A few weeks ago, this space held up the example of Elizabeth Warren’s election as one of several important election night victories. The reasons cited in that particular column to celebrate Warren’s election were valid enough, however there is another important angle to this story that went unmentioned in that piece.
Up until 2008, Elizabeth Warren was not anywhere near the public eye. She taught law at Harvard, and involved herself in issues of economic justice. But things started to change when she was tapped to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel tasked with overseeing the gargantuan TARP bailout.
During this gig, she impressed the Obama administration sufficiently to be brought on board to help with the creation of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—a federal agency responsible for policing the consumer finance market and ideally preventing another debacle like the subprime mortgage bloodbath.
The plan had been for her to helm the agency she helped create, but her appointment fell victim to the total war strategy employed by the Republicans in the lead-up to this year’s election. A full court media and political press was enacted to put the kibosh of Warren’s nomination. Glenn Beck practically pulled out his entrails right there on camera to demonstrate his consternation at the idea.
To prevent the infant agency from being crushed by the political circus, Warren’s nomination was shelved, and she went back to Massachusetts, where a unique opportunity was on the table. Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat was, at the time, held by Republican Scott Brown, who won it by defeating Martha Coakley, by all accounts a disinterested and incompetent candidate.
The home of the Kennedys and the Celtics is deep blue territory, so it was a prime 2012 pickup opportunity for the Democrats, and with her high profile as a sort of political martyr, Elizabeth Warren was the ideal candidate. She ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
Scott Brown was—for today’s incarnation of the GOP, at least—a moderate. Supportive of same-sex marriage and vaguely pro-choice, Brown seems to be one of those Republicans who subscribe to the notion that the rubes can do whatever they want, as long as the government sticks to its central mission of protecting and enabling the wealthy and powerful.
He was also very popular among the pundit class, whereas Elizabeth Warren seemed to be viewed by the smug multi-millionaire television personalities mainly as an elitist nerd, the Oklahoma native’s working class background notwithstanding.
Brown attempted to capitalize on this in the same manner as a high school bully, treating Warren with a fair amount of scorn and derision during the campaign. His main line of attack seemed to be Warren’s questionable identification of herself as having Native American ancestry, and this became a ridiculous spat that dominated media coverage of the campaign.
It should be noted that, in my experience as a Southerner, pretty much every family—black or white—with roots below the 39th parallel claims native ancestry of some sort of another. And a few of those claims are probably even true.
Either way, it turned out that Massachusetts voters cared much more about the serious economic issues facing our nation and their state than they cared about whether Warren’s family had told some tall tales about phantom native ancestors, and Elizabeth Warren defeated Scott Brown.
Interestingly, when she met with Brown after the election, he reportedly couldn’t bring himself to refer to her as “Senator-elect,” instead calling her “Professor.” Once a condescending douchebag, always a condescending douchebag, apparently.
Regardless of Brown’s lack of respect or Republican demagoguery, Elizabeth Warren will soon find herself with a seat on the Senate’s powerful Banking Committee, where the people who most feared her appointment to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will have to answer to her. Or at least that’s how it would work in an ideal, “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” type of world.
In the real world, which we all have the good fortune to occupy, the forces opposing Warren—or more accurately, the policies she supports and the philosophy she represents—will now hope to accomplish through entropy what couldn’t be done via political strong arming or electioneering.
It takes a long time to become truly influential in the United States Senate. It requires years of paying dues and being a loyal team player. This is why ambitious pols like Barack Obama (as well as Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and many others) inevitably leave the chamber to take a run at the big office over on Pennsylvania Avenue.
During the time it takes to build real influence, there is ample opportunity for activist heroes like Elizabeth Warren to be infected and co-opted by the demands of the political moment. That is not to say that she won’t be able to do some good, if she sticks to her guns, but those expecting her to come in and immediately wreck shop on Wall Street are probably going to be in for a dose of disappointment.
Here’s hoping to be pleasantly surprised.