Polman: On Elizabeth Warren, the bright shiny object
January 14, 2015
Elizabeth Warren continues to bedazzle people precisely because she's not running for president. If she were to actually run for president, her power to bedazzle would diminish in a flash. To quote the sage Bob Dylan, "What looks large from a distance, close up ain't never that big."
Her name came up the other night, during a political focus group convened in Colorado by pollster Peter Hart. Clearly, she's the bright shining object in our tarnished political firmament. Six of 12 participants said that Warren, among all possible 2016 contenders, was the person they'd most like to host at home. She's also the person they'd most want as a neighbor, because she's so "down to earth." Even the Republicans in the room raved about her. One of them said, "She is personable and knowledgeable and has a good handle on what's going on in the country." Another lauded her as "genuine."
Granted, these were just 12 talkers at table, hardly a scientific sampling of the public mood. But it seems clear that Warren has cut through the clutter and made a favorable first impression — which is one reason why so many liberal Democrats are jonesing for her to challenge Hillary Clinton. She strikes people as authentic, as "genuine," as "down to earth," because she doesn't talk like a standard Washington pol. Quite the opposite, in fact — and that's the attraction.
Warren is right about the power of the monied interests who dominate both political parties; and she rightly pointed out that, last month, Citibank lobbyists virtually wrote into law a new provision that allows the banks to speculate anew with government-insured money. All told, she's willing to speak truth to power in everyday language — and that's what most impressed those folks in the focus group.
But here's where I redirect your attention to my first paragraph. If Warren were to announce a presidential bid, how long would she be able to protect her pristinely populist brand?
Her single-minded message would get muddled in a heartbeat. The press would say stuff like, "Senator, we know you believe that 'the game is rigged' for the special interests, but if you became the nominee, would you campaign for fellow Democrats who take campaign contributions from the special interests? Would you insist that they return those contributions? If not, why not? If some Wall Street donors give money to you, as is their legal right, would you return their contributions? If not, why not?"
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And she'd be peppered with press questions about issues far removed from her chosen realm, such as ISIS, Syria and residual U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Any errant phrase in any response — errant, in the eyes of this faction or that faction — would immediately go viral. I suspect that Warren knows all this, which is why she seems far more comfortable leading the Democrats' lefty populist wing. Rather than risk losing herself in the campaign freak show (or become elusive like Hillary Clinton, who as yet has no core message), Warren, by opting out, can focus on her core issues and stay true to herself.
Heck, she even scored a political victory on Monday, when President Obama's nominee for the number three Treasury job — Lazard banker Antonio Weiss — withdrew his name. Warren had been banging away at Weiss for weeks, arguing that a Wall Street guy shouldn't oversee Wall Street. Weiss had many Democratic defenders — he'd long donated generously to party candidates — but Warren and others on the party left made enough noise to make a difference.
Indeed, Weiss is arguably collateral damage in an ongoing tug-of-war between the Warren wing and the Democratic mainstream, over the future direction of the party. Warren can arguably wage that war more effectively if she retains her purity. No way she can do that while running the campaign gauntlet.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (news-works.org/polman) and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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