Sometimes, little things cause big political problems.
It was the beginning of the end for Indiana Republican Senator Dick Lugar when he admitted he did not have a home in the state he represents. The six-term senator lost a GOP primary after Indiana voters decided that he was too out of touch with the state.
In Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren is fighting another version of the “out of touch” charge. For nearly two weeks, Warren struggled to shift the spotlight from her faint Cherokee bloodlines to the voting record of her Republican rival, Senator Scott Brown. As the “Roots” story dragged on, it helped Brown flesh out the negative picture he hopes to draw: Warren, the liberal elitist, whose self-listing as a minority lawyer turns her into an object of white middle-class contempt.
At a Warren campaign event in Melrose on Tuesday night, “silly” was the word used most often to describe the flap over the candidate’s ancestry. “It’s not important. It’s not what she stands for,” said Marie Sinclair, 70, an independent voter, who connects with Warren’s economic message. But Sinclair is still concerned about how Warren handled the controversy.
“She’s not strong enough in response,” she said. “She has to come out with something definitive.”
Explanations for Warren’s weak rebuttal range from candidate inexperience to campaign dysfunction, including strategy disagreements between advisers Mandy Grunwald and Doug Rubin.
Warren is switching to the only strategy left: avoidance. But at least she is finally counter-punching. Brown provided an easy target when he voted with fellow Republicans to derail a Democratic bill designed to keep interest rates from doubling on college loans. “The middle class has been hammered … Today, Scott Brown voted to hammer them even harder,” said Warren, as she left the Melrose restaurant, where she worked a receptive crowd and took off her jacket for a short stint behind the bar. Given his voting record, “no wonder” Brown wants to talk about her minority status as a Harvard Law School professor, she added.
Asked if she is concerned that Brown successfully defined her in a negative way that sticks, she answered succinctly: “Nope.” Asked if the minority status Harvard bestowed upon her says anything about Harvard, she insisted it only says something about Brown, and his desire to duck the real issues.
It’s true that all the focus on Warren deflects attention from her rival’s vulnerabilities. Brown’s strength is his perceived “regular guy” image. Yet, his tax returns show a millionaire, who grew richer upon election to the Senate. Thanks to the national health care reform law that he wants to repeal, Brown’s daughter has health insurance coverage that he would deny to other families. He has also raised more money from New York City than anywhere else, and the Warren campaign is starting to tie his Wall Street fundraising to his votes.
The latest polling shows the two are tied, despite the controversy; so she lives to redefine her opponent as anything but a regular guy. Of course, she’s not exactly a regular gal. She’s rich, too, and Hollywood loves her a little too much.
It’s also true that the flap about lineage says something about Warren and a lot about Harvard, and the message makes people uncomfortable. Her explanation for why she claimed minority status due to what supposedly amounts to 1/32nd Cherokee lineage is embarrassing. She said she checked herself off as a minority professor for a legal-directory listing because she hoped to meet “others like me.”
The truth is something she probably prefers not to confront. Harvard doesn’t come calling just because you’re a smart lawyer and a terrific teacher — not with Warren’s modest, Oklahoma upbringing and non-Ivy League education.
She is not your typical Harvard professor. At a certain point, when the law school was under pressure to promote diversity, she represented a three-fer: a great lawyer with a national profile, a woman, and a minority, at least by virtue of family lore.
At the time, no one was thinking how it would play on any political stage. And certainly, no one could predict it as the little thing that could cause big problems in a high-stakes Senate race.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.