Elizabeth Warren has a credibility problem. Not because—as President Trump never seems to tire of mocking her for—she claimed to be Native American when she is not. Nor because her response to that mockery was a disastrously misguided DNA reveal and an apology tour that came off as more desperate than sincere.
It’s because there are a growing number of examples of her deliberately evading direct questions about the consequences of her own proposed policies; misleading and at times contradictory statements about her life history beyond the Native American incidents; and the promulgation of outright falsehoods that might be normal for a politician, but are difficult to reconcile with Warren’s claims to want to bring an honest “outsider’s” perspective to the Oval Office. If Warren wants to run as an alternative to the chaos agent known as Trump, she’s going to have work on her credibility.
Consider her claim on the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown and the ensuring riots in Ferguson, Missouri, that Brown was “murdered by a white police officer.” This is a lie, and Elizabeth Warren knows it. President Obama’s Justice Department conducted a thorough investigation into Brown’s death and determined that the white police officer, Darren Wilson, acted justifiably in self-defense. Even the Washington Post, which has been fan-girling Warren ever since she announced her candidacy, couldn’t overlook her egregious statement; the paper’s fact-checking reporter gave her four Pinnochios for the claim.
She has also been evasive about the likely consequences of many of her proposed policies. When Stephen Colbert quizzed Warren on the “Late Show” about the likelihood of a middle-class tax increase as the result of her Medicare for All proposal, for example, she initially hedged and then doggedly refused to give Colbert a direct answer (he eventually suggested she just admit there would be tax increases and embrace them as a necessary evil).
Warren has also pivoted away from many of the mainstream proposals she used to champion and toward more progressive orthodoxy. As David Brooks observed in the New York Times, Warren used to be “a completely heterodox thinker, who deviated from the liberal mainstream with abandon” on policies such as school vouchers and taxpayer-funded daycare programs. No longer. Brooks describes the new introduction Warren wrote in 2016 for her 2003 book, The Two-Income Trap, as little more than “paint-by-numbers progressive boilerplate.” The original book “described a complex world in which people navigate trade-offs and unintended consequences often happen. The new introduction describes a comic book world, in which everything bad can be blamed on greedy bankers.”
Greedy bankers whom Warren was happy to ask for donations before she turned into a candidate claiming to be running a “100 percent grassroots-funded campaign,” that is. Warren’s frequent attacks on Wall Street and big-money donors are the words of either an amnesiac or an accomplished liar. As the New York Times found when it looked into Warren’s past fundraising activities, she was happy to take large sums of money from mega-donors (feathering her campaign nest to the tune of more than $10 million) before pivoting and claiming the campaign finance high ground by eschewing them. Former Governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell, who had helped bring in many of those large donations for Warren, said it best when he told the Times, “Can you spell hypocrite?”
And then there’s Warren’s frequent claim to have loved being a public-school teacher. As a writer for the Bernie Sanders-supporting publication the Jacobin notes, at the very least this is a deliberate exaggeration. Warren worked as a teacher for special-needs students for one year. Then, according to a 2007 interview she gave at the University of California, Berkeley, she took a few graduate courses in education and decided, “I don’t think this is going to work out for me. I was pregnant with my first baby so I had a baby and stayed home for a couple of years.” She then went to law school and became a law professor.
However that’s not the story she is telling on the campaign trail now. As the UK Independent reported, as a presidential candidate, Warren now says of her former teaching job: “I loved it, and I would probably still be doing it today but back in the day, before unions, the principal, by the time we got to the end of the first year, I was visibly pregnant.” She goes on: “And the principal did what principals did in those days: they wished you luck, showed you the door, and hired someone else for the job. And there went my dream.”
She has since repeated this misleading story many times. As Jeryl Bier reports, she spun a similar tale while talking to students at Laney College in Oakland, California, last year, and again during the Democratic presidential primary debate in September. Warren clearly expects her audiences to assume that she was the victim of discriminatory policies because she was pregnant and also because she didn’t have access to membership in a teacher’s union. She trots out the big bad male principal to drive home her message that she will fight for women in the workplace.
All of this could be categorized as normal (albeit venal) behavior by a politician seeking the highest office in the land. But it’s particularly bad for the Warren brand. Her angle (in addition to burying the public in a blizzard of policy proposals) is to be the principled defender of a beleaguered public; a virtuous outsider’s insider who can take on big corporations and Trump and never fall prey to the corrupting influence of power.
It’s a good strategy. Warren does sanctimonious zeal far better than Hillary Clinton ever did, and if Bernie Sanders’s campaign ends up collapsing after his recent health scare, she will likely pick up some of his voters to add to her coalition. As well, for now the political press continues to downplay negative stories about Warren in favor of fawning profiles of her husband and dog.
Credibility and a steady hand are what both Warren and Joe Biden have been promoting as a necessary and appealing antidote to Trump. But unlike Biden, Elizabeth Warren has doubled-down on progressive orthodoxy. If she wins the nomination, questions of credibility will have to come to the fore. Particularly as Warren moves further and further to the left, people have to trust what she is saying since what she is proposing as progressive policy and governing strategy isn’t what most Americans want.