In the dizzying realm of American presidential politics, a candidate’s fortunes can change with whiplash-inducing speed. Ask former “front-runner” Jeb Bush, or any of the 15 other Republican presidential hopefuls to whom Donald Trump laid waste in 2016. The newest casualty of this today-you’re-up-tomorrow-you’re-out rule could well be Elizabeth Warren, who formally launched her bid for the presidency earlier this month.
Almost exactly two years ago, in February 2017, Warren seemed invincible, riding high on a euphoric wave of women’s empowerment embodied in the phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted.” The unlikely agent of this super-stardom was Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. In a confirmation hearing for then-nominee for U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, McConnell invoked a rarely applied Senate rule to shut down Warren’s reading of a letter from Coretta Scott King condemning Sessions for suppressing black voter rights in Alabama and asking Congress to block his appointment to a federal judgeship. (The judgeship nomination didn’t make it out of committee, but the Republican-controlled Senate of 2017 confirmed Sessions as U.S. Attorney General.)
Warren’s luster has dimmed, even as the odds of a female president have strengthened.
Explaining his silencing of Warren, McConnell said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Before you could say “nasty woman,” that last phrase had gone viral, appearing first as a hashtag on Twitter, and a day later on everything else. Jill Kobler, 40, a marketing executive from Brooklyn, remembers a baby shower she attended around that time. “My friend, who was expecting a daughter, must have opened at least six gifts with that slogan on them,” she says, “including a onesie with ‘A Brief History of Feminism: Nevertheless, She Persisted’ written in bright red letters. That said it all. Elizabeth Warren was a hero, and we were convinced that she alone could defeat Trump in 2020. Above all, we were psyched that this baby girl was about to be born into a country where that would happen.”
In the chill February of 2019, in the aftermath of government shutdowns real and threatened and egregious presidential overreach, Warren’s luster has dimmed, even as the odds of a female president have strengthened. (Six Democratic women have now declared for the 2020 nomination.) Warren’s decline stems from a convergence of forces, some of her own doing and others not. Among the latter is the obvious fact that the so-called “Warren Wing” of the Democratic Party has grown crowded. While her liberal views have remained consistent since the mid-1990s—her political career has been dedicated to “getting to the bottom of why America’s promise works for some families, but others who work just as hard slip through the cracks into disasters”—there are now several other contenders, including four Senate colleagues (Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders), whose voting records are as liberal as hers. (Amy Klobuchar, the sixth senator in the race, is more moderate.)
In short, the positions Warren so passionately espouses, with her trademark blend of wonkiness and folksy idioms, have become more mainstream. And progressives now have other options.
How mainstream? Consider the fact that in a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, 76 percent of respondents said they believe the rich should pay more in taxes, with 61 percent favoring the “wealth tax” that Warren unveiled in January, which would levy a two to three percent tax on Americans with assets totaling more $50 million. Even a Fox News poll found that 70 percent of Americans favor raising taxes on people earning more than $10 million.
Working Class Shero
And yet, for all her rootedness in the middle class of middle America (she even named her dog Bailey, after that champion of the common man, George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life), charges of extremism and even elitism cling to Warren. On the surface, her classic American story of upward mobility would seem to confer impeccable credentials for her brand of populism. Born in 1949, the youngest of four, she grew up in small-town Oklahoma on what she calls “the ragged edge of the middle class.” When her father had a heart attack and could no longer work as a salesman, her mother took a minimum-wage job at Sears in order to hang on to the family home.
A high-school debating star, Warren went to George Washington University at 16 on a full scholarship but dropped out to marry boyfriend Jim Warren at 19 and ended up finishing at the University of Houston. She was pregnant with her second child when she graduated Rutgers Law School in 1976. The couple divorced in 1978, and in 1980 she married Bruce Mann, a legal historian. Eventually, Warren entered academia, joining the faculty at, among other institutions, the University of Houston, the University of Texas, the University of Pennsylvania, and, finally—the heart of the charge that she’s a liberal elite—Harvard, where, as one of the nation’s top experts on bankruptcy law, she was the only tenured professor in the entire law school with a degree from a public university .
A self-professed ‘capitalist to my bones,’ Warren was a Republican until 1996.
In the men’s world of legal scholarship at that time, Warren gained a reputation as brilliant, hard-working, and exceedingly ambitious. A self-professed “capitalist to my bones,” Warren admits to being a Republican until 1996. “I believe in markets,” she says, and she thought that Republicans “were the people who best supported markets.” She parted ways with the GOP after her academic research led her to conclude that the playing field was no longer level—that the system was “rigged” (one of the senator’s favorite terms) to favor financial institutions.
Ms. Warren Goes to Washington
Warren went to Washington for the first time in 1995 to work on bankruptcy reform. By then her views had been nudged leftward by her scholarly work. Along with colleagues from the University of Texas, Warren helped pioneer a kind of academic legal methodology that looks at the effects of laws on the lives of actual people. Their work on bankruptcies upended the dogma of the day, revealing that most were brought on not by reckless overspending or laziness, as bankers and other lenders generally assumed, but by a calamitous event such as illness, job loss, death, or divorce.
The findings had a lasting effect on Warren, as she saw more and more working families unable to make ends meet. Once relatively rare, bankruptcies proliferated: As Warren told The New Yorker, “By the 2000s, it’s starting to hollow out America’s middle class.”
In The Two-Income Trap, written with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, she found that being a mother was the single biggest predictor of bankruptcy in women and suggested that an underrecognized factor in bankruptcies was couples’ desire to buy homes in areas with good schools, which left them with very little money for other obligations. A 2009 paper she co-wrote focused on bankruptcies brought on by medical expenses—a topic with special resonance, given the consequences of her father’s illness.
After the 2008 meltdown, Warren discovered that American taxpayers had overpaid financial institutions by $78 billion.
In 2008, just days after the election of Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tapped Warren to chair the oversight panel for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), which paid “too-big-to-fail” financial institutions billions of dollars in government bailouts in the wake of that year’s meltdown. A tenacious watchdog, she discovered that American taxpayers had overpaid those institutions by $78 billion.
A dream opportunity came along when President Obama asked her to create a bureau based on a paper she’d written in 2007 envisioning a government agency that extended to financial products (car loans, credit cards, mortgages) “the same routine safety screening that now governs the sale of every toaster, washing machine, and child’s car seat sold on the American market.” The dream came to fruition in 2011 as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), but Obama was convinced that Warren had become too controversial—by now she was known as one of Wall Street’s most vocal critics—to be approved as its director.
He was undoubtedly right: The Republicans, who vehemently opposed the bureau, went so far as to forego scheduled recesses simply to block Obama from making a recess appointment. Ultimately, the job went to one of her own recruits, and a disappointed Warren headed home to Massachusetts to run for the Senate. The CFPB went on to recover $12 billion for American consumers but has been all-but-decimated under the Trump Administration.
Warren won that 2012 race, becoming the first woman senator from Massachusetts and ending the brief but much-ballyhooed reign of Scott Brown, the Republican Party’s great white hope. The campaign was one of that year’s ugliest, with Brown sneering at Warren for being a “fake Indian” who misrepresented her ancestry for professional advancement. Both candidates refused PAC money, but that didn’t stop the campaign, which ran almost entirely on donations of under $200, from being the most expensive in state history. Warren likes to say she has never taken money from PACs, which isn’t strictly true (it constitutes a small portion of her funding), but, unlike other Senators who’ve declared for 2020, she has steered clear of what’s often called the “Wall Street donor class.”
A Seat at the Table
Warren arrived in Congress already an icon of the left, and by 2014, she was being urged to run for president in 2016; many still mourn the fact that she didn’t. Her presidential campaign website delivers a pretty good rundown of her legislative priorities, listing the programs that the “trillions” generated by her proposed wealth tax—or “ultra-millionaire tax on America’s 75,000 richest families”—could fund: universal childcare, student loan debt relief, the “Green New Deal,” Medicare for All, and affordable housing for an increasingly squeezed citizenry. Two recently proposed bills target political corruption (requiring presidential candidates to release at least eight years’ worth of tax returns, for instance) and call for an “accountable capitalism” that would restore a value system in which American companies “sought to succeed in the marketplace, but they also recognized their obligations to employees, customers and the community.”
In her home state of Massachusetts, her popularity now lags behind that of the state’s other senator.
On foreign policy, Warren has kept a lower profile, but in a breakout speech in November, she sought to unify her foreign policy views and her progressive domestic agenda, arguing that America’s runaway militarism and endless wars abroad stem from the same corporate greed and power imbalance that create economic inequality at home. “Having a strong military doesn’t mean we need to constantly use it,” she said. “An effective deterrent also means showing the good judgment to exercise appropriate restraint.” While she has condemned Trump’s embrace of autocracy, she expressed rare agreement with him over his recently announced intention to withdraw most US troops from Syria.
The Campaign Trail as Classroom
In a recent New York Times article, Warren was described as a “wonk’s wonk” who delights in “nerding out”—meaning campaign stops full of “[E]xtended riffs about Puerto Rican debt restructuring, the history of denying black Americans access to mortgage subsidies, renewable energy policies like net metering and the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2018,” which Warren sponsored.
One way of looking at this strategy is as counterprogramming: As other contenders offer up rousing, utopian visions of change, Warren may hope to win over voters with her command of the minutiae of policy. Yet she is also an adept politician who excels at connecting with voters. Will Americans vote for a cerebral law professor as president—albeit one who’s partial to fiery rhetoric on the campaign trail? Why not? They did it in 2008 and 2012.
Quick, name the last time the word ‘shrill’ was applied to a man; never mind, name the first time.
Then again, “cerebral” gets viewed differently when it surfaces in a woman, particularly when it’s combined with the intense, take-no-prisoners style that Warren is known for. Predictably, she’s drawn censure for that, particularly in her home state of Massachusetts, where her popularity lags behind that of the state’s other senator, Edward Markey. Though she won re-election last year by a healthy margin, Warren had the lowest “incumbency advantage” of any incumbent running last November, according to the political website FiveThirtyEight. Among the adjectives regularly ascribed to her: “shrill” (quick—name the last time that word was applied to a man; never mind, name the first time), “schoolmarmish,” “dislikable,” “divisive,” “negative,” and “combative.”
True, Warren rarely shies away from confrontation (in a 2017 hearing, she told the CEO of Wells Fargo he should be fired), and from the beginning, she has shown herself to be Donald Trump’s equal in deploying Twitter as a blunt instrument (“Is this what keeps you up at night, @realDonaldTrump? Thinking of new & interesting ways to call women fat or ugly or sluts?”). Whether voters will respond to her characterizations of them—her announcement speech decried “a rigged system that props up the rich and the powerful and kicks dirt on everyone else”—remains to be seen. Says one Warren supporter, “Even voters who loathe the Wall Street fat cats don’t want to see themselves as victims.” Cue the speechwriters: More positivity, please.
The DNA Disaster
With six women in the presidential race (in addition to the senators, Representative Tulsi Gabbard and spiritual guru Marianne Williamson), the same old, lame rationalization that was trotted out in 2016—“It’s not that I wouldn’t vote for a woman; it’s just that I don’t like this particular woman”—is unlikely to get as much traction as it used to. Women running for president are, fingers crossed, the new normal. Still, it’s hard not to conclude that Warren is getting Hillaried. And, sadly, Warren herself has handed her haters the perfect surrogate for Hillary’s private email server—the DNA test she had done last fall.
She’s Trump’s equal in deploying Twitter as a blunt instrument.
Granted, Warren’s claim to have Native American blood has been a sore spot throughout her public career, though she rarely talked about it. But, as she told CBS News in 2012, “Being Native American has been part of my story since the day I was born.” Warren says, for instance, that she always knew that her parents had to elope because her dad’s family disapproved of her mother for being part Cherokee and part Delaware.
Warren never claimed citizenship in a tribe and insists that she never used her “minority” status to get ahead—though she’s fielded nonstop accusations that she did just that. These accusations are grounded in the assumption that a person of humble background with degrees from a commuter college and a public university law school could never possibly rise to a Harvard University professorship without a mitigating factor, like Affirmative Action, to tip the scale.
Last September, the Boston Globe ran an exhaustively reported, front-page story on Warren’s background. The conclusion: “[H]er claim to Native American ethnicity was never considered by the Harvard Law faculty … or by those who hired her to four prior positions at other law schools. At every step of her remarkable rise in the legal profession, the people responsible for hiring her saw her as a white woman.”
All of this, needless to say, is so much balderdash to her political foes, who can now point to a recently discovered 1986 Texas Bar registration card on which she listed herself as “American Indian” as further evidence for their claims, and who gleefully throw around crude nicknames—most famously, from the leader of the free world, “Pocahontas.”
But these insults are nothing new, so it’s difficult to fathom what would compel Warren to take the DNA test that Trump had been calling for. Did she simply grow weary of his taunts? Did she believe that taking the test would stop them? She told an Iowa audience that she wanted to just “put it all out there.” Unfortunately, the results of this particular DNA test, which Warren released just before the 2018 midterms, raised more questions than they answered, asserting that “while the vast majority of [Warren’s] ancestry is European, the results strongly support the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor in [her] pedigree, likely in the range of 6–10 generations ago.” The initial reporting interpreted these results to mean that Warren had no more, and possibly less, Native American DNA than the average American. “She took a bogus DNA test and it showed that she may be 1/1024,” gloated Trump. But subsequent clarifications, in the Washington Post, for example, pointed out that the DNA results in Warren’s test “indicat[e] that her claim to some Native American heritage is much stronger than most European Americans’.”
The Fall Out
The details scarcely matter. The fallout had begun. The Cherokee Nation stated that the use of a DNA test “to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong,” prompting Warren to apologize to the Cherokees and to all American Indians. Meanwhile, in early December, the Boston Globe, which had strongly urged Warren to run for President in 2016, published an editorial suggesting that she should drop out of the 2020 presidential race. Adding insult to injury, a recent poll conducted by the Globe and Suffolk University found that 58 percent of Massachusetts voters think she shouldn’t run in 2020.
Political careers have collapsed over far smaller gaffes.
Will Warren’s presidential prospects really be derailed by her misguided attempt to set the record straight on her heritage? It seems that they may; certainly, political careers have collapsed over far smaller gaffes. On the other hand, as the FiveThirtyEight website speculates, the uproar over the DNA test may be “a proxy for other, less socially acceptable reasons why people dislike her, such as her gender or age” (Warren would be 71 on Inauguration Day 2021). Then, proving its point, the website quotes a man who minced no words in dismissing Warren’s 2020 prospects: “I don’t think America’s ready for another Hillary,” he told a Boston radio station. “It has to be someone young and dynamic.”
Clearly, ascending to the Democratic nomination will not be an easy climb for Elizabeth Warren, or any of the other candidates, for that matter. Nevertheless, she will persist—and she just may prevail.
Lorraine Glennon, a Brooklyn-based editor and writer, was the editor-in-chief of Our Times: An Illustrated History of the Twentieth Century.