Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Defending Elizabeth Warren (Sort Of)

I am no fan of Elizabeth Warren's politics. I have described her as a "partisan hack" and a "busybody... [who] is eerily comfortable using the coercive power of government to push the rest of us into making the kinds of choices she likes and punish those who disagree with her." I also think her claim of Native American identification is self-evidently ridiculous whatever her distant Cherokee or Delaware ancestry might be. It is clear that Elizabeth Warren made no effort to become involved with the activities of any American Indian tribe or organization, has never publicly discussed or described the importance of her alleged Native American heritage to her life or work (at least before the recent controversy erupted), and probably never really thought of herself as an actual member of an American Indian tribe.

For her part, Warren has now claimed that she made the claim to score an invitation to "luncheon."


Over the last few days, though, some conservative commentators have begun to claim that Warren used her American Indian "ancestry" to win a position at Harvard Law School that she did not really deserve.

Writing on The Washington Examiner's website, Paul Bedard claims:
Embattled Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren graduated from the lowest ranked law school of all Harvard Law School professors--and nearly all Ivy League law professors--shedding further light on the importance her claim to be Native American was to advancing her career. A

After Harvard hired the aspiring law professor, they noted that she was the first-ever minority woman due to her 1/32nd Cherokee lineage. The claim, not something she has ever touted publicly before, surfaced last week and has been dogging her campaign ever since.

That “box checking,” as critics call it, likely played a role in her Harvard hiring especially when her background is compared to those of the other near-100 Harvard Law School professors and assistant professors, according to an analysis of law schools the professors attended.
George Leef writes on National Review Online's "Phi Beta Cons" blog:
...Elizabeth Warren’s JD is from Rutgers, a law school far below the usual ranking for law profs at Ivy League institutions, or even any of her previous faculty posts.

Where one went to law school doesn’t actually have the slightest bearing on one’s competence to teach law and do the obligatory legal research (that is, cranking out law-review articles with vast numbers of footnotes; walk into a law library and you’ll see mountains of bound volumes of these almost-never-read works), but there is a pecking order of prestige in law schools. Anyone who wants to get into the law-prof business who doesn’t have a degree from an elite school has a tough time of it. There’s an implicit assumption that if you couldn’t get into one of those top law schools, you’re probably not the right material. But evidently Warren realized that she could overcome that “disability” by trumping it with minority status.
Michael Barone, also writing for The Washington Examiner, says:
When she was hired, Harvard Law School had just denied tenure to a female teacher and was being criticized for not having enough minorities and women on its faculty.

Of course Harvard and Warren say her claim to minority status had nothing to do with her being hired. And if it did, no one is going to say so. Nothing to see here, just move on. 
The thing is, though, Elizabeth Warren was one of the four most cited scholars of commercial law and bankruptcy in the country from 2005-2009. Google Scholar shows she has 17 publications (some coauthored) with over 100 citations. Moreover, little of this work is abstract legal theorizing. Warren has worked in bankruptcy law, and her scholarship has focused on assessing the consequences of bankruptcy policies for American families. (Some of her work emphasizes pretty conservative themes. For example, her paper on "The New Economics of the American Family," emphasizes how the trend away from stay-at-home mothers toward two income families has made American families more economically vulnerable.) Point being, she is a hugely accomplished scholar with a record that is completely consistent with her present position.

Politics ain't bean bag, of course, and it is kind of fun to watch Warren trying publicly to rationalize her Native American self-identification. Still, it is a stretch to say or imply that Warren was not qualified for her job.

I think you maximize the political mileage you get from your opponent's dishonesty by being scrupulously honest yourself. Warren's academic record is fantastic and not impeached at all by her claims of minority ancestry. However, Noreen Malone is exactly right in pointing out that Warren's inconsistency in her racial self-identification and her flimsy explanations for claiming to be a Native American substantially undermine her image as a fearless straight talker:
Neverthless, the problem for the Warren campaign isn't that she once identified as American Indian... It's that she has apparently officially claimed that heritage selectively. The inconsistency leaves plenty of room for the Scott Brown campaign to suggest that Warren, who has built a career and a following on being a straight-talking straight shooter, isn't always forthcoming. Call it the truthiness factor. 
Elizabeth Warren is absolutely qualified to be a Professor of Law at Harvard University. Her qualifications for the United States Senate, however, leave something to be desired. Perhaps the folks up in Massachusetts ought to keep her in her present position, in which she clearly excels.

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