, and made her past claims of Native American identity sound even flimsier. And worst of all from her perspective, it angered the progressive activists she would need to win the 2020 nomination.
Native American groups had previously been willing to forgive Warren for the controversy because she had agreed with them that tribal identity was strictly a matter for tribes themselves to decide. But by invoking the DNA test’s results in an effort to put the controversy to bed, she reneged on that agreement. Her embrace of what the Left derides as “racial science” — i.e. the popular use of DNA tests to determine ancestry — was viewed as legitimizing a tool of oppression of minorities.
Warren might be able to sufficiently abase herself before the altar of intersectional ideology to wriggle out of that particular trap. But the faulty political judgment her DNA adventure demonstrated to Democrats will be much harder to live down. As the party heads toward 2020, it isn’t just looking for someone who is sufficiently left wing to please the progressive base. It’s also looking for someone who can gracefully withstand non-stop attacks from the nation’s Twitter-troller-in-chief. And by allowing Trump to bait her into an unforced error in the ancestry kerfuffle, Warren proved that she is not that candidate.
In that sense, it doesn’t really matter whether Warren apologizes to the tribes or what she says about the issue in the future. She’s already demonstrated that she hasn’t got the political chops to withstand Trump’s abuse — and that may sink her campaign for the nomination before it’s even officially begun.