A lot of smart people believe that Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2020.
So when she released a video featuring her Oklahoman roots and answering Donald Trump’s “Pocahontas” gibe with a DNA test proving that she does have Native American ancestry, it was initially received as the latest move to show she can take on Trump.
I can certainly think of worse people for the Democrats to nominate than a woman who has white-working-class roots as well as academic credentials, and a half-buried past as a heterodox intellectual (go read her book “The Two-Income Trap,” seriously).
But running for president in the age of Donald Trump requires a deftness dealing with scandals and gaffes.
So far, Warren’s main encounter with this has involved her claim to Cherokee ancestry, which was an issue in her last Senate campaign, in 2012, before Trump started in with his nicknaming. And from her initial response to the story through the new DNA test “rebuttal” to the president, she has demonstrated a conspicuous lack of political common sense.
There was Warren family lore, as there is in many Oklahoman families, about a Cherokee ancestor, which included a memory of in-law bigotry against Warren’s mother for her supposed Cherokee and Delaware blood. At some point in Warren’s academic career, this became part of her official biography, so that she was listed as a “Native American” professor at the University of Pennsylvania and described as Harvard Law’s “first woman of color.”
When this story first surfaced six years ago, it was more embarrassing for the Ivy League than for Warren. It was the schools’ eagerness to turn a woman they had hired on the merits into an embodiment of an essentially phony diversity that was the real problem.
But what Warren should have done when the story resurfaced was to express mild regret for letting her enthusiasm for family lore carry her away into identifying as someone who might possibly receive affirmative-action consideration, apologize to Cherokee groups for any offense and never speak of the matter again. And if and when Donald Trump started up his Pocahontas gibes, she should have simply ignored him and talked about the many issues where he’s on the wrong side of public opinion.
But she didn’t apologize, presumably because she thought that she did have a legitimate claim to minority status. And then she – or some too-clever strategist with her ear – set out to prove it with a DNA test, so that she could throw it back in Trump’s face.
And the DNA is, indeed, solid evidence … that Warren has at least one Indian ancestor between six and 10 generations back. This is legitimately interesting genealogy performed by a legitimate expert. It suggests that she may have more Native American blood, not less, than the average white American. And while a crude reading of the estimate suggests that she’s between one-64th and one-1,024th Cherokee (or some other mix of tribes), it’s also still possible that she’s somewhat more Indian than that.
So checkmate, Drumpf, right? Well, no. Because the issue with Warren’s ancestral claims is that she allowed them to be proclaimed as proof of an elite institution’s diversity. And I defy you to find a single person invested in these debates who believes that someone who might be one-64th or even one-32nd Indian and whose Cherokee experience consists of old family stories should qualify as a first “minority” hire in anything.
The DNA test thus simultaneously gives Trump an obvious way to keep the story going on his terms while also annoying Indian groups and anyone on the left (including the actual minority candidates against whom Warren may run) invested in affirmative action as a righter of historic wrongs rather than just a means to elite self-congratulation.
Warren should not have taken the test; having taken it, she should not have publicized it; having publicized it, she should quietly fire anyone who urged this gambit and move on.
Liberals should regard this whole thing as a cautionary tale. There is an obvious appetite on the left for a candidate willing to take on Trump on his own brawler’s terms. But if you come at him that way, you best not miss – as Michael Avenatti, the would-be Trump of the Resistance, has been missing of late, with a Kavanaugh intervention that helped get the judge confirmed and a libel suit that just got his own client ordered to pay Trump’s legal fees.
Now Warren has joined Avenatti in that loser’s gallery, for absolutely no good reason that I can see. Her self-own isn’t the biggest deal in the world, and her partisans are right that if mostly conservatives are agitated by the fiasco, then it might not hurt her much. But a “front-runner” who’s polling at 8 percent needs to be showing reasons other candidates should be pre-emptively intimidated, and why the party should decide on her. And the fact that we’re talking, for no good reason, about a fragment of Elizabeth Warren’s DNA three weeks before an essential midterm is a sign that she shouldn’t exactly terrify her rivals yet.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.