No one gets Potomac Fever anymore. A telegenic politician isn’t in Washington long enough for a temperature to spike before the words “presidential prospect” find their way into the daily dispatches from Capitol Hill. If only it were as easy to shut up the press corps as it is to shut down the federal government, we might be spared the feverish speculation about the White House ambitions of the very junior senior senator from Massachusetts.
That’s Elizabeth Warren, not Scott Brown, if you understandably have trouble keeping track after enduring a US Senate election in three of the past four years.
It is apparently not enough that the Bay State has already donated Brown to the media for the purpose of its permanent campaign coverage, sending him off to Iowa to flip pork chops at the state fair in Des Moines in August and to Bettendorf last month to trumpet GOP chances in 2014 and 2016 at the Ronald Reagan Dinner. He even registered a political action committee in New Hampshire, where he’s scheduled to headline a GOP holiday dinner Thursday, inviting conjecture about whether he will run for president or move north to challenge Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who is soon up for reelection.
With the next presidential contest fast approaching — the Iowa Caucuses are only 25 months away! — is it any wonder that Brown’s fresh face just isn’t fresh enough for those who prefer a seat on the campaign bus to one in the Senate press gallery? Enter Warren, the former Harvard Law School professor who is 11 months into her first term in the Senate. In any elected office, actually.
While she has been using her seat on the Senate Banking Committee to try to govern responsibly — pressuring the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission to demand that in exchange for a settlement deal, JPMorgan admit wrongdoing in its sale of mortgage securities; helping to derail the appointment of Wall Street favorite Larry Summers as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank; fighting to slash interest rates on government-backed student loans — Warren lately has attracted notice less for her legislative diligence than for her potential as a combatant in a male-fantasy political catfight with Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Never mind that Warren signed a letter with 15 other Democratic female senators earlier this year urging the former New York senator and secretary of state to run for the presidency in 2016, and that earlier this month she pledged to serve her entire term. She could always change her mind! Isn’t that what Barack Obama did after making similar promises? Forget for a moment her nonexistent foreign policy credentials. She could always go on congressional fact-finding junkets! Repress the memory of the media-created grudge match between Clinton and Sarah Palin in 2008 for the votes of American women. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey have moved on.
Remember, instead, where recent infatuations with bright and shiny newcomers have led the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Into the death grip of Howard Dean in 2004. Into the rapturous embrace of Barack Obama in 2008. However history judges the Obama presidency, there is no escaping the promises made at the rhetorical height of his campaigns that died at the bruising level of negotiation with an intractable Congress. Immigration reform is stalled. Guantanamo is open. The security state is more powerful than ever. Wall Street still rules.
Take Elizabeth Warren at her word. She is not running for president in 2016. We should cheer. We need her on Capitol Hill. If we are lucky, she really is the natural successor to the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who came into his own as a lawmaker when he stopped, at last, heeding the cries to “Run, Teddy, Run!”
Kennedy built the sort of bridges across the aisle to his Republican colleagues that we can now barely imagine, partnering with Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and others on issues from health care to education. Already, in contrast to the prevailing partisan dysfunction on Capitol Hill, Warren has joined Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona in proposing legislation that would reimpose regulations on the nation’s biggest banks to promote traditional lending and thwart high-risk trading in securities. She has teamed up with Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to provide financial relief for fishermen suffering the collapse of commercial fisheries from New England to the Gulf Coast to Alaska.
Just as Kennedy turned his position on the Senate Labor Committee into a platform to defend the economic security of ordinary Americans, Warren is using her perch on the Banking Committee to champion the needs of the poor and the middle class at a time of unprecedented income inequality in the United States. She has never been needed more than she is now, where she is now.
Going to Washington to get something done rather than to stoke personal ambition might be a quaint notion to those who live for the campaign trail. For Warren, it looks to be her genuine modus operandi. The pundits should let her get back to work. Scott Brown will be happy to take their calls.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Eileen McNamara, a former Globe columnist, teaches journalism at Brandeis University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s name.