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Can Elizabeth Warren be the new Ted Kennedy?

Senator Elizabeth Warren attends a US Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing Feb. 24.AFP/Getty Images

Senator Elizabeth Warren knows what it takes to go viral — just turn left.

A confrontation with Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen will do it. So will a sly comment on MSNBC, that she's still waiting to see how progressive Hillary Clinton will be as a presidential candidate.

From the Massachusetts perspective, Warren represents the Ted Kennedy wing of the Democratic party. It's a fitting ascension, since Warren holds the seat Kennedy held for 46 years.

But now, what about Kennedy's ability to move the left and right to center, where compromise happens? The upcoming opening of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, with its emphasis on bipartisanship, is a reminder of just how important that was to the senator and his legacy.


Warren is her own woman and deserves to carve out her own path. These are also different times, and Congress is in a different place than when Kennedy could play the dual roles as liberal lion and great compromiser on contentious issues.

Besides, as a fresh, powerful voice, with no Kennedy-like baggage, Warren occupies a far different political space than her ideological soul mate.

Liberal groups are begging her to run for president. With their blessing comes the power to confront fellow Democrats and move them to where she wants them to be.

In that spirit, she scuttled the nomination of Wall Street banker Antonio Weiss as President Obama's Treasury Department pick. Now, as Politico reports, the president is "wooing" the Warren branch of the party with an anti-Wall Street pitch.

She's a definite media darling. After her showdown with Yellen over the conduct of the Fed's top lawyer, the Washington Post exulted, "Elizabeth Warren went full Elizabeth Warren."

In a recent interview with Yahoo News, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah said of his colleague from Massachusetts, "We've become friends. I think she would like to have a relationship with me like Kennedy had. I like her. I think she's a very bright woman. She's certainly playing the media in a beautiful way." Asked if he believes Warren can attract left-wing support and still be a compromiser, Hatch said, "We'll see . . . I'd like to see her become the new Kennedy if she can."


Can she — and is that what she even wants to be?

Kennedy embraced compromise once he realized he would never become president. After that dream died, he set upon another mission: to become the leading voice on progressive causes, but also, to reach out and get something done. It gave Massachusetts unique representation in Washington.

Warren is unique in other ways. After a brief fling with Republican Senator Scott Brown, Massachusetts voters returned to their liberal senses and in 2012, elected Warren. She immediately filled the progressive vacuum left by Kennedy's death. Her arrival in the Senate coincided with a time of national economic turmoil, giving her populist message special resonance across the county. Her intelligence and fearlessness also set her apart, and she quickly rocketed to national prominence.

So now, like Kennedy, Warren has established herself as a strong, partisan leader, with a national voice. But she has yet to grab hold of the deal-making piece of Kennedy's mantle.

Asked for examples of bipartisan out-reach, her office sent a long list that included work with Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska on a budget amendment that passed to help fund fishing disaster relief; an act to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, introduced with two Republican Senators — Bob Corker of Tennessee and David Vitter of Louisiana; the Truth in Settlements Act, to increase transparency around settlement reached by federal enforcement agencies, co-sponsored with Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma; proposed legislation with Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to strengthen financial protections for veterans; and the Smart Savings Act to improve the retirement security of federal employees, filed with Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and co-sponsored by Republican Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming.


Although not as high on the sexy meter as Kennedy causes like immigration and health and education reform, they are certainly worthy issues that may someday produce results.

But that goal is especially daunting in these partisan times. It will be even more challenging over the next two years, when it's all about presidential politics and what goes viral.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.


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