For the second time in less than three months, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., made major news at a bizarre time. In mid-October, when the country was focused on the midterm elections, Warren released a video on her Native American ancestry that failed in spectacular fashion. Monday, as America prepares to ring in 2019, Warren launched a 2020 presidential exploratory committee, also via video release. The verdict on her latest endeavor is still out, but there are red flags waving, and they all come back to the issue of timing.
By launching first, Warren gets ahead of the rest of the salivating pack of Democratic presidential hopefuls. In an ideal world, being first in would lead to a bounce from a cycle of flattering news coverage. But it’s New Year’s Eve, and most people are focused on anything but presidential politics. Plus, the early reviews from the press are far from flattering, littered with references to her unproven claims of Native American ancestry. In their write-up of Warren’s video, the Associated Press described her clean-up efforts as “widely panned,” while NPR noted that Cherokee Nation called her DNA testing “useless.”
Even in these fast-paced news cycles, the Native American issue has burned on organically for more than six years. None of her Democratic opponents have weaponized the scandal against her. If and when they decide to do so, they will cut at an issue near and dear to the hearts of progressives: did Warren abuse an affirmative action program she wasn’t entitled to by falsely claiming minority status?
So why go today? As former Obama communications director Anita Dunn told the Boston Globe, Warren “had what I think many people believe was a very rocky fall.” Standing still meant the risk of getting lumped in with all the other looming presidential announcements, and potentially never making it out of the starting gate.
Warren begins her journey in a position of weakness. Unlike 2016 when activists were begging her to run with DRAFT WARREN movements, the Massachusetts Senator feels like yesterday’s news. Polls indicate that Democrats are in the mood for a fresh face, with a survey from USA Today/Suffolk University last week showing voters "excited" about a potential candidate that is "someone new."
In 2016, Warren’s path to the nomination faced only the underwhelming Hillary Clinton and the socialist Bernie Sanders. Now, she’s staring up at a talented field of as many as 40 contenders. It includes the party’s brightest stars in Congress, and outsider candidates with unlimited financial resources like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg or San Francisco hedge fund manager Tom Steyer or even a wild card celebrity like Starbucks’ Howard Schultz or Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
To say Warren’s Democratic competition has improved over the last four years is an understatement. Plus, if she survives the primary, she will likely face President Trump at the other end. While his political standing has weakened, he is still a sitting president with the power of incumbency, and the proven ability to obliterate his opponents.
As for the content of Warren’s video, it too felt dated. Clocking in at four and a half minutes, it’s too long in this era of 280 characters and shortening attention spans.
It is rife with her usual angry riffs against billionaires, corporations and big banks – the same messages she propelled onto the national scene a decade ago as the self-described creator of the Occupy Wall street movement. But Bernie Sanders now owns the market on bashing “millionaires and billionaires.” Big tech companies have replaced big banks as liberals’ villains du jour. Two months ago, Democrats rode health care to win back the House of Representatives. Warren mentions it only once in her video, buried nearly halfway through. Health care is not an issue that comes as easily and naturally to Warren as bank bashing.
When Warren launched her 2012 Senate bid, she was written off by some. Just as it was wrong to write her off then, it would be wrong to dismiss her in 2020. She gave rise to the angry populist movement that fuels today’s liberal left. But times change. The movement grew up. It has new owners now. The moment for Warren’s presidential dreams came and went in 2016, and she missed her mark – a lesson she is about to learn the hard way.