U.S. Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren makes her victory speech during her election night party at the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel in Boston, Mass. on Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Elizabeth Warren, the first female senator to be elected by the state of Massachusetts, has long been the scourge of Wall Street. Her championing of the middle class, and sustained, scorching attacks on banks and billionaires meant her solid triumph over Scott Brown this week had the Daily Beast calling her the “Badass Senator”, while BusinessWeek warned: ‘She’s baaaaack.”
When I asked her once why she was so loathed by the corporate world the Oklahoma born Harvard law professor shrugged, saying: "I don't have the right background. I don't have the right sex. And I can't keep my mouth shut. It is like a physical pain for me."
Warren has been pain-free over the past few months as she campaigned vigorously in the state formerly held by Democrat lion, Teddy Kennedy, for 47 years. A remarkably articulate, fervent and bright woman, Warren made populism palatable, and voiced the broad anger towards bankers on Wall Street during the recession. (A 2010 Pew poll found only one in four Americans think positively about their banks, and a majority wanted financial sector reform.)
As a legal academic, Warren spent three decades researching bankruptcy, and the shrinking of the American middle class, which she says occurred because of dramatic rises in basic living costs like health and education. Her most significant study found more than 50 per cent of Americans forced to declare bankruptcy did so because they could not afford medical care. She has long argued for more accountability, transparency and protection of consumers. They must, she insists, at least understand what they are signing in mortgages and credit applications that are longer and more complicated than ever before. Warren was the foremost advocate for the need for a Consumer Protection Agency, though Republicans blocked her appointment to it when it was created.
Warren first bonded with Obama over the need to counter predatory lending, and when he appointed her head of the Congressional Oversight Committee, she became responsible for monitoring the bailout money – for which no accountability was demanded from banks that were beneficiaries.
At her speech at the Democratic Convention Warren was indignant: “Wall Street C.E.O.’s — the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs — still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them. The people on Wall Street broke this country, and they did it one lousy mortgage at a time.”
She went on to eviscerate Romney’s statement that corporations were people: “No, Governor Romney, corporations are not people. People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die. And that matters because we don’t run this country for corporations, we run it for people.”
Now Warren will be strutting around Congress too. She may be given the one open Democratic seat on the Senate Banking Committee, though there will be many jostling for that spot. She returns just as Congress is beginning to revise the crucial Dodd-Frank Act, which overhauled the financial regulatory system after the 2008 financial crisis.
Journalists are already discussing her chances of a presidential bid; she is too far left to make this realistic, but it reflects the fierce energy of her supporters, and the adoration of the media who lap up her homespun, incisive commentary with relish. The last time I saw Jon Stewart interview her, he said he wanted to lean across the table and kiss her.
Mark Liebovich, Chief National Correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, told me she: “reminds many over-educated media types of a favorite college professor - tough, enthusiastic, accessible - which in turn awakens a nostalgia for youth and possibility.” Others see her as “a self-righteous scold”, but “either way, she elicits strong and passionate reaction, which will always be magnetic to media attention.”
It will be fascinating to watch Warren try to model consensus while still channeling outrage; to continue to speak truth to authority while possessing some of that authority, to not alienate Republicans while Obama tries to strike deals over the debt ceiling. She will need to reign in her obvious antagonism to business and “big guys” if she is to help broker bipartisan deals. In her first press conference after the election, she said she would try to be more discreet.
It’s refreshing to hear at least one strong voice who doesn’t play semantic games with what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness,” though. Agree with her views or not, it would be a shame if Warren’s blazing, rare candor were entirely stifled.