Whither Elizabeth Warren?
Warren, who in 2012 reclaimed Ted Kennedy’s — ah, excuse me, the people’s — seat for the Democrats after Scott Brown’s brief occupancy, has just been named to a new post on the Senate Democratic leadership team.
She will be a strategic policy adviser to the Democratic Policy and Communications Center, an advisory board to the Democratic leadership. So in essence Warren will be an adviser to a board that advises Democratic leaders Harry Reid and Richard Durbin.
Oh, the laurels! Literalists: I’m joking. The awarding of that post calls to mind Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck’s quip when the title of Duke of Lauenburg was bestowed on him late in life: It might prove useful if he ever wanted to travel incognito.
Warren has quickly established herself as a bright light in the US Senate. She has a set of issues she cares deeply about and has been effective in highlighting. She hardly needs a minor policy post to aid those efforts. One can just as easily imagine her going to Reid, Durbin, and company and declaring: “Here’s an issue Senate Democrats should be championing. I know I will be — and I hope you’ll join me.”
Mind you, it’s easy to see why the Senate’s Democratic panjandrums would create a leadership spot (the seventh, in case you are counting) and award it to Warren. She is a high-profile, spotlight-commanding figure with some real populist appeal. And after their midterm losses, Reid and his team are badly in need of a charisma transplant.
Donor, meet patient.
But how, exactly, is that good for Warren?
I may be one of the few, but I believe the senator when she says she doesn’t have presidential ambitions; certainly little coming from her camp suggests the contrary. And even if she does harbor secret aspirations, recent history doesn’t suggest this country is thirsty for the chance to vote for a(nother) Massachusetts liberal for the job.
Warren does have the potential to become a truly significant senator, however. Her knowledge about the financial industry and the plight of the middle class leads her to ask the right questions. Her intellect gives her the confidence to speak her mind. One doesn’t have to agree with her on everything to see her as a force to be reckoned with — and a healthy counterweight to big money’s oversized influence in politics.
But that’s just another reason why she won’t gain any elevation from a rinky-dink Senate leadership post. Particularly not when you consider that sharp-elbowed, publicity-hungry New York Senator Charles Schumer leads the Senate Democrats’ policy and communications center. Given Schumer’s cozy relationship with Wall Street, it’s hard to envision Warren’s skepticism of Wall Street becoming the Senate Democrats’ manifesto. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine her populist message morphing into a vague muddle, leading to accusations that she’s lowered her voice or tempered her critique because of her new post.
Warren would do better to take her lead from Ted Kennedy. Early in his career, Kennedy tried to climb the Senate leadership ladder, only to have Robert Byrd oust him from the majority whip’s post in 1971. Once his own presidential hopes died, Kennedy settled down, dug in, and made himself a political nonpareil in the Senate.
He was, by seasons, a feisty partisan pushing progressive policies and a deal-maker ready to roll up his sleeves and work across the aisle. Part of Kennedy’s success was due to the celebrity his name lent him, but only part. What made him extraordinary was his hard work, his policy mastery, his big, generous personality — and his brave recognition that compromise is a legitimate part of any political process.
So far, we’ve seen some of the same qualities in Warren. Whether she can become a senator with similar deal-making inclinations and abilities — something particularly difficult in today’s hyper-partisan era — remains to be seen. (One revealing clue will be the relationship she does or doesn’t forge with Charlie Baker, the moderate Republican who just defeated her favored candidate for governor.)
But either way, following Kennedy’s path is a better course for her than joining Harry Reid’s tired leadership team.