WASHINGTON — Depending on what you read, Elizabeth Warren “stumbled,” is facing a “backlash,” created a “fiasco,” or even “started a whole new controversy” this week when she released the results from a DNA test showing strong evidence she has a very distant Native American relative.
You’d think her widely presumed 2020 Democratic presidential primary campaign was basically over before she even launched it.
But those who are writing off Warren’s gambit might keep this in mind: Her aim this week was not to show she had any claim to join a tribe. Her plan is to take out the trash, or, for the Monty Python fans, “bring out your dead.”
“The whole thing of this is you figure out your assets. You figure out your liabilities,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who has advised presidential candidates from Jimmy Carter to Bernie Sanders. “If there’s anything out there, you get it out, and then you move on.”
Thus, the point of Warren’s exercise was to deal with the complications that have arisen from claiming in the past that she was Native American, and, after that, her longstanding insistence that she has Native American ancestry despite the lack of documentary evidence.
The DNA test showed there was evidence of a Native American in her family 6 to 10 generations ago. The results support the notion, which was first raised in her 2012 campaign via a Warren family newsletter, that her great-great-great-grandmother O.C. Sarah Smith was partly Native American.
Making nuanced arguments isn’t easy against the likes of President Trump, who relishes labeling his opponents with a simple phrase that forces the rival onto Trump’s turf. It would be like “low-energy” Jeb Bush showing spunk, or Li’l Marco being big, or Lyin’ Ted telling the truth. This is hard territory to navigate.
And in Warren’s case, it’s even more complicated. It’s “Pocahontas” denying she’s a “Fake Indian” — which is how Trump and his allies describe her — because she really did have a Native American forebear a very, very, very long time ago.
So the real question around the effect of her DNA tests is this: Did she take out the trash? Or just dump it on the front lawn?
The secretary of state of the Cherokee Nation, Chuck Hoskin Jr., issued a blistering statement opposing her move to take the test, saying it made a “mockery” of DNA tests and “dishonored legitimate tribal governments.”
Nicky Michael, a member of the seven-person Delaware Tribal Council, said in an interview with the Globe that she feels the Delaware are stuck in the middle of a fight between two political giants.
“Our indigenous identities, hence people, are being used as a football for powerful people making decisions about us, without our voices and instead using an appropriation of our identity,” Michael said.
But the Eastern Band of Cherokee was more forgiving. “Senator Warren has not tried to appropriate Cherokee or Delaware ancestry,” Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Richard Sneed said in a statement. “She demonstrates respect for tribal sovereignty by acknowledging that tribes determine citizenship and respecting the difference between citizenship and ancestry.”
Warren has formally claimed to be Native American on at least three points in her career. She listed herself as a minority in the Association of American Law Schools legal directory from 1986 to 1995. She had her ethnicity changed from white to Native American at the University of Pennsylvania in December 1989, about two years after she started teaching. And she agreed to be listed as Native American at Harvard, but only four months after she started her tenured job (and more than two years after securing the position).
A Globe review earlier this year showed that she never gained an advantage in her academic career based on those claims. Yet a DNA test proving distant ancestry hardly supports Warren calling herself Native American in any context, observers say.
That downside to the test might be worth the price of being transparent, as Warren now claims. Trump wasn’t the only one calling on Warren to take a DNA test. That pressure has also come from the left, with a “Pod Save America” host pressing her to take a DNA test earlier this year.
“I recognize that it is unfair that you have to deal with this Pocahontas allegation, but you seem to get asked about it over and over again,” said Jon Lovett, a former speech writer for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, in an interview that aired in March.
“I would like to live in [a] world where a year from now, you’re not talking about it at all,” Lovett added. “So why not, even though it’s bull[expletive], get some sort of a test, get some sort of a way to dispense with it once and for all, even if it’s conceding in this one instance to Trump’s bullying because then it allows you to focus on the issues so that you don’t have to deal with it anymore?”
She also was asked about it by Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press.” “What’s wrong with knowing?” Todd asked Warren in March.
Warren, who was set Friday to have the first in a series of three debates with her Republican Senate opponent, Geoff Diehl, could safely assume that the DNA issue would be raised in that forum.
But Warren’s strategy was as much about the expected 2020 bid as it was about her 2018 reelection campaign. Did taking the test really accomplish what she set out to do?
“It’s too early to tell,” offered Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist. “I don’t think this is going to make it go away. You’re already seeing signs that it’s going to lead to more ridicule from Trump.”
Trippi acknowledged that the timing could be much worse. If Warren were forced to disclose a test like this in the maw of a crowded Democratic nominating primary for president, the consequences would be more significant.
“It’s better this year than next year,” Trippi opined. “And it would have been better last year than this year.”
Some top Democrats have slammed Warren for releasing the results weeks ahead of the midterm elections, when the party is hoping to take control of the House and possibly the Senate.
But Trippi, who was a top consultant on the winning Doug Jones Senate race in Alabama last year, said he thinks the attention to the insults that Trump has directed toward Warren might be helpful for Democrats — if there’s any effect at all.
During the Jones campaign, he said, the campaign was always hunting for Republican women who were undecided. That hunting got easier when Trump made misogynistic comments.
“They were exhausted by him and didn’t like his attack on other women,” Trippi said.
Another concern for Warren was the possibility that a particularly aggressive GOP operative might surreptitiously try to take some of her DNA and have it tested — and thereby force her to release her own test.
If this seems too crazy, Boston talk radio host Howie Carr revealed that in 2012 he tried to obtain some of Warren’s genetic material by swiping a pen cap that she had removed with her teeth at a campaign stop in Worcester.
“I sent the pen off to the DNA company, but alas, there wasn’t enough saliva for a test,” Carr wrote in March.
He promised to persist. “I have a backup plan to get a sample of her DNA, but it will involve some sneaky stuff,” Carr revealed.
Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.