Strongest Progressive in the Room

Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor serving as temporary head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), must wish she had a clone.

One would stay in Washington to fight for the strongest possible consumer financial protection bureau, doing battle with predators in the financial industry, their Republican allies in Congress, and fainthearted colleagues at the Treasury.

The other Warren would run for the Senate in Massachusetts.

Both of these are hugely important jobs, but of course, there is only one Elizabeth Warren.

Though Warren has her heart set on the consumer bureau job -- an agency that she devised and worked to keep in strong form in the Dodd-Frank Act -- there is increasing pressure on her to run for the Senate from Massachusetts. And while Warren's supporters need to keep urging President Barack Obama to make a strong appointment to a strong consumer agency, Warren may well conclude that the more important service to her country and to American progressivism is the Senate.

Why? For starters, how many political leaders can you think of who have a gift for translating the lived injustices and pocketbook frustrations of Americans into a compelling progressive policy narrative? How many combine this with exceptional expertise, charm, dogged energy, and disarming political shrewdness?

Most of the great progressive heroes who had both popular followings and legislative and narrative skills are gone from the Senate. Ted Kennedy played that role. So did Paul Wellstone and Russ Feingold. A generation ago, before Ronald Reagan, at least 30 progressive senators did. But today, the American public hardly knows what an effective, fighting progressive national leader looks like. (Disclosure: Warren's daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, is head of The American Prospect's board of directors and that of our publishing partner, Demos.)

Warren has already established herself as such a figure by making an obscure ad hoc agency, the Congressional Oversight Panel, into the most important venue for expressing cogent opposition to the disastrous financial dominance of the economy. If you doubt her sublime effectiveness, read the transcripts of the panel's hearings. The panel offered the program and politics that the Obama administration should have embraced but didn't.

No matter how effective the consumer bureau, it's harder to play that role when one of your job functions is adviser to the president. But if elected to the Senate, she instantly becomes a key national leader of American progressivism.

Second, Warren is authentic, superb at mobilizing public opinion, and even better at playing an astute inside game. Warren drives the right wing nuts because she is so good at talking economic issues to ordinary people and showing up the right's phony economic populism. Her Oklahoma small-town roots are at the core of who she is.

She drives Wall Street crazy because she sees right through their efforts to mystify wrongdoing as too complex for regulatory comprehension. And she is a wonderful thorn in the side of the banker-oriented advisers at the Treasury whose counsel is sinking the Obama presidency (they would probably throw her a big going-away party).

Third, she is one of the few progressive heroes who has become an admired media figure and has already built a national following. This would serve her well as head of the consumer bureau, but the Senate is the more important platform. The bureau is likely to suffer enervating battles on every front -- from funding to administration infighting, bank lobbying, and court battles. Under the best of circumstances, it can only do so much.

Fourth, Warren is probably the only candidate who could beat incumbent Scott Brown. The current Massachusetts Democratic field is appallingly weak. Brown got very lucky in the 2010 special election. He casts a few tactical votes with Democrats, but he was elected thanks to the groundwork of the Tea Party, and the Tea Party just does not represent Massachusetts.

Though Warren's day job is professor at the Harvard Law School, Brown comes across as more Harvard than she does, pick-up truck or not. She is about as plain-folk as it gets, and it's no act. She would only get stronger with more exposure.

It will take a small miracle for Dems to hold the Senate in a year when the arithmetic as well as the economy is against the Democrats. Just 11 GOP seats are up, and fully 23 Democratic ones are. Several of these Democratic seats are already gone. But if any state should be contestable, it is liberal Massachusetts. That's why so many Democrats are imploring Warren to make the Senate race.

If Warren does opt for the Senate, she owes it to herself and to America's consumers to make sure that the consumer bureau is in good hands, and in good condition. Though respect for her has led other possible candidates to decline the job in favor of Warren, there are others in fact who could do the job. One is her deputy, Raj Date. Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that Date is being considered for the post. It's hard to imagine Date letting his name go forward without Warren's consent.

The consumer bureau deserves a strong and effective leader. That surely could be Elizabeth Warren. But she may conclude that she is needed on a bigger stage.

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