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What Elizabeth Warren Can Learn From Julia Salazar

It’s very possible that Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts will be elected president in 2020. Her economic agenda has great appeal, and she is a passionate messenger and accomplished leader.

But if so, it will be despite Monday’s potentially calamitous early misstep: the unprecedented release of her DNA test results.

Warren was responding to repeated attacks from President Trump about her claim to be of Cherokee and Delaware descent. The attack was first raised by Warren’s 2012 Senate opponent Scott Brown, who accused her of claiming Native heritage to further her academic career.

Trump eagerly picked up on the attack, nicknaming Warren “Pocahontas” during his campaign in his classically cruel, race-baiting attack style. And like many of his nicknames, it packed a punch. The “Pocahontas” slur did double-duty, appealing to racists while also calling Warren a liar and hypocrite.

Trump’s attacks continued after he took office. He mocked her as recently as last week when he told a Kansas rally, “I’ve got more Indian blood in me than Pocahontas, and I have none.” (Horrifyingly, Trump had made similar remarks last November at an event to honor Navajo military veterans.)

No doubt in order to preempt such mockery in 2020, Warren released the results of a DNA test which found “strong evidence” of Native American ancestry going back six to 10 generations.

But the move was a huge mistake. For starters, Warren’s move managed to offend Native Americans and dismay progressives without neutralizing Donald Trump. And needless to say, Trump’s attacks will not quiet down. He’s already dismissed the DNA test with a “Who cares?” (and, predictably, reneged on his offer to give Warren $1 million if she could demonstrate Native American ancestry).

In other words, the move was politically inept. A key rule in politics is to force your opponent to play on your own field, not theirs. Warren will do best in 2020 if the discussion centers on the devastating economic inequality she fought valiantly in the Obama Administration and the Senate.

Trump, who loves income inequality, would of course prefer the conversation be about her ethnicity — which can’t possibly benefit her, no matter how it plays out. Warren just agreed to meet him on that field, in a way guaranteed to dominate the news.

And Trump naturally saw it as a sign of weakness. “I hope she’s running for president because I think she’d be very easy,” he said.

Releasing DNA results isn’t a good way to confront a president who won’t release his tax returns.

But it’s not just because it was ineffective that Warren’s gambit is likely to fail. Even as Warren dispels Trump’s hypocrisy charge, she has validated his appeal to racism. For in answering to the charge that she is lying about being of Native American descent, she has allowed that this is an acceptable line of questioning.

In other words, she has validated that dystopian focus, setting an appalling precedent.

Will other candidates now feel compelled to release their genetic makeup, satisfying no one but the intellectual heirs of German eugenicists?

It’s something President Obama knew well. Although Obama knew that releasing his Hawaii birth certificate would show the falsity of “birther” attacks by Trump and others, he resisted, knowing the dangers of conceding its relevance.

Eventually, when the issue dragged on and it seemed pointless to ignore it, he did make the document public in 2011. But it came at a cost: the episode was a harbinger of the dark place Trump planned to take the country, and a foreshadowing of his election.

Now, Warren’s response has taken us into uncharted territory, seemingly granting the legitimacy of the racial supremacists’ inquest.

Perhaps she thought she could silence Trump with the truth, an approach which has so far failed every time, despite an army of fact-checkers. Maybe she thought releasing the DNA test would show transparency, or win Native American support. Instead she faced an outcry from those like podcaster Jana Schmieding, who tweeted:

What Warren’s misstep exposed more than anything else is that there are two very distinct versions of identity politics in American political life today.

When the identity is that of a community, it refers to intersectional politics and — crucially — an emphasis on issues affecting historically marginalized communities. While there are a few writers and activists on the left who downplay such “identity concerns” and insist on an exclusive focus on class, most others agree that justice for people of color, women, and LGBTQ rights are essential to the progressive agenda.

But there’s another form that identity politics sometimes assumes: elite identity politics, which focuses on the identity of a particular candidate. It’s mainly those in the upper percentiles of influence who are deeply concerned with candidates’ personal histories and biographies. Elites look to politics for symbolic inspiration, while average voters tend instead to base their choices on what they believe a candidate will do on issues that affect them day to day.

The difference between these two types of identity politics is, in part, the distinction between Black Lives Matter, which is focused on ending systemic injustice, and the “I’m With Her” movement, which was about the elevation of one person — Hillary Clinton — to high office.

Ex-Hillary Clinton advisor Mark Penn, of all people, used polling data to demonstrate this concept, which he termed “impressionable elites,” in his 2007 book “Microtrends.” But in my own experience as a former political pollster, voters care what you’re going to do — for them — not who you are (the penchant for lavish and expensive biographical ads notwithstanding). Not every candidate is an Obama or a JFK; many manage to win high office despite the lack of an inspiring backstory or unique identity — because voters believed in their ability to bring about a better future.

Warren would have done well to learn from the example of a less experienced politician — Julia Salazar (my friend, to disclose), who ran for New York state Senate from a North Brooklyn district.

Salazar’s Jewish identity was aggressively challenged shortly before the September 13 Democratic primary in which she faced an eight-term incumbent, along with other parts of her background.

Although Salazar answered journalists pursuing the story, she refused to feed the media firestorm, insisting that her message to voters was about local issues like rent control, not her persona.

On Election Day, voters proved her right, ignoring the barrage of personal stories to elect the 27-year-old candidate (who runs unopposed in November) by 17 points.

It is not just Warren who should hope that the issue of her ancestry fades, though her action will probably have the opposite effect. All Democrats hoping to unseat Donald Trump will be better off if the election is about competing visions for the country’s future, not dueling spit tests.

Peter Feld is political director of The Insurrection, a digital strategy firm in New York, and a writer. His writing has appeared in the New York Observer, Gawker, Radar, Ad Age, and the New York Post.

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