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What Elizabeth Warren did wrong

at 12:08 PM ET, 05/31/2012

Elizabeth Warren’s acknowledgment Wednesday night that she had formally informed both Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania that she was a Native American seemingly contradicts a month of the Massachusetts Democrat’s assertions on the matter and represents a major misstep for the nationally touted candidate.


Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, right, takes questions from members of the media as Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick, left, looks on during an event at Warren's campaigns headquarters, in Somerville, Mass., Wednesday, May 30, 2012, during which Patrick formally endorsed Warren in her campaign for the Senate seat. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
“At some point after I was hired by them, I ... provided that information to the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard,” Warren said in a statement to the Boston Globe.

But, when the Boston Herald first reported on the fact that Warren was listed as a Native American in a faculty directory, she said that she had no previous knowledge of that fact and had not authorized Harvard to list her as a minority. Warren’s campaign has said she forgot some details of her past employment as a way to explain the discrepancy in her statements.

And, it’s clear from the Globe story that Warren’s hand was forced by the fact that the newspaper had found proof that, in their words, “the university’s law school began reporting a Native American female professor in federal statistics for the 1992-93 school year, the first year Warren worked at Harvard, as a visiting professor.”

While the Warren campaign will insist that she is being consistent — that she has always said that she never told Harvard or Penn about her heritage before being hired or that it benefited her in any way — the optics of this back and forth are just terrible for her.

This could — and should — have been a minor nuisance for the campaign. No one is alleging that Warren used her minority status to get her jobs and it’s hard to imagine that in a campaign where the economy, jobs and debt are the overriding issues that whether Warren is Native American or not matters at all to voters.

But, Warren has turned a minor nuisance into a major storyline by not simply coming out with everything she knew — up to and including that she had formally told Harvard and Penn of her Native American heritage — about the whole episode right from the start.

“In Politics 101 you learn to get it all out and apologize on day one,” said one senior Democratic consultant who marveled at how the Warren campaign dealt with this episode. “‘Yep, I did it and I’m sorry.’ This has been handled amateurishly.”

By dragging out the story — the first Herald piece on it ran April 27! — Warren has turned it into, at the least, a distraction and, at the most, an issue to be used against her this fall.

Republicans — including Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) — have been agitating for Warren to come clean on the story and now can say that they were right all along. They can can also use Warren’s obfuscation — whether purposeful or accidental — to cast her as exactly what she doesn’t want to be: a politician. Whether or not Warren meant to keep key tidbits of information away from public view, it can certainly be portrayed as though she did — and that she did so for political reasons. And that’s not good.

The last month speaks to the perils of being a first-time candidate in what is, without question, the marquee Senate race of the 2012 election. Warren has spent considerable time in the national spotlight — she headed up the Congressional hearings surrounding the spending of the funds in the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and then helped found the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — but never as a candidate for elected office. It’s different — and harder.

To be clear: Warren’s mishandling of this story won’t cost her the election. (Most polling in the race between Warren and Brown shows it tied or close to it.) But it has clearly sidetracked the momentum she was building thanks to her massive fundraising in the early days of her campaign. And, it’s revealed — for the billionth time — that running for office is a heck of a lot harder than it looks.

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