Of all the catchy, insulting epithets Donald Trump has whipped up for his political opponents— “Lyin’’ Ted Cruz, “Crooked” Hillary Clinton,“Liddle” Marco Rubio—Trump has saved the ugliest, and perhaps most damaging appellation for Elizabeth Warren, whom he has dubbed “Pocahontas.” The taunt is a reference to her disputed claim, when she applied for a job at Harvard Law, that she has Native American ancestry—something that conservatives have condemned as affirmative action gone wrong, or worse, a Rachel Dolezal-style fraud. The attack line has resonated: during a July 5 rally in Montana, when Trump vowed to give a million dollars to charity if a DNA test “shows you’re an Indian,” the crowd roared its approval.
And so, in the most concrete sign yet that Warren is seriously considering a 2020 run, on Sunday the Massachusetts senator launched a pre-emptive strike against Trump’s criticism, publicizing the results of a DNA test—administered by a Stanford University professor who won a MacArthur genius grant for his work—that found she does, indeed, have a Native American ancestor “in the range of 6 to 10 generations ago.” To drive the point home, her office also published a polished Web site displaying the test results; numerous documents from her job applications; videos featuring her co-workers and friends testifying to her honesty; and even a campaign-style ad showing her conservative family members vouching for her.
Chatter around Warren’s presidential ambitions has been building for months, following a series of savvy moves. She has, as New York’s Jonathan Chait notes, attempted to co-opt Bernie Sanders’s support without copying his platform, positioning herself as a progressive savior of capitalism rather than an outright socialist. In a Democratic Party still divided into Sandernistas and Clintonites, Warren has staked out a new, radical center. She has even published a Wall Street Journal op-ed. The message to donors is clear: I’m here to fix the system, not to break it. To get to the next stage, however, Warren has to prove she can put the Pocahontas caricature behind her. With the DNA test out of the way, the thinking goes, she can focus on assembling the electoral infrastructure she will need to run. As The Washington Post reports, Warren is supporting more than 150 candidates across the country—mostly in early-voting states and swing states—where she can have an outsize impact. And she is not shying away from what her involvement portends.
“I feel the urgency of the moment nationally,” Warren told the Post, explaining the network of endorsements. “It’s two parts: It’s holding Donald Trump accountable for what he does. It’s also trying to push this country toward working better for hardworking families.” While she added that she would “take a hard look” at a serious campaign after the midterms, David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former chief strategist, told the Post that Warren was not only calling the winners of Democratic primaries, but the losers, too. “This is how you go about building relationships and acquiring chits for a future project. It’s very smart,” he said. “If you were advising someone who had the resources of someone who was going to run for president, this is what you would do.”
Warren’s early moves may also serve to get her into the race before her Democratic opponents—a necessity given their relative popularity. A CNN poll published Sunday foundthat 33 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents would vote for charismatic Scrantonite Joe Biden, 13 percent preferred 2016 dark horse Sanders, and 9 percent went for California Senator Kamala Harris. Only 8 percent said they prefer Warren, who at the very least beat out Cory Booker (5 percent) and John Kerry (5 percent). But whereas her would-be rivals have only teased their runs by piling into early-voting states, Warren’s publicity campaign is exactly what it looks like: a move to shut down a Trumpian smear before it can take root and jeopardize her support.
It’s a gambit that worked for Obama, who more or less quashed birtherism by publicizing his birth certificate. Whether Warren’s openness will pay off in an era of lightning-speed fake news and conspiracy theories, however, is an open question. ”I know that everybody likes to pick their junk science or sound science depending on the conclusion it seems some days,” Kellyanne Conway said on Monday morning. “But I haven’t looked at the DNA test and it really doesn’t interest me.” The Republican National Committee, too, cast doubt on the test results, saying that “this latest move is sure to raise even more difficult questions for Warren than it is to provide any clarity.” Of course, Warren’s goal was never to sway right-wingers and White House loyalists, two factions that, for her, are likely unwinnable. Rather, her publicity blitz was designed to ensure Trump’s attack won’t scare an easily rattled Democratic establishment. (Many Democrats are already having second thoughtsabout running a female candidate in 2020 as it is.) There are signs she’s succeeded—on Monday morning, the president floated a different line against her. “I hope she’s running for president, ’cause I think she’d be very easy,” Trump told reporters shortly after the test was published. “She’ll destroy the country. She’ll make our country into Venezuela.”
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