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Warren Controversy Fades, But What's Her Strategy?

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Elizabeth Warren (AP)

In recent weeks we’ve seen controversial stories about our famous local candidates — Mitt Romney bullying fellow students in his prep school days, and Elizabeth Warren claim to be 1/32 Cherokee according to “family lore.”

Partisans often feel such personal stories are overblown when it’s their candidate exposed, yet when it is a story about a candidate they oppose, they find it important and revealing. Both the Romney story and Warren story seem to be fading away. But those who oppose the candidates will likely keep the stories alive, at least through antisocial social media.

The significance of the Warren story is that it raised as many questions about her Senate campaign as about her personally.

A Problem With The Candidate… Or Campaign?

When the Boston Herald broke the story about Warren, she handled it ineptly, day after day. Her sound-bites became punch lines on talk radio and in ordinary conversation. She said proof of her being part Native American was having “high cheek bones,” and she said she claimed 1/32 minority status in the hope she could socialize with others like her.

Her preposterous answers turned a two-day story into a two-week story. The question became: Did her campaign staff fail to ask her about it in preparing for possible criticism? Did they know about it, but not prepare an answer to minimize the predictable controversy?

Or was it the candidate who failed to disclose to the staff that UPenn and Harvard cited her in claiming to have faculty diversity — despite her not having any documents to prove Native American ancestry?

And once the story exploded, was she so out-of-touch with how voters would view such a claim that she thought she could get away with saying – as recently as Monday — that “I’m proud of my Native American heritage?”

Can Warren Defend Her Claims In Debate?

Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi was unusually blunt in judging Warren’s claims:

The truth is something she probably prefers not to confront. Harvard doesn’t come calling just because you’re a smart lawyer and a terrific teacher — not with Warren’s modest, Oklahoma upbringing and non-Ivy League education. She is not your typical Harvard professor. At a certain point, when the law school was under pressure to promote diversity, she represented a three-fer: a great lawyer with a national profile, a woman, and a minority, at least by virtue of family lore.

Diversity is a desirable goal, and it benefits an organization as much as it does applicants who are at a disadvantage because they don’t have connections or get full consideration. But if Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Warren consider a “family lore” claim of 1/32 Native American ancestry to be sufficient for minority status, doesn’t that erode the credibility of diversity programs that are honest and successful?

It’s hard to imagine how Warren can explain her ancestry claim in a debate without reviving the controversy and mockery.

Will There Be A Campaign Shakeup?

Vennochi reported strong “strategy disagreements” between Warren’s local campaign consultant, Doug Rubin, and a Washington-based adviser, Mandy Grunwald. Surely the staff of the national Democratic Party committees must be concerned that Warren’s candidacy increasingly seems like that of Martha Coakley, the Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against Scott Brown in the special Senate election.

Warren’s consultant was not Coakley’s consultant. In fact, Rubin ran a Democrat against Coakley in that Senate primary, Steve Pagliuca. He came in fourth out of four.

The question in national Democratic circles is probably not whether the Warren campaign needs a new strategy, but rather: do they even have one?

What Is The Warren Strategy?

Apparently the Warren strategy is to grab President Obama’s coattails — and don’t let go. Their latest TV spot features Obama praising Warren for her rise from being a “janitor’s daughter.” (Doesn’t that sound a bit elitist; implying it’s demeaning being a custodian?)

But is grab-the-coattails just a stopgap strategy — meant to change the subject so Warren is not on defense? Or is that the message for the next six months, that Warren is Obama’s choice for Massachusetts? If so, what about Tip O’Neill’s adage, “All politics is local”? Brown would be happy to be perceived as the local guy concerned with local issues, opposed by the D.C. establishment.

Warren is popular with liberals throughout the country, and when she first announced her candidacy for the Senate, she raised a lot of expectations. Many supporters felt that they finally had the inspirational kind of candidate they found in Obama in 2008. But now her campaign has reversed course. Their strategy seems to be: lower expectations, and keep the candidate low-profile.

For an outspoken consumer advocate, it seems surprisingly like old, political packaging.

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