Why Criticize Warren?

If we’re going to decide wisely, we need to be honest about candidates’ records…

I recently wrote an article criticizing Elizabeth Warren, and some people told me they wished I hadn’t. After all, if (as I admit) Warren is the second-best primary candidate after Bernie Sanders, why spend time “attacking” her? The progressive wing of the Democratic party ultimately needs to unify, so why tear down a candidate who shares the majority of Sanders’ policy proposals? At the most recent debate, Elizabeth Warren spent her time defending left-ish policies against attacks by centrist opponents. I’ll admit, when I watch Pete Buttigieg smirkingly tell Warren that she is being “evasive” on paying for Medicare for All, and he knows full well that he and Joe Biden are the ones trying to bamboozle the public into falsely believing they’d spend more money under a single-payer healthcare system—well, my instinct is to leap in and defend her. 

But this is a primary, and in a primary you have to ruthlessly scrutinize the candidates, because if you choose wrongly, you will either (1) doom yourself in the general election or (2) succeed in the general election but then bring about a failure of a presidency that dooms you in future elections. If candidates have serious flaws, then, if there is good reason to believe that they would be a disaster against Trump or that their presidency could not succeed, it is critical to get these facts out now so that we don’t all make a horrible mistake that will harm the cause of progressivism.

My own criticisms of Elizabeth Warren are of exactly these kinds: I am doubtful that she would beat Donald Trump, and I believe that even if she did beat Donald Trump, she would not aggressively pursue the kind of policies that I believe are urgently needed in order to ensure that our most serious social problems are solved. As I see a Warren presidency unfolding in my mind’s eye, it is something of a disappointing mess in which the entire left agenda is watered down beyond recognition, the left becomes demoralized and disillusioned, the right seizes an opportunity and Democrats lose seats around the country, leading to ever-worsening inequality and destructive climate change. We are at a perilous moment, and we have to choose wisely, which means thinking about what a future with each of these candidates would look like. This is not some kind of needless internecine purity politics. It’s an essential part of defeating Trump and making the world better.

The conventional wisdom for why Warren makes sense as a candidate, and why she has become the frontrunner, is that she offers the best compromise between liberalism and leftism: She has the fighting spirit and bold agenda of Bernie Sanders, but is a pragmatist rather than a radical socialist. But I think the conventional wisdom is mistaken. If we imagine what Warren would be like as a general election candidate against Trump, I think it’s very clear that she would be weaker than Sanders in ways that should trouble us.

What will the right’s main line of attack against Warren be? I think you can see it already, actually: They will attempt to portray her as inauthentic and untrustworthy. She will be painted as a Harvard egghead who has suddenly discovered populism for self-serving reasons, a slippery elite who isn’t telling you the truth about her agenda. 

As I wrote back in 2016, Democrats have a tendency to underestimate how formidable Trump is as a political opponent; you don’t crush two party establishments without some skill, and Trump is very good at sniffing out his enemies’ weak spots and exploiting them. This means that, when going up against Donald Trump, you will be in a bad position if you have an obvious vulnerability that will be hard to defend. Hillary Clinton, for instance, struggled because she had an indefensible record, meaning that when she tried to criticize Trump for his (many, many) negative qualities, he simply pointed out that she was an untrustworthy warmonger who did the bidding of Wall Street. What you really don’t want, then, is to have your ability to attack Trump undermined by the fact that his criticisms of you are also legitimate, or at least plausible. 

What worries me about Elizabeth Warren is that the criticisms of her as untrustworthy are not easy to wave away. Warren began her 2020 campaign with a video claiming to be a Native American, even though she isn’t one. She has now tried to bury the evidence that she did this, by deleting the video and all accompanying social media posts. I know people may roll their eyes at my bringing up “the Native stuff”—after all, many people think this is trivial, that she just genuinely thought she had some Native ancestry for a while, but it turned out she didn’t. It matters, though, because it is going to form the foundation of the central critical narrative about Warren: that she is a phony who will not be honest with you about who she is and will say whatever sounds good.

Let me just recap once again the facts of this story: Warren said for many years that she was a woman of color, listing her race as “American Indian” on government forms. Because she said she was a woman of color, Harvard was able to pretend that it had a woman of color on the law school faculty, at a time when it was embroiled in a scandal for not hiring any non-white women. Warren, when confronted about this, has tried to change the subject, by insisting that she was hired for her merit rather than for her fraudulent racial claims. (We will leave aside the ugly way that this defense implies affirmative action hires are not merit-based.) She has never held herself accountable for the actual problem, which is that she helped Harvard legitimize not hiring non-white people, because they were able to claim that they already had an American Indian on staff. 

The fact that Warren did not begin her campaign by disowning this, but by doubling down on it through claiming that she had Native DNA, shows horrible political instincts, since Trump immediately, effectively (and, let’s be honest, hilariously) mocked her for it. But the main reason it is important is because, when we begin to hear the drumbeat about Elizabeth Warren’s dishonesty and untrustworthiness, it will be the first thing critics note, and they will have a point. It is one thing if, when you’re young, you believe family stories about nameless Native ancestors way back. It is another thing to, as Warren appears to have done, plagiarize recipes from a French chef in the New York Times and pass them off as your authentic “Cherokee” dishes. Or to provide “evidence” for your claim to be a minority in the form of racist nonsense like the DNA test and the fact that your grandfather had “high cheekbones like all the Indians do”—and then delete the evidence when it is criticized. I am sure Warren supporters are tired of hearing about this—let’s talk about the Shrinking Middle Class instead! But character issues matter in elections, and having a decades-long part of your past (lasting up until the launch of your campaign) in which you fraudulently passed yourself off as an American Indian is a huge character problem. If I had been calling myself Black until now (because my parents had told me I had proud African ancestry), and the school I had worked for said it had a Black professor because I had worked there, and I then declared my candidacy for Congress with a video showing I had a distant Black ancestor, I bet it would be all anybody ever talked about, and quite rightly so, because that is a bizarre thing to do that should cast doubt on my integrity. (Imagine for a moment if Bernie Sanders had spent most of his life claiming to be Black and a white institution had claimed him as its Black member. Imagine if he said he knew he was Black because of the shape of his grandfather’s nose. Do we believe this would be a non-issue? Would it be dismissed as irrelevant?) 

I say that the “Native stuff” will form the foundation of the character criticism of Warren, however, because there is more. Let us take the central part of Warren’s substantive pitch. We know that she is pretty rotten on foreign policy (which is the most powerful part of a president’s job), but the argument in her favor is that she is a strong champion of workers and consumers. Now, the one thing that would expose a consumer champion to harsh criticism, that would perhaps make it seem like they were not in fact what they said they were, is if they had pretended to be working for consumers while in fact working for giant corporations. 

I don’t know if you’ve looked into Elizabeth Warren’s corporate consulting background before, but it’s not good. A Washington Post report suggested that it had received “little scrutiny” and that when fully exposed it could “offer her opponents fresh avenues for attack.” Warren, it said, had worked on far more corporate cases than she initially disclosed, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars on the side advising (among others) chemical companies, oil companies, banks, and insurers on how to navigate bankruptcy proceedings. In one case, Warren argued that an aircraft manufacturer should be shielded from liability for a deadly accident that killed a NASCAR star. (I can already see the attack ads now, featuring the deceased driver’s family, talking about how Elizabeth Warren says she is for the people but tried to keep them from getting compensation. Trump will probably have the driver’s widow in the audience at the debates.)

The Washington Post homed in on one particular case, in which Warren worked on behalf of Dow Chemical:

One of her most controversial clients was Dow Chemical, which she advised in the mid-1990s. A subsidiary that manufactured silicone-gel breast implants faced hundreds of thousands of claims from women who said their implants caused health problems. Dow Chemical denied that it played a role in designing or making the implants and sought to avoid liability as its subsidiary, Dow Corning, declared bankruptcy.

Here is how Warren’s campaign explained her work for the company: 

“In this case, Elizabeth served as a consultant to ensure adequate compensation for women who claimed injury from silicone breast implants who otherwise might not have received anything when Dow Corning filed for bankruptcy… Thanks in part to Elizabeth’s efforts, Dow Corning created a $2.35 billion fund to compensate women claiming injury from Dow Corning’s silicone breast implants.”

According to the Post reporters, though, this is simply a misrepresentation of her work:

But participants on both sides of the matter say that description mischaracterizes Warren’s work, in which she advised a company intent on limiting payments to the women.

“She was on the wrong side of the table,” said Sybil Goldrich, who co-founded a support group for women with implants and battled the companies for years. Goldrich said Dow Corning and its parent “used every trick in the book” to limit the size of payouts to women. The companies, she added, “were not easy to deal with at all.”

A person familiar with Warren’s role who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe litigation strategy said the future senator was part of a Dow defense team that had containing the company’s liability as a goal.

[…] The company has been resistant to making those payments, even though there is money remaining in the fund, said Ernest Hornsby, an Alabama-based attorney for plaintiffs.

He and others on both sides of the case said Warren’s expertise was used by a company fighting in court to limit its liability and payments to the women. “There weren’t any voices on Dow Corning’s side saying we should pay these woman as much as possible,” Hornsby said. “Nobody ever said, ‘Well, we have a law professor out of Massachusetts who says we ought to pay women more.’ ” Payments were estimated at $2,000 to $20,000 for women with ruptured implants, according to news reports at the time.

If the Post’s report is accurate, what Warren has done is quite outrageous. Not only did she accept giant fees ($600+ an hour) to represent a giant chemical company accused of making women sick (Warren later disputed evidence that the product made the women sick), but she then had the gall to pretend that she was actually the one fighting on behalf of the women instead of the company. One of the advocates for the women said the company used “every trick in the book” to avoid paying the women, and yet Warren said it was her efforts that got them a payout. This isn’t the only case in which Warren appears to have misrepresented what she did for the companies. (See this one involving sick asbestos workers, and these involving the liquidation of an electric cooperative and the jobs of workers at the aircraft manufacturer.) We might forgive someone who said that while they used to be a mercenary for corporations, they saw the light and changed side. It’s hard to forgive someone who still wants to pretend they were doing something other than what they were actually doing. (This is quite common among corporate lawyers, though. You’ll often see lawyers who claim to work on “civil rights and labor cases,” or who brag that they were “involved in an anti-discrimination settlement,” when actually they defend companies against discrimination claims and help them with union-busting. Warren pretending that because she was involved in a settlement in a product liability case, she was helping the victims, is a classic example.) 

I think this stuff is bad, because Warren’s chief appeal is that she is a crusading consumer protection scholar, and her chief weakness is that she may not be what she says she is. Here we have an example of the record being fudged. And it may not be the only one: The centerpiece of Warren’s pro-consumer record is her role in setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But when Warren was advising the establishment of that agency, she brought in people like Raj Date, an executive formerly of CapitalOne and DeutscheBank. Catherine West, former head of CapitalOne’s credit card business, was brought in, along with the chief counsel of Sprint. Warren appointed Sartaj Alag, another CapitalOne executive, as one of her personal advisers. Warren’s chief of staff in the CFPB period, Wally Adeyemo, immediately went to enrich himself as a BlackRock executive afterward. Warren appears to have seen the hiring of industry “big shots” as desirable rather than as a case of the fox being asked to guard the hen house. The kind of “revolving door” politics Warren deplores on the campaign trail is one that she herself may have been intimately involved with at the CFPB. 

Perhaps you agree with Warren, who praised the “vision and leadership” of the former CapitalOne executive she brought in to supposedly fight banks like CapitalOne. But from a pure “optics” perspective, I think she may find it difficult to explain to people who hate bankers why she felt the best people to regulate bankers were bankers. 

I have tried, so far, to avoid lapsing into the usual discussions of “Bernie Sanders versus Elizabeth Warren,” but here I should note that one reason I think Bernie Sanders is such a powerful potential candidate against Trump is that he doesn’t have these kind of messy problems of authenticity and honesty. The thing almost nobody denies about Bernie is that you know where he stands—even Nate Silver recently acknowledged that it’s almost impossible to tell whether any politician is authentic, with the exception of Bernie Sanders. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement speech for Bernie this afternoon contained a powerful message that I’ve been thinking about: She flipped the age issue on its head by saying that her whole life, Bernie was fighting for her. When she was 5, he was fighting to make sure she could go to the doctor on CHIP, when she was in college, he was fighting to keep her from having to spend her life in debt, etc. And I think that is a very beautiful summary of why so many of us find ourselves almost adoring Bernie—he has been standing almost alone, for decades, fighting for us. He’s been doing it since he was a teenager, and he will keep doing it until it kills him. He has a record, and we can trust him because of it.

But I also couldn’t help but think, listening to AOC, of what an implicit indictment of Elizabeth Warren that was, as well. Where was she in 1992? She was a registered Republican, training the children of the rich to go be mercenary lawyers for giant corporations, and sometimes serving as a lawyer to those corporations herself. (And of course, where was she when Bernie Sanders was standing with Standing Rock? Pretending to be a Native American.)  

Politicians are almost impossible to trust. Elizabeth Warren has adopted most of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 platform (albeit in vaguer and more watered down form), which makes it difficult to make strong policy arguments against her. After some of us criticized her for not having a labor policy, she came out with one. Now the criticism is neutralized. I do think there are worrying signs about the way she approaches policy—just look at this big wall of policies in one of her Iowa offices, where “climate change” is given the same status as “entrepreneur,” “economic patriotism,” and vague “big structural change.” (The wall almost seems like a prop from The West Wing, with things like “military housing” that seem like they’re just designed to sound like Important Issues You Stick On A Wall.) The Warren approach to policy, which combines radical ideas (e.g., codetermination) with means-tested half-measures, seems perfectly designed to allow the bold plans to be dropped the moment she takes office. If all plans are equal, then so long as she gets A Bunch Of Plans through, it doesn’t matter if they’re the ones that would radically readjust the balance of power in the economy (workers on corporate boards) or the ones that would do almost nothing (making every corporation agree to respect its “stakeholders”).

But as I say, Elizabeth Warren can quite easily come out with better policies when those of us on the left criticize her current ones, so I hesitate to lean too much on that. The real question is: Can we trust her to actually fight for what we need? And I think the answer there is “No, it seems pretty clear that we can’t.” Just listen to Harry Reid, who told David Axelrod essentially that he doesn’t believe Warren is serious about single-payer healthcare, that her private position is different than her public position. There’s a Senate colleague telling the left in no uncertain terms: Do not trust Elizabeth Warren. She is not on your side. She is pretending to be on your side, but when she gets into office she will suddenly become “pragmatic.” Like Obama. You might not believe Reid, but frankly, I do, and I won’t be the least bit surprised when Elizabeth Warren announces that a former CapitalOne executive is going to be heading up her Treasury Department. 

I think authenticity and truthfulness are going to be huge problems for Warren in a general election, and not just because she seems so uncomfortable when Having A Beer Like A Normal Person. She seemed evasive when discussing Medicare For All at the debate, and it’s not the first time she’s waffled on the issue. (Let’s just be honest: A vote for Warren is ultimately going to be a vote against single-payer.) You may have heard about this flap over Warren being fired for getting pregnant in the early 1970s. Frankly, I fully believe Warren against her vicious right-wing critics who say she wasn’t fired for being pregnant, but it’s notable that Warren’s argument is that she didn’t used to tell the truth, but tells the truth about it now. That wouldn’t be too much of an issue if she didn’t already have a credibility problem, but since she does, it’s frustrating that her own defense on the matter is “I was concealing facts before, but now I’m not.” I don’t think she’s done anything wrong here, but I do think that her slipperiness on other issues makes it harder on the ones where she’s in the right but that are easily spun. 

The champion of the oppressed who faked an oppressed identity, the champion of consumers who spent their life at Harvard training corporate lawyers and serving as high-priced corporate counsel, the regulator of bankers who brought the bankers into the regulatory agency, the policy scholar whose policy scholarship might be highly dubious, the critic of billionaires who seems to get a lot of donations from them, the critic of corruption who practices pork barrel politics for Raytheon—it’s just not the kind of candidacy I can see going well against Donald Trump, who will point all of this out and will delight in watching Warren struggle to respond.  

When Scott Brown ran against Elizabeth Warren, his main attack line was that she was “not what she says.” Warren won, but it’s worth noting that she did not win by much, considering that this was Massachusetts, a place so liberal that it was the only state in the country to vote for George McGovern. Ask yourself: If Warren barely won in Massachusetts, are we truly confident that she will win Florida and Ohio?

I am nervous about this, I am nervous about her CapitalOne presidency, and I simply do not see why anyone would want to take this kind of colossal risk, especially when you look at articles like this (Trump beats Biden and Warren in Iowa, loses to Sanders—remember, it doesn’t matter if you can beat Trump “overall” like Clinton did, but whether you can beat him in the swing states) or see charts like this

I don’t mean to go all Thatcherite on you, but it does seem to me from every available piece of evidence that there simply is no alternative. Which candidate do you think will be best at getting Trump-voting bartenders in rural Ohio to understand the common interests of the working class? The corporate law professor or the one who has been on picket lines since being a teenager? Who do you think will be able to win back the trust of a cynical electorate: The person who has grown old fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare, or the person who may or may not still think they are a Native American and whose Senate colleagues openly say will likely sell you out?

Let me finish by quoting the words Bernie Sanders ended his comeback speech with today. Personally, I think they will go down as some of the most important words said by a U.S. politician, with the historic status of JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you.” They are inspiring. They made me cry, and I’m not the only one that happened to. And let me ask you: Can you imagine any other candidate saying anything quite this powerful? Could any other candidate have quite this same effect on people? Could they truly convince us, to our very core, that they and we were all part of a world-historic project? Could they fill our spirits the way this kind of language does? Personally, I am tired of having elected officials you never quite know if you can trust, whose dreadful missteps you have to rationalize. I see Bernie as a once-in-a-lifetime chance for something truly different, and if I am critical of his opponents, it is because I do not want us to blow this kind of chance and have to settle for yet more years of disappointment, another presidency that we weakly try to pretend is succeeding in creating transformative change when we know it obviously isn’t. No more of that, please, and let’s not get behind a candidate who all but promises us that that frustration and half-measures are what she will deliver.

Here is what Bernie said to us:

I want you all to take a look around and find someone you don’t know, maybe somebody who doesn’t look kind of like you, who might be of a different religion, maybe who come from a different country… My question now to you, is are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself? Are you willing to stand together and fight for those people who are struggling economically in this country? Are you willing to fight for young people drowning in student debt, even if you are not? Are you willing to fight to ensure that every American has health care as a human right, even if you have good health care? Are you willing to fight for frightened immigrant neighbors, even if you are native born? Are you willing to fight for a future for generations of people who have not yet even been born, but are entitled to live on a planet that is healthy and habitable? Because if you are willing to do that, if you are willing to fight for a government of compassion and justice and decency, if you are willing to stand up to Trump’s desire to divide us up, if you are prepared to stand up to the greed and corruption of the corporate elite, if you and millions of others are prepared to do that, there is no doubt in my mind that not only will we win this election, but together we will transform this country. Thank you all very much. 

With this on offer, who could possibly choose anything else? How is there even a question? At last, we don’t need to settle. So why would we?

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