I thought about all this while watching MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Tuesday. Two of the show’s guests were, shall we say, not happy with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), not at all. At issue was Warren’s recent fight with South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Warren went after Buttigieg for working for McKinsey in his 20s; in response, his campaign demanded she open up about her own corporate law clients. She’d already released a list of the corporate work she’d taken on since the 1980s earlier this year. On Sunday, she added what she’d been paid for it.
Warren’s transparency was not enough for the two contributors: former senator Claire McCaskill and former Howard Schultz and John McCain adviser Steve Schmidt.
“The problem Elizabeth has is she’s been so righteous, and so her attitude has been so, ‘I am morally superior because I am purer. I hate corporations,’” McCaskill said. Schmidt went for it, too. “She does seem to have a tremendous talent for self-righteousness and hypocrisy,” he said. “Over and over again, she has misrepresented herself.”
I’ve long argued that Warren needs to open up more about her political journey, how she moved from right-wing Republican to progressive populist who conceived the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It’s not enough to simply say she studied individuals in bankruptcy and slowly came to realize what she believed about how people behave around money was wrong. How do you go from representing corporations in court to claiming, “These giant corporations have too much power”?
Not elaborating on how this all came about makes it easy for opponents and their supporters to portray her as an opportunist. (Why anyone would believe the Sisyphean task of arguing for left-leaning politics in center-right America is a case of “acting opportunistically” is a mystery for another post.) The result? Anything can be made to fit the narrative by people who don’t like her agenda. There is no amount of evidence that will convince some that Warren did not benefit from embracing a very distant Native American ancestry. That she only recently began talking about how getting pregnant ended her nascent career as a schoolteacher can be twisted to mean she must be lying about it, even though other teachers from the district stepped forward to confirm this is how the school board handled such matters at the time.
Is some of this because Warren is a woman? Almost certainly. Other research shows women are judged more harshly for missteps in the workplace and are more likely to suffer negative consequences as a result. (The same is true for minorities.) Women need to prove their competence over and over again. Beyond that, it’s also true the left falls prey to the hypocrisy charge more than the right, likely because while one side is arguing for our current wealth-oriented status quo, progressives are arguing for a values change while still living in our capitalist world, something Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) discovered when he got caught out as a millionaire because he had the gall to write a best-selling book.
This isn’t going to go away. So let me make a suggestion: Warren should make the argument that she comes by her agenda honestly — that she’s been on the other side, she knows how they view the world, and she possesses the knowledge of how the sausage is made, as the cliche goes. Will it convince the punditocracy? I have my doubts. But that’s not the crowd Warren needs to bring over to her side. It’s likely to be persuasive to regular voters. We don’t need to read behavioral science to know this pitch has worked in the past. Donald Trump not only flaunted his wealth, he made his case the system was corrupt by openly boasted of using donations to get politicians to do his bidding and, when tackled about his dodgy taxes, admitted not paying them was “smart.” He’s in the White House now.