I have been wondering "why all the fuss" about Elizabeth Warren since she burst onto the national political scene. Of course, I am always leery of the flavor of the moment (no, really... ask Baskin Robbins), but I'm a liberal too and Warren is, I admit, standing up for some strong liberal principles... so why am I always, at best, lukewarm about her?
After spending time in the Obama Administration, first doing work "overseeing" TARP, then working to develop the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Warren is now back in Massachusetts, running in the Democratic primary to face Scott Brown next fall. Warren may well win the primary on name recognition and national celebrity, though whether she can defeat Brown strikes me as an open question, particularly since her broadest appeal is to voters who probably didn't vote for Brown in the first place, and they're not a majority.
Lefty love for Elizabeth Warren is a force, I suspect, because there's so little, right now, to grab onto if one favors progressive change; she is benefitting, enormously, from the disillusionment of many Obama True Believers desperately searching for someone new to hang upon all their hopes and dreams. What I can't escape, though, is the sense that Warren is more of the same froth that produced Obama in the first place: a lot of faith in the Ivy League elite, a fetish for the educated, professional elite. Whether Warren might, ultimately, do some good as a Senator is an open question, but in order to to sort that out, we'd be better served, I think, looking harder at what she's already done.
Warren is a lawyer and academic who has spent most of her career in academia, teaching contract and commercial law. Indeed, some of her most effective analysis of the banking and fincancial crisis comes, clearly, from an extensive understanding of the use of contracts. Her forcefulness in promoting notions of more understandable mortgage agreements and credit card agreements for consumers reflects a deep, specific understanding of contracts and some of the onerous provisions many of us sign on for.
It's also the case that Warren speaks, often plainly and forthrightly, for progressive ideas that have seemingly been swept aside in recent years. This is one viral video making the rounds, where Warren recently spoke plainly about the idea of taking the rich, hard to argue with.
Still, much of what Warren advocates is well meaning but often somewhat abstract and academic. She stands for the idea that the "middle class" needs help in these hard times and protection from large corporate entities... yet she rarely mentions the problems of poverty or the practical concerns of the working class. She advocates for better, clearer mortgages... but rarely mentions the larger issues of affordable housing that are a huge part of why we're in the mess we're in (she speaks about foreclosure, fairly, as a bank problem, less in terms of the people problems left in its wake).
As she would be a reliably liberal vote in the Senate, it's fair to say that worries about Warren are luxuries in the battle to reclaim the "Ted Kennedy" seat from Scott Brown; but I wonder just how widely Warren's appeal will go. For all the strongly worded advocacy Warren's talked up about Consumer Financial Protection, I've rarely seen her with, well, consumers. She often slips into "they need help" sentence constructions that reflect a kind of patronizing, patrician sense of doing something for the less fortunate. That doesn't, always, translate into votes from the less fortunate.
In short, I wonder how different a Scott Brown election against Elizabeth Warren looks compared to Brown's victory over Martha Coakley. It could be that Brown has lost his scrappy, come from behind (and out of nowhere) quality that got him to the Seante, that he's now just another Republican who is Part of the Problem in DC. This year, I suspect, does not favor incumbents, especialy if the challenger is able to harness voter anger.Whether Warren does that, though, is a question worth pondering. And if Warren succeeds, as Coakley did, in attracting most the elite educated professionals of the Western and Northern suburbs of Boston, losing more working class identified areas and much of Western Mass... can that really translate to victory?
The wild card, I suspect is minority voting, and there, too, I wonder if Warren's popularity with educated progressives really translates into the black community, or immigrant neighborhoods in poorer communities. These are the people who may not vote for Brown, but feeling down or disillusioned may not turn out at all. Whether Warren can energize people out of work, struggling from check to check, for whom getting a credit card, never mind a mortgage, is little more than an abstraction, seems a bit more wishful than real.
I have to admit that, were I still there, come a general election next year with a choice between Brown or Warren... I would, yes, pick Warren. But as with Obama, I wouldn't kid myself too much about the idea that Elizabeth Warren represents a great hope for the triumph of progressive ideas. The world will look a lot more progressive, to me anyway, when we can reward a profession other than one forged at Harvard Law.