Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., did her best Wednesday to turn her biggest political liability into a rallying cry against President Donald Trump. And it’s difficult not to see it as a test run for a 2020 presidential campaign.
Warren’s first campaign for Senate in 2012 featured big questions about the legitimacy of her claim to Native American heritage, and she only made matters worse for herself by appearing to cover up - or at least obfuscate - the facts. The episode wasn’t a proud moment for the novice politician, even as she eventually defeated then-Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass.
Fast-forward to Wednesday, though, and the Massachusetts Democrat attempted to seize the political moment to fashion the issue into a cudgel to use against Trump. Speaking to a group of Native Americans, Warren owned her claim and used it to go straight at a president who has repeatedly called her “Pocahontas.” And in the context of the (hash)MeToo movement and Trump’s racial controversies, she may well have tapped into something that will resonate with today’s Democratic primary voters.
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The speech is well worth a read. It’s exceedingly well-crafted, no matter what you think of the content or her Native American heritage claims. It is quoted at length below:
“I’ve noticed that every time my name comes up, President Trump likes to talk about Pocahontas,” Warren said. “So I figured, let’s talk about Pocahontas. Not Pocahontas, the fictional character most Americans know from the movies, but Pocahontas, the Native woman who really lived, and whose real story has been passed down to so many of you through the generations. Pocahontas - whose original name wasn’t even Pocahontas.
“In the fairy tale, Pocahontas and John Smith meet and fall in love,” Warren continued. “Except Smith was nearly 30, and Pocahontas was about 10 years old. Whatever happened between them, it was no love story. In the fairy tale, Pocahontas saves John Smith from execution at the hands of her father. Except that was probably made up too. ...
“Indigenous people have been telling the story of Pocahontas - the real Pocahontas - for four centuries,” she said. “A story of heroism. And bravery. And pain. And, for almost as long, her story has been taken away by powerful people who twisted it to serve their own purposes.”
And finally, she brought it all home to Trump.
“Our country’s disrespect of Native people didn’t start with President Trump,” Warren said. “It started long before President Washington ever took office. But now we have a president who can’t make it through a ceremony honoring Native American war heroes without reducing Native history, Native culture, Native people to the butt of a joke. The joke, I guess, is supposed to be on me.”
She then went into her personal history in a way she never really did in 2012, recalling how her father’s family hadn’t approved of her mother’s relationship with him because she was part-Native American.
“They’re gone, but the love they shared, the struggles they endured, the family they built, and the story they lived will always be a part of me. And no one - not even the president of the United States - will ever take that part of me away,” Warren said.
The beginning of the 2020 Democratic primary campaign, practically speaking, is only about nine months away. It’s well-accepted that Warren would be a player in that process - if she wanted to be.
Before Wednesday, I wasn’t sure she wanted to be. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., sure looks like he’ll run again, and both occupy much of the same political real estate. She also hasn’t really demonstrated a desire to do the political (as opposed to policy) legwork to build a national brand.
It’s entirely possible Wednesday’s speech was merely an attempt to hit back at Trump over his long-running “jokes” at her expense. And maybe Warren just viewed the Native American community as needing defending.
But as a political document, this speech reads about as close to a campaign-launching address as anything I’ve seen from Warren - and a highly timely and topical one. While the Native American flap dragged her down in 2012, today she’s trying to turn it into a story of women and minorities overcoming the patriarchy. The lies that were told about Pocahontas are suddenly the lies that have been told about Warren. When Warren says Pocahontas’ “story has been taken away by powerful people who twisted it to serve their own purposes,” she might as well be talking about herself. And to be clear, the speech conspicuously brought it all back to the person delivering the remarks, rather than to Pocahontas or even to Trump.
Warren seems to see in her own political stumbles a chance to use them to become Trump’s foil - the anti-Trump of the 2020 Democratic primary field. If Trump is going to keep calling her “Pocahontas,” she might as well have a good comeback.
Wednesday’s speech was a very good comeback - for use in a 2020 Democratic primary.