When the Obama administration was deciding how to deal with the Elizabeth Warren question, they faced a lot of competing pressures. Progressives had become invested in Warren's appointment to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency that exists because it was Warren's idea in the first place. Banks and Republicans, on the other hand, don't much like Warren, so there would be a fight over her appointment. And the White House obviously wasn't sure it wanted to have that fight.
You can argue with the conclusion it came to -- making Warren an "assistant to the president," so she can oversee the establishment of the agency, while putting off the question of who will ultimately lead it for another day. But what's so remarkable is that there was even any question about whether, politically speaking, they should pick this fight with the other side.
Because it should have been a no-brainer. Here you have a brilliant, folksy, compelling, charismatic figure, whose nomination would be controversial because she might be too tough on the big banks. And the Republicans were going to take the banks' side. Right now, the big banks are about as popular as cancer. And you aren't going to see Republicans oppose the administration's nominee to head the National Cancer Institute because he might be too tough on cancer. So why wouldn't Democrats want to have an argument about which side thinks it's not a problem that credit-card contracts are now 30 pages of hidden fees and confusing tricks?
But here's what's really crazy: the White House wasn't completely wrong. Yes, having a controversy over a Republican filibuster of Warren's nomination would have given them the opportunity to sharpen the distinction between the two parties and demonstrate who's on the side of ordinary people. But in the end, there's a fair chance that all that would have gotten subsumed within a larger "Washington gridlock" narrative that only helps the GOP.
Republicans understand this very well. It's why they aren't afraid to go to the mat to protect incredibly unpopular tax cuts for the wealthy. They understand that the way it will be reported, and what most voters will hear, will be "Squabble squabble squabble taxes, squabble squabble squabble small business, squabble squabble squabble government." And that gives them the freedom to do what they want, even when what they want isn't very popular. On a certain level, you've got to hand it to them.
-- Paul Waldman