She might be more like the Lion of the Senate than she gets credit for.
Ted Kennedy gets a grand celebration Monday. That’s when crowds of political boldfacers, including Barack and Michelle Obama, will gather in the Dorchester section of Boston for the formal dedication of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. Memories of Teddy will be many, gauzy, heartwarming and moving, but the real buzz will be all about his successor, Elizabeth Warren: hero to progressives, nemesis of Wall Street, and a source of consternation to more mainstream pols of both the left and right—not the least of which is Hillary Clinton. “Can Elizabeth Warren be the new Ted Kennedy?” wonders Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi in a recent column. One answer is that she doesn’t have to be; after all, Ted Kennedy wasn’t always Ted Kennedy either. The second answer is that she already is.
Kennedy may have ended his 47-year career billed the “Lion of the Senate” but he didn’t start that way. He was just a 28-year-old kid when his brother was elected president, thereby leaving an empty senate seat in Massachusetts. Teddy wanted it but he was too young; the US Constitution requires senators be at least 30. That problem was easily managed. The White House successfully prevailed on Massachusetts governor Foster Furcolo to appoint a seat-warmer to the position, making sure Ted had a clear run when he was of age.
His election was a cakewalk. His primary opponent, Edward J. McCormack, ruefully observed that if Teddy’s name were Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, his candidacy “would be a joke.” It mattered not; America and the Bay State especially were in the throes of Camelot. Kennedy won handily. Still, no one in Washington thought much of Teddy. His seat was a gift, courtesy of his brother. He had political skills, to be sure—he had been invaluable in John’s race for the presidency—but no one thought he had much gravitas.
Warren, on the other hand, is steeped in gravitas. She’s an academic, a specialist in bankruptcy law who built her career on groundbreaking research about how debt affects ordinary consumers. Beginning at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, she hopscotched to several other law schools before finally ending up at Harvard Law. During the 2008 economic crisis she was named one of the overseers of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act and was later the brains behind the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. By then, she was a middle-class hero, too, a regular on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show as well as Dr. Phil. She had also made a number of enemies on the right, to the eternal regret of another Massachusetts senator.
Warren should have been named the first head of the CFPB but Obama demurred, thinking conservatives would scotch her confirmation. At loose ends, her eyes turned towards Massachusetts and Sen. Scott Brown.
Brown, a GOP state senator and former Cosmo centerfold, had improbably won the special election held shortly after Kennedy’s death in 2009. Brown’s easy-going manner had less to do with his victory than did Democrats taking the election for granted. This was Ted Kennedy’s seat after all, they had thought, an idea Brown memorably rebutted: “It’s the people’s seat.”
But Massachusetts is Massachusetts, the bluest of the blue states, and Brown’s politics made for an uncomfortable fit. When the regular election came up in 2012, Warren made her move. With the support of seemingly the entire state Democratic establishment, she was unopposed for the nomination. Her national celebrity allowed her to easily outraise Brown—she took in $39 million—and she defeated him with 54 percent of the vote.
Brown’s win had interrupted the narrative: One liberal should have led to the next. Warren’s win fixed it: Brown’s clever line notwithstanding, she was the rightful heir to Kennedy’s seat and the rightful heir, as well, to lead the Democratic Party’s progressive wing.
Kennedy struggled to define himself when he first entered the Senate; it was easy to paint him a lightweight. A 1964 plane crash left him with permanent injuries but also spurred him to start focusing his attention on public policy and his role in the Senate. Over time, he emerged as the liberal’s liberal, an unabashed proponent of government intervention typified by his most famous speech, given after he lost the 1980 presidential nomination to Jimmy Carter: “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
Warren didn’t have to struggle to define herself; she entered the Senate with instant credibility. Her rhetoric doesn’t soar like Kennedy’s, but its articulation of progressive values is just as unabashed, as in this campaign upbraiding to go-it-alone conservatives: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. ... You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
Each seized on a central issue, grounded in personal experience. For Kennedy, it was healthcare, “the cause of my life“ and a topic that began to consume him after he was injured. It was a life-long quest. He first introduced national healthcare legislation in 1970 and was defeated at every turn, never giving up and ultimately only realizing his dream with the advent of Obamacare—legislation he never actually got to see signed into law.
Warren’s focus on finances had its genesis in her childhood; her family was nearly ruined by debt. The “game is rigged” she believes, and “it’s rigged in favor of those who have money and who have power.” That was the driving force behind her push for the CFPB and her unyielding, no compromises, speak-truth-to-power approach is what has won her the hearts of Democratic progressives.
But that same unyielding approach is what, in the minds of many, distinguishes her from Kennedy.
Robert Caro called Lyndon Baines Johnson the “Master of the Senate,” but the title could also have applied to Kennedy. After Chappaquiddick and his loss to Carter in 1980, Kennedy finally committed himself wholeheartedly to the body, abandoning dreams for the presidency. His record of accomplishment was striking: more than 2,500 pieces of legislation introduced and over 300 passed into law. Among his signature pieces were campaign finance reform, COBRA and No Child Left Behind. He was a man of many personal demons—too much liquor and too many women—but he also made friends easily and got along well with all manner of individuals. He was focused on results and cajoled, flattered, bargained and harangued with whomever necessary to get them.
And Warren’s legislative record? It’s thin, at best. Granted, the comparison is unfair; she’s just over two years into her job. Still, from the first, she’s appeared to brook no compromise. Late last year, worried a spending bill was too lenient on big banks, she threatened to stymie bipartisan efforts to avoid a government shutdown. “You’re tired, you’re frustrated, you’re upset about a provision in the bill you don’t like,” berated Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, “Welcome to democracy.” Seemingly channeling Sen. Ted Cruz, she later took on the Obama administration, shooting down its nomination of Wall Streeter Antonio Weiss to a senior Treasury post. And earlier this month, investor superstar (and Democratic stalwart) Warren Buffet rebuked Warren as well. “I think she would be better if she was less angry and demonized less,” he said on CNBC.
Warren seems anything but Kennedyesque. She’s a loner who goes her own way. She just wants to make waves. She seems not to understand—or even care for—the very essence of the Senate and of the legislative process. Indeed, over just the last few days, JP Morgan and Citigroup, furious at Warren’s attacks, have said they’ll stop donating to Senate Democrats. Warren, unconcerned, pushed back harshly, “They can threaten or bully or say whatever they want, but we aren’t going to change our game plan.”
Would Kennedy have said that?
The image of Kennedy as the well-regarded inside player reaching across the aisle is a bit of myth-making. For much of his career, Kennedy was a lightning rod. Republicans used him as a liberal punching bag; caricatures of him made for reliable fundraising appeals. He raised issues and pushed causes that often were before their time, including gay rights and women’s pay. Nor was Kennedy unswervingly loyal to his party. He broke with Jimmy Carter and ran against him in 1980, an ugly fight that split the party and arguably made possible Ronald Reagan’s ultimate victory. And during the Reagan years he was the ardent voice of the opposition, pushing back against any manner of Reagan initiatives, both domestic and foreign (including, notably, aid to the Contras and the build-up of weapons aimed at the USSR).
And then, of course, Kennedy was the one who singlehandedly stopped the nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. That “Borking” was a sharp departure from traditional Senate rules of decorum and arguably ushered in an era of stridency that persists to this day.
In fact, much of what Kennedy did sounds quite Warrenesque.
The centerpiece of the Institute for the U.S. Senate is a full-scale reproduction of the Senate chambers. Every day, participants can play senator, re-enacting famous legislative battles and seeing how the complicated process of drafting, negotiating and compromise can lead (or not) to a passage of a bill. It’s a good and valuable lesson about how to get things done.
But the lesson should not be that that’s the only way to get things done. Kennedy’s life was about public service and the Senate was a means to accomplish that end. Legislation was one tactic, but, as Kennedy’s own career demonstrated, the Senate could also a bully pulpit, a platform for grand ideas and a place to be the opposition. That, it seems, it what Warren is doing. Someday she may use the legislative process to achieve her own goals. For the moment though, the tactics she’s deploying are remarkably effective—so much so that all manner of folks (including her hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe) have urged her to jump into the presidential race. She’ll likely not heed their pleas, happy where she is. Just as surely as did Kennedy, Warren is using the Senate to make stuff happen.
This column was first published in Politico on March 29, 2015.