As they say, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does indeed rhyme. And so “Elizabeth Warren” rhymes with “Hillary Clinton”—at least in terms of the way they run presidential campaigns. That is, they both go heavy on data and metrics, and light on common sense.
Only a nerdy, screens-before-people mindset could have yielded Warren’s tone-deaf attempt to use DNA data to “prove” that she is a Native American. And then that same mindset manifested itself in an elaborate rollout plan: puffy kickoff article in her hometown newspaper, The Boston Globe? Check. Slick accompanying campaign video? Check. Copious supporting details on her website? Check.
Yet despite—or perhaps because of—all that planning, the whole thing blew up like the Hindenburg. Even friendly observers laughed at the argument that her being .09 percent Native American amounted to anything compelling. After all, according to a 2014 report in The New York Times, the average “European-American” is .18 percent Native American—that is, double Warren’s share—while African Americans and Hispanics have significantly more Native American ancestry. (As an aside, the average white American is .19 percent black, which is to say, if Warren can claim Native American status—a claim that undoubtedly spurred her academic career, no matter how many fawning Globe articles say otherwise—then most Americans could make the claim, too; indeed, they could also claim African-American status.)
The blowback against Warren’s genetics gambit was instantaneous—and ferocious. Most spectacularly, Cherokee Nation official Chuck Hoskin told CNN, “It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”
For its part, National Review gleefully jumped in, compiling a string of harsh tweets from Native Americans. One Ashley Fairbanks, a citizen of Minnesota’s White Earth nation, was even harsher, headlining her opinion piece, “Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test is only proof that she’s an [expletive].”
The Washington Post summed it up on October 16: “Elizabeth Warren angers prominent Native Americans with politically fraught DNA test.” Even the Warren-centric Globe had to admit, in an oh-so-polite headline, “Elizabeth Warren’s DNA results don’t silence attacks against her.”
Indeed, the coming days are likely to be worse, as diggers dig up more awkward material that suggests Warren was playing the faux ethnic victim card for all it was worth. An example is this video clip in which she “recovered” memories of her “Cherokee” mother supposedly suffering from anti-Indian discrimination. In the meantime, satirists are moving in for the kill. As The Onion had it, “Elizabeth Warren Disappointed After DNA Test Shows Zero Trace Of Presidential Material.”
Needless to say, journalists, political scientists, and other chroniclers of folly will be chewing on this incident for a long time to come. Most likely, they will conclude that it was a case of groupthink—that is, the hermetic optimism that can abound in a closed system. And lately, it seems, the phenomenon has grown worse, as snowflakey young people are aided in their misapprehensions by the wise fool known as the computer.
That’s why Team Warren, in 2018, repeated the mistakes of Team Clinton, in 2016. The day after Hillary lost an election that she should have won, The Washington Post headlined its explanation: “Clinton’s data-driven campaign relied heavily on an algorithm named Ada. What didn’t she see?” Answer: a lot, starting with the human quintessence that’s invisible to silicon chips.
In 2017, veteran Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg summed up the Clintonians’ disastrous dependence on the crutch of computing: “The campaign relied far too heavily on something that campaign technicians call ‘data analytics.’” Greenberg continued, “When campaign developments overtake the model’s assumptions, you get surprised by the voters—and this happened repeatedly.” That’s how you lose.
Yet the prestige of tech, and the accompanying data-based mindset, is so great that despite the debacle of ’16, the Warren peeps embraced it in ’18. This metrics fetish was on full display in a Washington Post article that appeared on October 14. The reporter was spoon-fed impressive-sounding details: “Warren’s team has offered to send out emails to her list (180 times), given contributions (167 times) or provided policy documents (63 times). She also has met with candidates one-on-one (61 times) and done videos (36 times) and fundraisers (41 times).”
As a data-mad Warren aide added, “We know every single district. We’ve researched every district. We’re granularly paying attention to every place on the map.” Here the rest of us might pause to repurpose that Oscar Wilde quip: they knew the price of everything, but the value of nothing. We might presume that out of such a mindset came the idea that if there was an “ethnic box” to be checked, well, the way to do it right was with data.
So in that sense, Warren’s crowing over her ethnic heritage was simply the next lap in the Democrats’ galloping preoccupation with diversity, intersectionality, and other kinds of racial apportionment.
Of course, there were other factors, too—most obviously, President Trump’s attacks on Warren as “Pocahontas.” As CNN’s Chris Cillizza explained, “Trump’s attacks were hurting her,” even as he added that Warren’s response amounted to “overkill.”
Thus we are reminded of one of Trump’s greatest strengths: his ability to unhinge his opponents. Of course, his foes think he’s unhinged, but then, it seems, in an anti-Trump tantrum, they go out and do things they shouldn’t do, thereby reminding everyone that unhinged is a relative concept. This sort of perverse escalation hasn’t worked out well for Trump’s opponents in the past, nor is it working out today. As The Washington Post headlined, “In dust-up with Elizabeth Warren, President Trump shows he’s pulling the strings in the Democratic presidential contest.”
Of course, no matter how bad Warren’s situation might seem at the moment, all is not lost for her. Trump has proven that a determined candidate can climb out of a mighty deep hole.
So while Warren has just turned herself into a punchline, she still has punches to throw. In a tweet storm, she sought to turn her problem into Trump’s problem: “Whenever someone brings up my family story, I’ll use it to lift up the story of Native families and communities.”
As we have seen, many Native Americans don’t want that sort of help from Warren, but most Democrats, furious as they are at Trump, do want a fighter. And so if a heavy-handed pugilist such as Michael Avenatti is too improbable even for this day and age, well, maybe Warren can put on the gloves for the #Resistance.
Thus we can see that Warren and Trump can, in effect, both help each other. That is, Trump elevates Warren by attacking her, lifting her above the Democratic pack. And for her part, Warren’s attacks on Trump serve to further firm up his base of support—which now extends to virtually all Republicans.
So yes, it’s possible that Warren’s October surprise might yet redound to her benefit, at least in the short run. That short run, we can observe, is the time between now and the Democratic National Convention in July 2020.
However, there’s also a longer run—the run-up to the November 2020 general election. Nobody’s crystal ball extends that far, but even so, we can venture this much: as of today, Warren’s DNA antics have hurt her with swing voters. Yes, the Democratic base might love her for the orange enemy she has made, and that might help her get the nomination. But the general election is likely to be a different story—with a different ending.
You see, in the course of rising in politics, Warren has gone from being an Oklahoma Democrat to a Massachusetts Democrat. Once upon a time—that is, a decade ago, in the wake of the Great Recession, when she burst onto the scene as a champion of consumer finance reform—she had the homespun aspect of a prairie populist; she was the plucky housewife-turned-lawyer, fighting for the little guy. Yet since her election to the Senate in 2012, she’s become a new-style Boston brahmin, having embraced the whole liturgy of high-church liberalism.
It’s this newer Elizabeth Warren who seeks to go up against Trump in two years. She must know that since JFK in 1960, the national track record for Massachusetts liberalism has been poor. Over the last six decades, many Bay State Democrats have yearned for the presidency, and yet only two of them managed to win their party’s nomination—Michael Dukakis in 1988, and John Kerry in 2004—and they both lost. (In that same period, winning Democrats were from Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, and Illinois—all states closer to Oklahoma than Massachusetts.)
Of course, in their anger at Trump, today’s Democrats might be blind to the obvious reasons—including the latest self-inflicted reason—to question Warren’s electability.
But then, as we have seen, the ability to bewitch his enemies is one of Trump’s greatest strengths.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.