Many of the Democrats lining up to take on President Trump in 2020 are embracing a nearly identical platform of big increases in taxes and government, but perhaps only one of them has an ability to make conservatives’ skin crawl.
That distinction goes to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, in ways it doesn’t for some of her current competitors or even more established liberal political stars such as Hillary Clinton or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“There’s no doubt Elizabeth Warren is a lightning rod to conservatives,” said Colin Reed, a Republican consultant who has tracked her career closely. “If you go back and look at her first campaign, in 2012, back then she was the tip of the spear for all the left-wing populism and now outright socialism that has become mainstream in the Democratic Party.”
What is it about Ms. Warren that grates so, that compels one of the many nurturing Boston media outlets to headline an otherwise sympathetic piece, “Why is Elizabeth Warren so hard to love?”
Perhaps it boils down to her conspicuous lack of that coveted modern coin: “authenticity.”
“She may not be the radical she pretends to be, but Sen. Warren has pretended to be a lot of things,” conservative writer Kevin Williamson said.
Ms. Warren’s sometimes leaden political touch seemed to surface when she threw her hat into the presidential ring. First, there was the obviously staged gaggle with reporters while out walking her dog, and then came the scripted home video.
Addressing listeners from her kitchen, Ms. Warren made it clear that she was eyeing a 2020 presidential run. The video was released less than two years after her hometown Boston Globe reported that she “repeatedly denied she is eyeing a presidential run” and less than one month after it editorialized that she shouldn’t.
Even some of Ms. Warren’s supporters cringed at the video, which smacked of an attempt to capture some of the social media magic that her younger Democratic colleagues such as Beto O’Rourke and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York have used to great effect. But rather than skateboarding onto the scene or dancing in the halls, Ms. Warren appeared in her modern kitchen offering a performance topped with a scripted, “I’m gonna get me a beer.”
It provided delicious fodder for her critics, who found it as phony and goofy as Michael Dukakis, another would-be presidential Massachusetts Democrat, driving a tank.
“Nobody in American politics has experienced a collapse in authenticity like Liz Warren,” a conservative columnist wrote in the Boston Herald, mocking the Ivy League millionaire’s blatant attempt to seem humdrum.
Ms. Warren’s phony aura sometimes threatens to eclipse the fact that she can’t be accused of one of the traditional shortcomings that dog politicians of all stripes. She is not a flip-flopper: As Mr. Reed noted, she has been more consistently left-wing in her positions than Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat. She is not a newcomer: She has been a national figure longer than Sen. Kamala D. Harris, California Democrat.
Questions of authenticity
Ms. Warren apparently irks Republicans because of her persona as much as her positions.
Most infamous is her assertion of American Indian ancestors and her long-term pose as a “woman of color,” career moves that earned her the nickname “Pocahontas” from Mr. Trump. Her backers dismiss attacks against her on those grounds as race-baiting and false, but Vanity Fair grudgingly concluded that they are valid and noted her claims “can be traced back more than 30 years.”
Ms. Warren listed herself as a minority in 1986, early in her academic career at the University of Texas and the University of Pennsylvania. Her American Indian cookbook recipe was submitted as “Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee,” and even before Harvard University claimed her as an example of their minority hiring, she was showcased as a “woman of color” in the school’s Women’s Law Journal.
Her left-wing colleagues in academia insist her claims to American Indian heritage did not factor in her rise to faculty stardom, and while that satisfied outlets such as the Boston Globe and Vanity Fair, the latter acknowledged the tales “do come off as a little weird, worthy of further inspection and kitchen table conversation.”
Ms. Warren’s publicized effort to lay the matter to rest called into question her retail skills, given she released a DNA test on the eve of the November midterm elections that showed a tiny fraction of American Indian blood. Other Democrats, who wanted the party united against Mr. Trump, groaned that her timing smacked of opportunism.
Plus, it didn’t work. Mr. Trump and Ms. Warren’s political adversaries chortled that the trace of ancestry underscored the shamelessness of the entire claim, and her low-key effort to apologize to the Cherokee nation showed that Ms. Warren is still feeling the political fallout.
Her more recent efforts to align with American Indians also cost her with conservatives. She has not deleted her support for Nathan Phillips, the American Indian whose false account of the incident at the Lincoln Memorial between him and Kentucky high school students last month set off a social media firestorm.
“Omaha elder and Vietnam War veteran Nathan Phillips endured hateful taunts with dignity and strength,” reads Ms. Warren’s still-extant tweet despite evidence that Mr. Phillips endured no taunts and never served in Vietnam.
It is not only her attempted cultural appropriation that has raised eyebrows about her authenticity. When the #MeToo movement took wing two years ago, Ms. Warren began embellishing a story that had long circulated about her time at the University of Texas, according to Massachusetts and other media outlets.
What had been depicted by her as a humorous, if ill-advised and goatish, attempt by a law school dean to flirt with her became a nerve-wracking ordeal of near sexual assault in Ms. Warren’s new telling.
The incidents have combined to make Ms. Warren a polarizing figure, as the speed and volume of responses to a recent informal poll she conducted proved, said Nancy Bocskor, director of the Center for Women in Politics & Public Policy at Texas Woman’s University.
“It was pretty amazing,” Ms. Bocskor said. “It may be true she fell into a ‘Trump trap’ on that DNA issue, but by and large most of the comments were that she lies about it. People see her as an elitist who cheated the system, and she is perceived to have a sanctimonious attitude which hurts her whole ‘likability’ factor.
“I can’t think of a thing ‘likable’ about Donald Trump, but that doesn’t seem to be a factor with him like it does with Elizabeth Warren,” she said. “I still think Hillary Clinton is the most polarizing Democrat, but people see Warren as always railing against income inequality when she sits there in the 1 percent, and they find that disingenuous.”
Loving government regulation
Ms. Warren is a strident liberal, hectoring regulators for insufficient zeal and vowing to boost tax revenue and government power in all areas.
She is an equal opportunity attacker when it comes to accusing government regulators of being too soft a touch. Ms. Warren has shown a willingness to attack former Obama administration officials just as vociferously as their Republican counterparts if she thinks they may be taking a velvet glove rather than an iron fist to their regulatory duties.
Former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and successive Wells Fargo CEOs have felt Ms. Warren’s wrath when quizzed about what happened to public money or private business practices.
Her love for government regulation was evident even before she ran for elected office. Her first foray into public life was her work to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency created after the 2008 financial crisis that she said would provide a bulwark against unscrupulous business practices. Conservatives see as a kind of regulatory inquisition beyond political control.
Thus far, the CFPB has withstood legal challenges to its existence, but conservatives were able to block Ms. Warren from getting behind the wheel of her creation. President Obama, knowing congressional opposition was too strong, never nominated Ms. Warren as head of the CFPB, which the Trump administration has worked to defang.
Ms. Warren’s entire package — the indefatigable backer of government power, a class warrior from a privileged position and her dubious claim to cultural pedigrees — is a kind of perfect storm for her conservative opponents.
Just how formidable her presidential run may be is hotly debated. In a January snapshot, FiveThirtyEight identified several issues with a Warren candidacy, not the least of them is she underperformed in her home state the most of all 2018 incumbents, according to their calculations.
“She’s obviously had her eye on the White House from the moment she arrived, but I do think her moment has passed,” Mr. Reed said. “She should have gone in 2016; now there’s limited space for her in that left lane.”
Ms. Warren is hardly the first politician to insist they are not seeking a seat and then turn around and seek. If Mr. O’Rourke throws his hat into the ring, she won’t even be the only Democrat to do so in next year’s primaries. But her supposedly spontaneous burst, “I’m gonna get me a beer” in her video struck many viewers as phony.
That inauthentic quality, which has haunted Ms. Warren for years, stands in marked contrast to her political skills in person, according to her supporters. They insist Ms. Warren has that priceless ability to “win the room” when she is given the chance.
“She is the most electable candidate in the sense she is authentic when it comes to people really believing she is on the side of everyday people,” said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, who said he has watched Ms. Warren persuade rooms that weren’t initially warm to her from Iowa to Cape Cod.
“What makes Republicans go crazy is she pushes new, bold ideas into the mainstream, and that messes with their comfort level,” Mr. Green said. “The wealth tax on billionaires, expanding Social Security — she’s surgical in the fights she picks, and as that drives both Democrats and independent working-class votes, it makes her politically scary to Republicans.”
She doesn’t “aspire to be a bipartisan uniter,” Boston magazine said in 2017. “She’s an advocate for her specific issues, not a master legislator or dealmaker.”
Ms. Warren, who will be 71 on Election Day 2020, adopts a stance like that of former presidential hopeful John Edwards as a champion of America’s hardscrabble and middle class. She does so with a net worth north of $3.7 million, according to the low end of her economic statements. She does so from a home she shares with her second husband, fellow Harvard Law School professor Bruce Mann (Ms. Warren kept the surname from her first marriage), in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that the real estate site Zillow estimates is worth four times the median price in that city.
But that affluent lifestyle, which ranks her among the top 15 percent in Congress by wealth, is nothing like the lavish homes and the many millions of dollars that swell the bank accounts of Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Pelosi.
“For many conservatives, Warren is the symbol of everything they don’t like: a Harvard professor who is to the left of Barack Obama,” said Ron Faucheux, a political analyst in Washington. “Her philosophy flies in the face of conservatives who want smaller government and fewer regulations. The combination of that plus the DNA matter has turned her into a rich target for Republicans.”
Certainly, Ms. Warren is rich in campaign funds. Across her brief political career, she has proved her fundraising muscle and an ability to attract millions of dollars in small donations that few of her peers can rival. After raising almost $35 million while running for re-election in a reliably blue state, Ms. Warren had $11 million in cash on hand at the end of last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Even with fundraising, however, elite colleges overshadow the everyday persona Ms. Warren would like to project. Small donations aside, her biggest donors are the left-wing ivory towers she climbed during her academic career, with Harvard and the University of California among her five biggest contributors. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Massachusetts and Stanford University are also among her top 10 contributors, the Center for Responsive Politics database shows.
By contrast, the biggest contributors to Ms. Gillibrand have been law firms and Ms. Warren’s favorite whipping boys: the firms of Wall Street. Ms. Harris, who spent a considerable chunk last year of the $21.5 million she raised, badly trails the other two in cash on hand with less than $2 million in November, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.