Yes, Elizabeth Warren is a politician. That's not a bad thing for her.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. (Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty)

Back in 2015, I sat down with President Obama, during a visit to Nike’s Oregon campus, to talk about the huge Asian trade pact he was trying to sell. But the thing that got all the talk-show teeth chattering had nothing to do with the deal itself.

It was what Obama said that day about Elizabeth Warren, who had become a vocal critic of the trade deal, that landed like a grenade. Some of Obama’s own allies on the Hill accused him of sexist bullying and called on him to apologize.

What crude and awful thing did Obama say?

“The truth of the matter,” he told me, “is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else.”

That was it. He called her by her first name, and he used that word.

It’s always been this way with Warren and the left. She runs around branding everyone else as venal or corrupt if they happen to take issue with her economic theories, but even the suggestion that she has ambitions of her own invites shrieks of indignation.

But of course, Obama was right. Warren, who entered the 2020 presidential race this week, is very much a politician — and an unusually good one at that.

Which is why she’s about to leave her buddy Bernie Sanders in the dust, and why she’s likely to have a profound impact on the race, win or lose.

Sanders looks in the mirror and sees a crusading purist, in the mold of Henry Wallace or Gene McCarthy. He fancies himself above crass calculation (even when you point out, as I did here, that he really isn’t).

One of my favorite campaign slogans is the one Jimmy Carter used against George Wallace in the 1976 primaries: “Don’t send them a message. Send them a president.” Sanders is a message in a suit. He seemed viable in 2016 mainly because he had the leftmost wing of the party almost entirely to himself.

But that’s not Warren. She’s not some messenger masquerading as a candidate. She’s a candidate who happens to have a message.

I’ve never been very sympathetic to Warren. I’m innately suspicious of class-based, us-versus-them narratives. I once referred to her as “Senator Stands-With-a-Fist,” which probably didn’t endear me.

So when I ran into Warren in a hallway in Philadelphia during the 2016 convention, I expected an icy reception. (In a similar situation a week earlier, in Cleveland, one Michael Cohen had come very close to outright threatening me if I kept up my barrage on Donald Trump.)

To the contrary, though, Warren couldn’t have been more gracious or more endearing. She admired my work! She couldn’t believe it had taken us this long to meet! She wanted me to come by her office soon so we could talk. I should call.

I did, a few weeks later. And a few weeks after that. Until it became clear that no one in Warren’s office had any intention of calling me back, let alone putting me on the schedule.

Then I saw that hallway encounter for what it was – a talented politician skillfully disarming a critic on whom she had no intention of wasting another second. I’d been played, and I had to admire it.

I tell that story only because it crystallizes what I’ve come to understand about Warren, watching her steep ascent in Washington.

Going back to her days as a Harvard law professor, when I’d read her polemics on the ruin of the middle-class, I’d thought of Warren the way she wanted us to think about her — as a brilliant academic who somehow stumbled into politics.

In fact, the reverse is true. Warren in a natural-born political operator, and that had probably something to do with her rise to the pinnacle of academia, too. Next to the brutality of university politics, after all, Washington looks like the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

That’s the real significance of this business about her checking the box for Native American ancestry on her Harvard faculty application. Whether or not she’s 1/164th Cherokee or whatever is completely beside the point.

Warren checked that box because she knew it would be help her get ahead, and she unchecked it later because she didn’t need the advantage anymore. She was doing what she had to do.

Just like later, when Warren became an influential voice on economic inequality. Plenty of economists had been droning on about the mathematical reality of the situation, but it was Warren who figured out how to sell it to liberal lawmakers, and how to position herself in the burgeoning debate.

Warren’s signature argument, that the entire middle class was vanishing before our eyes, was always a little too facile, ignoring complexities like the pivotal difference a college education seemed to make, or vastly overstating the correlation between medical expenses and bankruptcies.

But it got her where she needed to go. It created a political brand.

And unlike Sanders, Warren can be nuanced and adaptable with that brand. Several months ago, she declared herself a devout capitalist. (It’s hard to believe we’ve reached a point in Democratic politics where that’s actually seen as controversial, but we have.)

Later, she released that slick mini-documentary about her Native American DNA test, which was apparently meant to neutralize the controversy with voters who hadn’t made up their minds about her. Then she made a point of speaking out on race to a largely black audience.

What all of this tells me is that Warren sees the situation clearly. She knows she comes to this race with a built-in base of liberal voters, and she’s already focused on broadening that support, for the primaries and beyond.

The question I have about Warren is whether she can be as adaptable a thinker as she is a tactician. This back-to-the-future shtick works well on both sides of the ideological divide. In Trump’s case it’s nostalgia for the Eisenhower era; for Warren, it’s more about returning to the expansionist mindset of the New Deal.

But we know where an election like that ends. Somebody’s nostalgia gets 49 percent, and somebody else’s gets 48, and the country goes on warring with itself and rethinking nothing.

What Democrats could use — what all of us could use, really — is a candidate who can channel all of that populist rage into an agenda that looks more forward than back, even if that means facing some hard truths about the time-worn orthodoxies of the last century.

Warren is a born politician, deft enough to evolve in her worldview without squandering her iconic status on the left.

As Obama flatly said, that’s the stone cold truth about her, and also what makes her intriguing.

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