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Elizabeth Warren’s Harvard Problem

‘Harvard’—A dirty word in politics?

Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Warren speaks to the Harvard Law School Class of 2009 during its Class Day Exercises in June 2009.
Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Warren speaks to the Harvard Law School Class of 2009 during its Class Day Exercises in June 2009.
By Caroline M. McKay, Crimson Staff Writer

Conservative columnist William J. Buckley Jr. famously said he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. And Buckley’s quote captures a larger anti-Harvard sentiment in American politics—a sentiment that has often haunted graduates as they seek public office, forcing them to address an often-exploited assumption that they answer to the Northeast liberal elite.

Now, Elizabeth Warren faces the same “Harvard problem.” Warren—who has been a member of Harvard Law School’s faculty for nearly two decades—is preparing to launch a campaign to unseat Republican Senator Scott P. Brown.

But even before her official announcement Republicans have questioned whether as a Harvard professor, Warren “best represents” the views and values of Massachusetts voters.

Although she has been upfront about her ties to Harvard, Warren’s message thus far—replete with stories from her small-town childhood in Oklahoma—seems designed to counteract any reputation she may have earned as an out-of-touch Harvard elitist.

THE HARVARD PROBLEM

When did Harvard become a bad word in professional politics?

The grudge against Harvard can be traced back to the Vietnam War, when Harvard famously banned the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, according to Massachusetts Democratic strategist Mary Ann Marsh. She says that even in the ’60s, Harvard seemed like a place where “people don’t spend time with the everyday people,” and “where people are far more interested in theory than interacting with people.”

Democratic strategist Scott Ferson echoed that Harvard is now often a negative buzz word in politics—synonymous with the idea of an out-of-touch class of Northeastern elites that is unpopular with most of the electorate.

Ferson added that the University is commonly associated with progressive ideals like greater equality for women and gay rights.

Fundamentally, Harvard invokes a class tension that Ferson says Brown would exploit in a general election by trying to convince voters that there is no way a Harvard professor could understand their problems.

Ferson added that the current political climate will make Warren’s status as Harvard faculty member an especially big hurdle for her campaign.

“At a time when ‘Tea Party, no experience, never put an economic equation together’ sells, I think it is going to be particularly difficult for her.”

‘A PHILOSOPHICAL CULT’

Warren’s Harvard problem is not unique or new. Numerous politicians have highlighted their opponent’s connection to the University with hope that the school’s reputation would make the candidate appear out-of-touch, extreme, and even effeminate.

Defending a more aggressive foreign policy strategy this week, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney used President Obama’s connection to Harvard to paint him as weak on defense.

“That may be what they think in that Harvard faculty lounge, but it’s not what they know on the battlefield!” Romney said. While he doesn’t mention it on the campaign trail, Romney holds business and law degrees from Harvard.

It is a stretch to say that the Harvard name has been a detractor for all candidates with ties to the University. There are currently 31 members of Congress with Harvard degrees.

But using Harvard as a code word for an allegedly dangerous brand of liberalism isn’t a new trick, either.

In his first presidential campaign against then-Governor Michael S. Dukakis ’60, President George H. W. Bush used Dukakis’ connection to Harvard to portray him as weak and extremist.

“Gov. Dukakis, his foreign policy views born in Harvard Yard’s boutique, would cut the muscle of our defense,” Bush said.

When asked why he mentioned Harvard specifically, Bush explained that he believed Harvard to be a “kind of a philosophical enclave,” and “a philosophical cult normally identified with extremely liberal causes.”

‘I CAME UP SCRAPPY’

Warren isn’t shy about her connection to Harvard.

“There’s nothing to handle,” Warren told The Boston Globe upon being asked about her association the University. “It is what it is. I’m also 5 foot 8.”

Though Warren may be content embracing her Harvard position, her message—which has begun to emerge during an ongoing listening tour through the state—seems to aim at putting Warren’s roots front and center. Her talks to activists and constituents take on a decidedly folksy flair, attempting to expunge any reputation for liberal elitism.

In other words, Warren hopes to show that Harvard isn’t her only identity.

“Yeah, I’m a Harvard professor,” Warren told The Globe. “But I wasn’t born at Harvard. I came up scrappy. I came up the hard way.”

Warren did not respond to an interview request for this article.

At gatherings of activists and voters in August, Warren shared stories from her childhood in a small town, growing up on what she calls the “ragged edge of the middle class in Oklahoma.”

“My brother David is the best storyteller God has put on this earth,” Warren said at one event. “There’s nothing I’d rather do than sit on the back porch and listen to him tell the story of the time they put the pig on the motorcycle and ran it down the main hall of Norman High.”

In addition to emphasizing her Oklahoma roots, Warren has says she would take her “scrappy” style to the floor of the U.S. Senate.

“It’s about being willing to take a good idea and fight for it,” Warren told The Globe. “It’s being willing to throw your body in front of a bus to block bad ideas.”

—Staff writer Caroline M. McKay can be reached at carolinemckay@college.harvard.edu.

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