Elizabeth Warren: Stumped
She was supposed to be the Great Liberal Hope, the one Democrat tough enough to evict Scott Brown from Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. Then Warren started campaigning.
On a sunny afternoon in May, a scrum of reporters has gathered outside the industrial-chic Brookline pizzeria Jimmyâs Bar & Oven. âIt looks like a ladiesâ garden party in here,â someone says, observing the group of white, middle-aged women in khaki capri pants and glasses who are scuttling about on the patio handing out Elizabeth Warren signs to people walking by.
Warren, the Harvard law professor and sharp-tongued consumer advocate whoâs running for Senate, is scheduled to make a campaign stop here any minute. The turnout is pretty good, but itâs been a rough few weeks for the candidate, a stretch that began when the Herald reported that the law schools at both the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard have at one time or another listed her in their registries as a Native American. A controversy has been raging ever since, centered primarily on whether Warren falsely identified herself that way in order to get an unfair advantage in the hiring process.
At first, Warren responded to the criticism by insisting that sheâs always believed she is, indeed, part Cherokee. Asked for evidence of her heritage, she even replied that her grandfather had high cheekbones. After that, Warren essentially stopped talking about the issue, or anything else. Itâs now been 12 silent days since her last press event.
Her inability to come up with a credible explanation for the university records has allowed to fester the impression that she perhaps did bend the rules. The clumsy response has served to underscore the fact that sheâs an inexperienced candidate running in her first-ever race. It has also distracted attention from the qualities that drew her supporters to her in the first place: her decisiveness, good judgment, and grace under fire.
When Warren pulls up in a black SUV and jumps out to greet the crowd, her skin is flushed to match her salmon-colored jacket. She spots Louie Goldsmith, a floppy-haired middle schooler wearing an oversize âElizabeth Warren 2012â T-shirt, and reaches out to shake his hand. âItâs good to see you,â she says. âI hear youâre the top of the heap here.â
âIâm not sure if Iâm the top of the heap,â he replies, âbut Iâm volunteering.â
âWell, I can use the help,â Warren says.
As if on cue, about 15 members of the media, including several TV crews, swarm around her. Fortunately for Warren, she has good things to talk about: A poll released the night before found that she and her opponent, the incumbent Senator Scott Brown, are in a dead heat, and that 69 percent of voters believe the ancestry controversy to be a non-issue. But the reporters ask anyway. Over the next seven minutes, sheâs bombarded with questions:
âAre you a minority?â
âWill you come clean to the Cherokee nation?â
âWhy did you claim to be a Native American, then stop?â
âWill you just provide us with the documentation and put it to rest?â
Warren tells them she wonât back away from her family history and then says sheâs done answering these questions.
A few minutes later, she regroups and climbs onto a chair to speak to supporters. She launches into a story, telling the room about how she conceived of an entire federal agencyâthe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)âthen forced it into existence. âThe first thing people told me is that it was a great idea, and would make a real difference,â she says. âThe second thing they said to me is âDonât do it.â They said, âDonât do it because you canât possibly win. The lobbyists will assemble an army, and they will block the CFPB.ââ Warren starts making jabbing motions with her hand. âI heard this as try harder! Iâve read too many Nancy Drew novels. Iâm the intrepid girl policyÂmaker.â She promises to build coalitions in the Senate in order to get things done. âHow do you do it?â she cries as the crowd applauds wildly. âThe answer is to play the outside game.â
For the better part of 20 years, Joyce Linehanâs innocuous blue cottage in Dorchester has played host to indie-rock icons like the Smashing Pumpkins, Courtney Love, and the Flaming Lips when their tours have brought them through town. âMy house was a place where a lot of semi-well-known musicians have stayed,â says Linehan, an arts publicist. âBut I didnât get starstruck until Elizabeth Warren walked through my front door.â
In August 2011, Linehan, who is also a Democratic activist, gathered 70 people in her living room for what was essentially a coming-out party for Elizabeth Warrenâs political career. Warren, a consumer finance expert, had spent decades advocating on behalf of the American middle class, and had become known for her ability to take tedious, dry aspects of bankruptcy law and make them seem simple. Her bestselling book, The Two-Income Trap, led to regular appearances on the Dr. Phil talk show. In 2008 she was recruited to Washington to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel for the bank bailout, where she was the watchdog overseeing the disbursement of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), then orchestrated the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency established to âpromote fairness and transparency for mortgages, credit cards, and other consumer financial products and services.â In the two and a half years she spent in Washington, her push for stronger consumer-protection laws to benefit working families made her the darling of the left. âI want to make out with you,â Jon Stewart told Warren when she appeared on The Daily Show in January 2010.
The evening of the get-together at her house, Linehan says, she and her circle âwere beggingâ Warren to get in the race. âWe knew the kind of scrutiny sheâd be under and how difficult it could potentially be for her and her family,â Linehan says. âWe genuinely liked the woman…. We were strangers to her, but she wasnât a stranger to us.â
Warren announced her candidacy last September, and within weeks her ability to electrify her supporters was on full display. A video from an informal talk she gave in Andover lit up YouTube. In the clip, Warren argues that the owners of successful private businesses were aided on their path to wealth by public investments in things like education and infrastructure. âThere is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody,â she says. It wasnât long before other Massachusetts Democrats dropped out of the race and Warrenâs path to her partyâs nomination was essentially cleared. In October her campaign announced that it had raised $3.15 million. The Brown-Warren contest made national headlines as the yearâs most important non-presidential race.
To her supporters, Warren is the Sheriff of ?Wall Street. Her blunt attacks on the financial sectorâshe joked that sheâd either see the CFPB created or leave âplenty of blood and teeth on the floorââfor its bending and breaking of rules captured the imagination of frustrated liberals who felt the current administration had failed to live up to its promise of hope and change.
To her critics, Warren is a menace, out to gut the financial industry and, with it, capitalism itself. While in Washington, she was portrayed by her Republican detractors as incompetent and boastful. âI think anybody who has had any experience in Washington was quite startled with the way she took that relatively obscure [TARP] position and turned it into a platform to promote herself,â says Todd Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason University. For his part, Republican Congressman Patrick McHenry of North Carolina went so far as to call Warren a liar during a Congressional hearing.
In her rise to national prominence, then, Warren has taken her place alongside other Democratic bogeymen like George Soros, the Kennedys, and Nancy Pelosi. And that was before she stated that she was the âintellectual foundationâ for Occupy Wall Street.
To nearly everyone who knows her name, Elizabeth Warren has become a symbol. But in the months since she announced her intention to unseat Scott Brown, Elizabeth Warren has become something else: a candidate. And that is proving to be the challenge.
To this day, you can hear a bit of a twang in Warrenâs voice, a lingering hint of her Oklahoma City upbringing. She and her three older brothers didnât exactly grow up poor, but there was always an understanding that money was tight in their home. Her father, Donald Herring, was a carpet salesman and maintenance worker who was swindled out of his life savings by his business partner shortly before Warren was born in 1949. On the trail, Warren tells stories of working before she entered adolescence: nursing a neighborâs colicky baby when she was nine and waiting tables at age 13. Then, shortly after she entered her teens, her father suffered a heart attack. âDaddy came home, gray and shaking, and he sat around the house for weeks,â she wrote in The Two-Income Trap. Her father later took a job that paid only half his old salary. Her mother, Pauline, went to work part-time filling catalog orders for Sears.
Warren enrolled in the cityâs most competitive public school (she graduated at age 16), where she developed a passion for debate that led to a full scholarship at George Washington University in 1966. But Warren left the DC school at 19 after reuniting with her high school boyfriend Jim Warren, whom she married not long after. She finished college at the University of Houston in 1970, began teaching special-needs students, and had her first child, Amelia, the next year.
The family later moved to New Jersey, and Warren enrolled at Rutgers School of Law, from which she graduated in 1976. By then she was pregnant with her son, Alexander, which led to incredulous stares during her interviews at white-shoe Wall Street firms. So she set out on her own, writing up wills and doing real estate closings out of her living room.
In time, the Rutgers law school would offer Warren a part-time teaching position. When the family began considering a move back to Texas, she wrote to the ÂUniversity of Houston, asking for a job. âI did my first academic job interview standing in my kitchen at the end of a 20-foot telephone cord,â she recalls, âjiggling a baby in one arm and dodging a five-year-old underfoot while frying pork chops.â
She got the job, but quickly became overwhelmed with juggling her career and her children. âIt was hell,â she says. âI loved the teaching, but I had two little babies and I had no support for them. Jimâs position was very straightforward. He said, âI like our lives. You donât have to work. I make a decent living, so if you want to work, this is all on you. I still expect dinner on the table, the kids bathed and ready to go.ââ She continues, âIn a funny sort of sense, I never held it against him. That had been what he expected when he married me. So I tried, God I tried to keep it all together. And Jimâs view was: âWell, then quit. Quit and stay home.ââ
Warren instead filed for divorce in 1979. One year later she married fellow law professor Bruce Mann. Warrenâs career began to take off, and she was recruited for teaching positions at the universities of Texas, Michigan, and Pennsylvania before arriving in 1992 at Harvard, where she and Mann are now both on the law school faculty.
Warrenâs interest in financial law and regulation began when she was at the University of Houston in 1979 and found herself intrigued by a new code Congress had passed that made it easier to file for bankruptcy. âThe changes had been pretty profound, and people were anxious,â her friend and colleague Jay Westbrook recalls. âWe wondered, âHow is this really affecting people?ââ So together with Westbrook and Teresa Sullivan, a prominent sociologist (who is now president of the University of Virginia), she set out to better understand who was taking advantage of the new law. Traveling across the country with their own photocopier (Warren insisted they bring it to save money on copies), they pored over thousands of filings and conducted hundreds of interviews with individuals who had filed for bankruptcy. Their work would eventually become the largest empirical study of consumer bankruptcy ever done in this country.
Warren has said that when she started her bankruptcy project, she expected to find that those whoâd filed were âall a bunch of cheaters.â But what she Âdiscovered startled her. âI uncovered how families who worked hard and played by the rules got turned completely upside down by a medical problem, a job loss, or a family breakup,â she recalls. That realization has shaped the bulk of her lifeâs work.
This may be Warrenâs first run for office, but thatâs not to say she lacks political experience. âSheâs not a babe in the woods in Washington circles,â says Adam Levitin, a former Warren student whoâs now a Georgetown law professor (heâs teaching at Harvard this fall). âShe has long-standing personal relationships with senators.â
Warren first drew the attention of Washington insiders with the 1989 publication of As We Forgive Our Debtors, a book she coauthored with Westbrook and Sullivan that showcased their groundbreaking consumer bankruptcy research. In 1995, she became a senior adviser to the National Bankruptcy Review Commission, which was created in response to the skyrocketing rate of bankruptcy filings at the time. âCredit card companies had decided they wanted to rewrite the bankruptcy laws,â she recalls, and they were lobbying to make it more difficult for people to file. For nearly eight years, she worked to keep bankruptcy as a viable option for middle-class debtors. She testified before Congress and submitted briefs to the Supreme Court, arguing that bankruptcy can keep working families from âfalling off the cliffâ into poverty. Through that process, she came to understand that her ability to convey difficult concepts simply and intelligently could become a political asset.
Melissa Jacoby, a protĂ©gĂ© of Warrenâs who served as a staff attorney on the review commission, remembers watching her explain bankruptcy policy to Senator Ted Kennedy in the late â90s. âAfter a pretty short meeting, Senator Kennedy understood how these issues affected the people that he cared about in the commonwealth of Massachusetts,â she says. âHe was ready to fight the good fight.â
In time, Warren began to explore not just bankruptcy law, but also what caused people to file in the first place. In 2003, she and her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, a former management consultant, published The Two-Income Trap, which argued that the escalating costs of ?housing and education have led to the hollowing-out of the middle class. Warren became the Cassandra of consumer advocacy, railing against credit-default swaps and subprime mortgages, which she contended were preying on hardworking American families. âIt is impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house,â she wrote in the journal Democracy in 2007. âBut it is possible to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street.â
After the 2008 financial crisis, Warren was hailed as a visionary. Senator Harry Reid tapped her to chair the bipartisan Congressional oversight panel set up to ensure that every dollar of the $700 billion in TARP funds handed to the banks was accounted for. Warren produced in-depth monthly reports, appeared on television at every opportunity, and regularly hosted public discussions that became skewering sessions of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. It was her work on this panelâher strident criticisms of Wall Street, the Fed, and Geithner alikeâthat made her famous.
âI was impressed not just with her knowledge, but her ability to help do things politically with her common sense,â says Congressman Barney Frank, who watched as she navigated through Washington with increasing confidence. The two became close allies during his work on the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, which helped establish Warrenâs brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Frank eventually counseled President Obama to name Warren head of the CFPB: âI said to him, âYou should appoint her. If the Republicans filibuster her theyâll make her a hero, and itâll be easier for her to run for the Senate.ââ
It was an open secret that Warren welcomed taking control of the agency, but her hard-charging ways had left many in WashingtonâRepublicans and Democrats alikeâbelieving that her ideological zeal made her unfit for the role. âWill Elizabeth Warren be as effective as a bureaucrat as she is as a guest on The Daily Show?â Neil Irwin wrote in the Washington Post.
Warren continued her attacks on Geithner, who by then was said to be openly opposing her nomination. In his new book, Bailout, Neil Barofsky, who served as inspector general for TARP, writes that heâd expected Warren to play nice with the Treasury secretary in the hopes of securing the appointment. âBut she just lit him up…. I thought it was a remarkably principled act, the exact opposite of what any other person in Washington angling for a high-profile job would have done.â
Ultimately, Obama did not appoint Warren, angering the thousands of supporters whoâd petitioned for her to get the job. That left Warren looking for another outlet to push policy change. Fortunately, one was waiting.
Warren may have been unwilling to play the Washington game in order to secure the job she wanted, but itâs evident that sheâs following the rules during her Senate run. At public events, she sticks to her stump speech and rarely strays from her talking points. That means she only occasionally takes questions from supporters. Despite the fact that Warren owes much of her fame to her role as a media darling, her team limits press access. And Warrenâs delivery has become increasingly polished, with her campaign stops rarely looking like the bombastic performances that made her a celebrity. âSheâs toned down her rhetoric and style to make herself more palatable,â says Boston University political historian Thomas Whalen. âAt this point, sheâs talking more in platitudes.â
But playing it safe can take a toll. At an event in Roxbury this April, I watched as the 300 community organizers in the room recoiled when Warren abruptly put down the mike after her speech. Theyâd been told she would be holding a Q?&?A. As she hugged supporters and took pictures on the far side of the room, a small debate took place on the sidelines, with the local politicians whoâd hosted the event telling her staffers that this just isnât how things are done. (Left unanswered was whether the campaign didnât know about the anticipated Q?&?A or had decided that Warren simply wasnât ready for questions.) It felt like a missed opportunity.
The truth is that the supposed most-important Senate race in the country has been surprisingly lacking in substance, with the candidates seemingly less concerned about the state of the country than about debate formats, racial heritage, and whether theyâve held secret meetings with foreign monarchs.
When I ask Doug Rubin, Warrenâs campaign guru, about the lack of substance, he takes offense. âI think thatâs unfair to Elizabeth, honestly,â he says. âIf you go back and look at all the press releases and events we have done, weâve talked about real issues. Substantive issues. It takes two to engage.â
But her struggles are evident in the poll numbers. Though most surveys show the two locked in a dead heat, the numbers reveal that one of Warrenâs key talking pointsâthat a vote for Scott Brown is a vote for Wall Streetâisnât resonating (only a third of voters agree). And Brown has scored much better on the all-important likability factor, with the Globe finding earlier in the race that 52 percent of voters thought he was the more likable candidate, while just 26 percent said it was Warren. (Even Democrats âlikedâ Brown more by two points.)
Still, itâs not all bad news for Warren. Sheâs raised more money than Brown, including in the second quarter, when she pulled in $8.6 million to his $5 million (her campaign notes that she brought in $3.1 million in June despite the Native-American controversy). And this is still Massachusetts. Brown may be the incumbent, but this is a heavily Democratic state and itâs expected that a whole lot more Democrats will be turning out to vote in Novemberâs presidential election than did in the 2010 special election Brown won.
Then again, polls show that one quarter of Obama supporters are willing to cast their ballot for Brown. Thatâs the largest crossover margin of any Senate race in the country. Part of the challenge is that Warren is still learning how to be a candidate. Roger Wolfson, who studied under Warren at Penn and went on to work as a staff attorney for senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Ted Kennedy, says she has âexceptional political instincts, but political instincts and campaign instincts are not the same thing. Politiciansâ instincts are: How can I move the ball forward for me and my constituents? Campaign instincts are: How can I stick it to my opponent and avoid being stuck to? I donât think that comes naturally to her.â
The people behind Warren are hardly neophytesâRubin, for example, helped orchestrate Governor Patrickâs successful grassroots campaignsâand thatâs led to questions about whatâs going on with Warrenâs candidacy.
âPart of the problem with Warrenâs campaign is that theyâre kind of desperately trying to find a message thatâs going to resonate,â says BUâs Whalen. âIt strikes me as an amateur-run operation. And this is no time to be trying to be figuring things out. The whole notion with Elizabeth Warren was that she had a clear set of core ideas that she could sell to the voters of the commonwealth. Now sheâs a flawed candidate.â
Democratic political strategist Michael Goldman says the campaign must find a better attack against Brown.âShe needs to rewrite the narrative on him,â Goldman says. âExplain why [heâs] opposed to the one percent paying more taxes. She has to force him to explain: âWhose water are you carrying?ââ
Clearly, though, the Warren camp has decided to scale back the aggression. âSheâs playing it straightâthe frontrunnerâs defensive game,â says Democratic strategist Scott Ferson. But he argues that her campaign should be putting Warren in more authentic, unscripted moments. When you do that, he says, âYou run risks, but theyâre risks worth running because they make the person a better candidate and ultimately a better elected official. These are people who donât have to be sheltered. Theyâre smart people who can take a punch as well as throw one.â
In July, Warren and I meet for lunch at the Tavern in the Square pub in Porter Square.
Iâve been promised just 20 minutes today, but even that took weeks of back-and-forth. Warrenâs staff has continued to limit press access, and sheâs been providing the media only brief sound bites in the wake of her ancestry controversy. However that may play into her campaign strategy, the fact is that the Warren supporters Iâve spoken to lately have been expressing frustration that their candidate lacks the aggressive edge theyâve expected. âI want Elizabeth Warren to win, of course I do,â says Margie Cohen, an independent who attended a South End ice cream social. âBut I want her to shape up her campaign.â
Warren arrives to the lunch in a raspberry sweater and sporty reflective sunglasses, with a black backpack slung on her shoulders. Sheâs gracious and warm, quick with a story and a folksy aphorism, but she sticks to her talking points. So I ask about her likability problem. ââI donât knowâ is the answer partly,â she responds. âFor that youâll probably need a political pundit.â Has she detected any kind of enthusiasm gap when it comes to her supporters? âYouâre the first person to say that thereâs an enthusiasm gap at all,â she says. âPeople tell me everywhere I go why they care that I got in this race. I canât answer the question because I literally havenât experienced what youâre talking about.â
There is a moment in Confidence Men, Ron Suskindâs bestseller about the financial crisis, when he describes Warren talking with the president while heâs still on the campaign trail. Obama tells her that the campaign is a âbubble.â Suskind writes that, âElizabeth Warren would think about the man-in-a-bubble conversation all the way back to Cambridge and many times since.â And you have to wonder whether sheâs thinking about it now.
Ferson, the Democratic strategist, has seen the bubble before. Itâs typically what youâre dealing with âif you say to someone, âYouâve got a real problem,â and the candidate says, âI donât know what youâre talking about.â If you spend your day talking to the faithful who just love you, thatâs not an accurate picture of whatâs going on out there.â
Then again, Warrenâs likability numbers have been on the rise. And she and Brown have a series of debates still to come. And sheâll be sharing the podium with former President Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. And perhaps all that will give her the edge she needs to win. That and the political calculation that if candidate Elizabeth Warren can hold her mouth in a clenched smile through November, sheâll be able to pull on her gloves and go back to knocking out teeth.
Read about Elizabeth Warren’s opponent, Scott Brown.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/08/elizabeth-warren-profile-stumped/