Last month, I watched Senator Elizabeth Warren do what she does best: Put a man in the hot seat and watch him sweat.
In this case, it was MBTA general manager Steve Poftak, who was asked questions he could not answer about the T’s progress, or lack thereof, in addressing safety issues raised by a federal audit. Shortly afterward, he announced his resignation. For Warren, Poftak’s roasting was small potatoes. She has done the same on the national stage to any number of powerful men, from bank CEOs to Michael Bloomberg, whose presidential campaign she essentially took down during one memorable 2020 debate showdown.
Warren’s own presidential campaign failed that year, too. But she remains a force with progressive Democrats — so much so that party centrists are trying to put her in the hot seat in advance of 2024. “If Dems lose the House, [Senator] Warren may be to blame,” blares a piece in CommonWealth Magazine by Liam Kerr, an organizer for Priorities for Progress, which promotes what it views as pragmatic politics, and a cofounder of WelcomePAC, whose stated mission is “to expand the Democratic tent to put more districts in play.”
Citing Warren’s support for Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a progressive Democrat who challenged incumbent Democratic Representative Kurt Schrader in Oregon’s Fifth Congressional District, who won the primary and then lost to Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer, Kerr writes: “Some Democrats flip seats. Some flip off their colleagues — and help Republicans flip control.” His conclusion: “Nationally, Democrats and democracy have an Elizabeth Warren problem. If it continues, Massachusetts Democrats must give Elizabeth Warren a problem. Let’s hope there is a plan for that.”
A Warren spokesman provided a list of 10 House candidates backed by Warren, including at least one that flipped from red to blue — Nikki Budzinski in Illinois. He said Warren participated in virtual town halls for the DNC; supported Democrats across the country for a variety of offices; and, back at home, raised more money than any other Massachusetts elected official for Democrats running in this state.
Warren has said she plans to seek reelection in 2024 to the Senate, and if she does, no Massachusetts Democrat is likely to challenge her. She also said she’s not running for president, a statement she also made before she launched her 2020 campaign. I don’t know her real plans. But I do know what makes her a problem — whether she runs for president or not — is her ability to make a case for progressive politics with passion and logic, as she does in her most recent op-ed for The New York Times. What makes her a problem is her fearlessness, as demonstrated by her probing of the hapless Poftak. What makes her a problem is that she’s not ready to be written off as a failed presidential candidate who should yield the stage to someone else.
As a presidential candidate, Warren had her weaknesses. She’s the Harvard law professor dubbed “Pocahontas” by Donald Trump because of her claims of Native American ancestry — a controversy that still lingers. Although he did not name her, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito appeared to take a swipe at Warren during recent oral arguments concerning the “race conscious” admissions policies at Harvard University, when he asked what would stop a student from using family “lore” as a reason to claim minority status. As Kerr also points out, Warren’s base is often described as “political journalists and white professionals with college degrees” — the opposite of what the Democratic Party believes it needs right now. And her takedowns of powerful men probably do not sit well with their friends.
But as a voice for progressives, Warren isn’t going away, and she shouldn’t. Millions of voters support the policies she represents, especially young voters who showed up in droves for the midterms. As a party, Democrats just have to work through the tension. Why is that so bad? Republicans are paralyzed because they can’t quit Trump and his band of extremists. At the same time, Democrats from the left and center have been able to find some sensible common ground on issues like student debt, lowering drug costs, and climate change.
If you listen to Warren, she’s still pushing the party from the left. But she’s also praising President Biden for accomplishing what he did from the middle. Blaming her if the House flips is misguided. If that happens, it’s more because incumbents like Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, lost his seat.
Warren’s passion is worth any pain she gives to centrists — and more than worth the pain she gives to the powerful men she calls to account on behalf of the public.
An earlier version of this column stated Warren supported candidates in two congressional districts that flipped from red to blue. It also had the incorrect first name of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.