Massachusetts has never seen a politician like Senator Elizabeth Warren. Until Warren, a woman with that much altitude and attitude was an alien concept here.
Even if you consider her “the face of the uber-Left” — as Fox News host Bill O’Reilly describes it — you have to acknowledge what that means: Warren has the power. And it belongs solely to her. No derivative spousal muscle involved.
Followers across the country begged Warren to run for president. So far, she’s instead using her clout to push President Obama on policy and appointments and prod Hillary Clinton toward a sharper focus on income inequality.
And now Vice President Joe Biden is seeking Warren’s blessing — and fund-raising apparatus — as he mulls a 2016 presidential run. The prospect of a Biden-Warren ticket is also being floated by the Biden camp as a way to shift Democrats to an alternative to Clinton and her e-mail mess.
However this plays out, Biden needs Warren. She doesn’t need him. Biden-Warren — “The Dems’ Plan B,” as the Boston Herald put it — is not just about putting a woman on the ticket. It’s about pairing Biden with a charismatic, policy-smart progressive who just happens to be female.
In July, a Time magazine cover put these words next to Warren’s picture: “She’s hounding Obama, haunting Hillary, and paving the way for Bernie Sanders.” When a female politician is doing all that, you know the guys are paying attention.
In 2012 Warren was the first woman elected to represent Massachusetts in the US Senate. Before Warren, the state was known as the home of Tip O’Neill and the Kennedy clan, not to mention an untold number of men who looked in the mirror and saw a president. Three won their party’s nomination — Democrats Michael Dukakis and John Kerry and Republican Mitt Romney — only to discover the rest of the country viewed them quite differently.
As for female politicians, they made it only so far. The hurdles are best illustrated by the humiliating defeat of Martha Coakley, a popular attorney general who lost the Senate seat long held by Ted Kennedy to Republican Scott Brown. Coakley’s 2010 special-election rejection spawned a spate of feminist hand-wringing over a glass ceiling perversely designed to block women in an allegedly liberal state.
Massachusetts voters have never elected a female governor. In 2014, Coakley failed at that, too. And she wasn’t the first to try.
Only six women have gone to Congress from Massachusetts. Besides Warren, they include two who followed their husbands: Edith Nourse Rogers, a Republican who served in the House from 1925 to 1960, and Niki Tsongas, a Democrat, who was elected in 2007 to the same House seat once held by her late husband, Paul. Katherine Clark won election to the House in 2013 — after Warren’s victory.
When Warren set out to break the glass ceiling in Massachusetts, she also broke political convention. The Harvard law professor was an outsider with national stature, from a high-profile role as consumer advocate and Wall Street critic.
Still, there were questions about her ability to take on Brown. The Atlantic wondered if Warren “would end up as one more under-performing woman in Massachusetts politics.”
Questions about her heritage were a sticking point, and she never satisfied those who doubted her claim to Native American roots. But her confidence and command of issues won the day.
After vanquishing Brown, Warren took on Washington and hasn’t stopped, even when that has meant challenging the Obama administration. She derailed Obama’s choice for a top Treasury Department spot, accused the head of Obama’s Security and Exchange Commission of fending off financial reforms, and stood up to the president on trade.
For her defiance on trade, Obama called her “a politician like everybody else.”
Obama is wrong. Warren isn’t like everyone else. She’s a fearless politician who wages battles on substance. She also has a keen eye for how she comes across on YouTube. That sets her apart from the more cautious crowd, male and female.
There’s a lesson in it for presidential candidates — listening, Hillary? — and also for fellow female politicians back home in Massachusetts. When you say what you think with clarity and passion, voters notice.