The Ascendance of Elizabeth Warren

Article excerpt

Understanding the woman behind the hype

If you're reading this, you probably already know how you feel about Elizabeth Warren. Warren is currently running for Senate in Massachusetts, in the hopes of knocking out Republican incumbent Scott Brown. Very few first-

time candidates are so well-known, or so passionately beloved.

For much of the past decade, Warren has made her name as a left-wing media star, appearing in documentaries and on progressive talk shows to advocate for the middle class against a corrupt financial system. In 2008, she was appointed to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). From that position, she created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), whose goal is to make mortgages and lending transparent, and to uncover predatory practices. Eighty-nine House Democrats petitioned for her to be appointed as the agency's head.

She didn't get the job. Obama passed Warren over, nominating and then appointing Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray to the post when Congress was in recess in January. Warrens forthright consumer advocacy was anathema to the banking industry, and reportedly rankled some Obama administration officials, particularly Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Instead of working with powerful banking interests who wanted to weaken the CFPB, Warren called out politicians on both sides of the aisle for their complicity. She proclaimed: "My first choice is a strong consumer agency. . . . My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor" This attitude did not make her popular with co-workers. But it did earn her massive public support. Reading Warrens press often feels like listening in on the meeting of a strange law-professor-centric fan club. "Heaven is a Place Called Elizabeth Warren," read the headline of a Rebecca Traister piece in The New York Times Magazine. "[A] modern-day Mr. Smith, giving voice to regular citizens astonished at the failure of Washington to protect Main Street" wrote Suzanna Andrews, in Vanity Fair. At Salon, Steve Kornacki predicted her 2016 presidential candidacy in November 2011, when it was uncertain whether she even had a decent chance of winning the Massachusetts Senate race. For what it's worth, Kornacki was being conservative; journalist Matt Taibbi (and, apparently, the folks at Elizabeth Warren for President. com) even wanted her to run in 2012.

Her platform in Massachusetts is the same as ever: She argues passionately for increased financial protection for the middle class and for strong governmental oversight and regulation of the economy. And she has a good chance of winning. Warren and Brown have both agreed to eschew campaign ads from Super PACs. This means they have to rely on direct donations- a good indicator of popular support. In the fourth quarter of 2011, Elizabeth Warren raised a reported $5.7 million. Brown raised half that.

And so, we're faced with an unusual situation. For the first time in memory, Mr. Smith is a girl. Stranger still, no one seems to mind.

A conspicuous absence

Women who enter the political arena in any way, no matter what their actual politics, are almost invariably plunged into public- relations hell. If they're confident and eloquent, they are portrayed as castrating. If anything less than perfectly articulate, they're portrayed as ditzes. If people find them attractive, they're called bimbos. And if not everyone finds them attractive, they're called frumpy. Their sex lives are scoured for incriminating details; when Christine O'Donnell ran for a Delaware Senate seat, Gawker found someone she'd dated to write about the condition of her pubic hair. And everyone is on the lookout for signs of incipient female hysteria: Tears, anger, or just a case of Bachmann-esque "crazy eyes" can do a woman in.

But the flood of sexist scorn to which most women in the political arena are exposed is conspicuously absent when it comes to Warren. …