Warren: Onto the National Stage

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Elizabeth Warren instantly becomes the national leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party (Disclosure: Warren's daughter serves on The American Prospect's governing board).

She has plenty of company among newly elected Senate Democrats. Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, and Chris Murphy in Connecticut are well to the left of the people they succeeded. Conservatives who pulled the Democrats to the right on budget issues—Kent Conrad in North Dakota and Joe Lieberman in Connecticut—are mercifully in retirement.

But taking nothing away from the other newcomers, it is Warren who is combination master strategist, principled progressive, and rock star.  Not to mention a thoroughly authentic and delightful person.

Massachusetts is a state that had never before elected a woman to the Senate and where Democrats have a very thin bench. Nobody else here could have beaten Scott Brown. But after a race that had Warren’s strategists biting their nails right up until the last few days hoping to win by a couple of points on Obama’s coattails, she beat Brown by a commanding eight points.

And Warren did this as a complete newcomer to electoral politics. She raised more money than had ever been raised in a Massachusetts Senate race. As former Governor Michael Dukakis noted when he took the microphone last night as supporters were waiting for Warren to claim victory, she had the best grassroots operation ever seen in Massachusetts.

You don’t do that with political handlers. You do it with a candidate who attracts passionate supporters.

The more Brown lit into Warren with vicious ads and snarky one-liners, the more she responded with grace and wit, and the more the electorate decided that of the two, she was the class act. That included class as in working class, not just professional class. Brown’s famous truck and overpriced barn jacket proved to be empty props.

What makes Warren so special? I had the privilege of watching her and working with her at close range when she chaired the Congressional Oversight Panel. I’ve been at this for a long time, and not since Bobby Kennedy have I seen someone who is such a natural as a progressive leader, combining intellect, principle, an intuitive feel for how to do politics, and charisma.

William F. Buckley once said that he’d rather be governed by the first hundred people in the Cambridge phone book than by the Harvard faculty. Well, Bill, one of those elitist professors just proved to be a master of the common touch.

Beyond having a steel-trap mind, the lady is a strategic genius. Warren, let’s recall, was able to pull off one of the trickiest balancing acts in Obama-era politics.

She was relentless in interrogating Tim Geithner in her role as chair of the Oversight Panel. The panel’s hearings stand as the definitive record of the flaws in the Geithner Treasury’s plan for levitating the banks. But all the while, she retained a good working relationship with President Obama personally.

She dearly wanted to chair the new consumer bureau that she thought up. She had her supporters mount a campaign to get her the job. Obama gave it to her on an acting basis, also making her a special adviser to the president. But then it dawned on Warren that she had a bigger stage to play on.

Two of her many passions, as she made clear both in the campaign and in the victory speech last night, are completing the half-finished job of making over the financial system and ensuring that Social Security and Medicare are not thrown onto the pyre of a grand bargain. On both counts, she immediately becomes part of Obama’s loyal opposition in the Democratic Party.

I recall, about a decade ago, saying to another longtime Senate-watcher that when Ted Kennedy goes, people will not know what a strategically masterful progressive senator looks like. Now we have another one. It’s entirely fitting that Elizabeth Warren takes back Ted Kennedy’s seat.

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