Why Push Elizabeth Warren to Join America’s Most Ineffective Body?

The news reports in the lead-up to this weekend’s announcement that Obama was ending the career of yet another prescient female bank regulator, this time even before it started, prepped the progressive community to champion an Elizabeth Warren run for Ted Kennedy’s MA Senate seat.

And so the usual suspects are out in force arguing that Warren would be better off running for Senate than she would be shaming Republicans for trying to kill off the CFPB.

Whoever is nominated to lead the CFPB is going to spend the next year of his life being filibustered by Republicans. The very best he can hope for is a recess appointment, in which case his tenure in the position would be relatively swift. So the question isn’t who you want leading the CFPB for the foreseeable future. It’s who you want spending his or her time being stopped from leading the CFPB for the foreseeable future. And it’s not clear that the answer to that question is “Elizabeth Warren.”

Warren, after all, has another option that she appears to be taking seriously: challenging Scott Brown in the 2012 election. For reasons I’ve outlined here and Bob Kuttner elaborates on here, there’s reason to think she would be a very effective candidate. But if she wants to do that, she can’t spend the next year being blocked from leading the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She has to spend at least part of it preparing for her candidacy.

Now, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Warren would prefer to lead the agency she’s built than launch a Senate campaign that may or may not succeed. But launching a Senate campaign that may or may not succeed seems like a clearly more effective way to protect her agency and further her ideas than being blocked from leading the agency she’s built.

Not only does this view not even consider whether Warren–or a relatively unknown midwestern politician–would be more effective making the public case for the bureau.

But it also seems to confuse the value of running for Senate with actually serving in the Senate.

What the people hailing a possible Warren run are arguing, effectively, is that the consolation prize for the banks having beat her on CFPB should be junior membership in a body that–as Dick Durbin has told us–the banks own.

Even putting aside the power of the banking lobby in the Senate, under what model would Senator Warren be effective championing progressive values, or even just “protect[ing] the agency she’s built”? Even assuming the Democrats kept the same number of seats they currently have on the Senate Banking Committee, even assuming Democratic leadership has already promised her the seat that Herb Kohl’s retirement will open up, that will still make her one of just three progressives (the other two being Jeff Merkley and Sherrod Brown) on a committee that has long been actively working against her CFPB candidacy. Even assuming Democrats keep the Senate, how amenable is Chairman Tim Johnson–a bank-owned hack–going to be to Warren’s ideas? If Richard Shelby were Chair, it’d be even worse.

And what about Warren’s effectiveness in the Senate as a whole–that body, under Democratic leadership, where good ideas go to die? Name a progressive Senator who has been able to do much to champion progressive ideas there? Sanders? Franken? Whitehouse? Sherrod Brown? I love all those guys, and like Sanders and especially Franken, Warren would presumably be able to leverage her public support to push some ideas through. But are any of them more effective at championing progressive values than Warren was before her White House gig, when she regularly appeared on the media and excoriated the banks in terms that made sense to real people? Just as an example, Byron Dorgan used to be effective before his progressive, deficit-cutting ideas were killed by the leader of his party. Similarly, Ted Kaufman turned out to be a surprisingly effective check on the banks, but that was partly because he came in knowing he’d never run for election (and he also knew, coming in, the tricks a lifetime of service as a Senate aide teaches).

Don’t get me wrong. I understand why the Democratic Party would like to have Warren in the Senate. I even understand how Warren might consider a Senate seat to be similar to her earlier public position, with the added benefit of having one vote to push progressive issues. I don’t dismiss the likelihood that Elizabeth Warren might be able to prevent a sixth corporatist judge from getting a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court.

I don’t think a Senator Elizabeth Warren would be a bad thing–I just think folks are far overselling what good it would bring.

It really seems the push for a Warren Senate candidacy ignores what a Booby Prize membership in the Senate has become of late.

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41 replies
  1. marksb says:

    Interesting points, sounds about right.

    And I can’t help but think back to the back-slapping GOP/baggers after Brown was elected in the “liberal” state of MA. It was a serious media-centric party.

    I’d love to see a died-in-the-wool progressive, a thinking person that calls the banks on their shit, take that seat from him just two years later. I don’t know if it would take the wind from the bagger’s sails, but it would help–and rate a quiet little party at my house.

  2. radiofreewill says:

    It appears that the rich have genuine power…

    …no black man can levy a tax on them…

    …and no woman can tell them what to do.

  3. William Ockham says:

    To make it a little more effective?
    (Answering the question in the post title…)

    Except that isn’t the real reason why the people who can push it are pushing her candidacy.

    Of course, they are overselling the good it would bring. That’s their job. What they see in Warren is pretty simple: A chance to unseat an incumbent senator in an election that is not likely to be a wave election (at least for the Dems). I’m pretty sure the DSCC would singing the praises of anyone that could give them that (with the possible exceptions of Rupert Murdoch or Satan himself, assuming Rupert isn’t actually Satan, a point that might be up for debate fairly soon).

  4. marksb says:

    Question: How many strong progressive senators would it take to turn that house into an effective institution? Shouldn’t one more be seen as another step in the right direction? Should we think that because we can’t make it an effective in the short term, that we shouldn’t work to make it so in the long term?

  5. nomolos says:

    Totally off subject but very interesting:

    6.11pm: Sean Hoare, the former News of the World showbiz reporter who was the first named journalist to allege Andy Coulson was aware of phone hacking by his staff, has been found dead, the Guardian has learned.
    Hoare, who worked on the Sun and the News of the World with Coulson before being dismissed for drink and drugs problems, is said to have been found dead at his Watford home.

    Hertfordshire police would not confirm his identity, but the force said in a statement: “At 10.40am today [Monday 18 July] police were called to Langley Road, Watford, following the concerns for welfare of a man who lives at an address on the street. Upon police and ambulance arrival at a property, the body of a man was found.The man was pronounced dead at the scene shortly after.

    “The death is currently being treated as unexplained, but not thought to be suspicious. Police investigations into this incident are ongoing.”

  6. Jim White says:

    Why not go all the way and take her to the ineffective presidency? Warren/Johnsen 2012!

  7. ex-PFC Chuck says:

    Elizabeth Warren should challenge Barrack Obama for the Democratic Party nomination for President, framing the race as a fight for the soul of the party. Obama has eviscerated the party’s capacity to develop a coherent and appealing ‘master narrative’, to use Drew Westen’s term. (http://amzn.to/nR6rrF) Without such a challenge from an appealing candidate such as Warren, 2012 will be a down-ticket disaster for the Democrats, even if Obama wins reelection. In conducting her campaign, Warren should make no commitment to support the eventual nominee. The threat of a third party or independent candidacy coalescing around her might concentrate the minds of some of the party’s poobahs.

  8. marksb says:

    “Police investigations into this incident are ongoing.”

    That ought to take care of it.

  9. Katie Jensen says:

    Well, it’s getting harder and harder to deny the theory we’ve been working with in regard to Obama’s commitment to the progressive agenda, when predictions about his behavior start being validated. Under this theory some folks are accurately able to predict his next moves.

  10. No Telling says:

    Um .. While I agree with your points to a certain extent, I’d like to point out that the only way to turn the Senate back into an effective body is to start electing competent, thoughtful people to it.

    While I consider a strong CFPB to be critical for helping solve the Financial side, I consider a functioning Senate and House to be more important, essential and critical to the welfare of the nation state.

    A functioning Senate/House can always go back and fix a dysfunctional or disbanded CFPB. But a strong CFPB can’t fix Congress.

    The problem is that we need Elizabeth Warren in each place now.

  11. prostratedragon says:

    “Why Push Elizabeth Warren to Join America’s Most Ineffective Body?”

    I want to say it again!

    Actually, I also would rather see someone else who’s already more of a politician doing the sacrificial primary thing (don’t kid yourself that it would be anything else unless Gabriel’s trumpet blows) against Obama. Among other things, that would help keep Prof. Warren available as a solid public servant.

  12. ferd says:

    Warren and Krugman could team up to form an actually honest bank, insurance, family savings and investment advice company.

    Think, for example, what an straight shooter credit card issuer could do.

    Millions of Americans would leap for a manifestly honest card; one with clear disclosure and guidance and advice on all details. And then, with customer permission, the card co. could begin to aggregate and study the in-rushing flood of data to discover which products seem to last, and which are returned or repaired too often — discover which doctors get results, and which don’t (too many return trips for same ailment) — which repair services do a good job and charge decent rates, and which don’t — which language learning package really works (customers who buy a a good one show up buying a second) . . .

    Such a credit card co. could help us negotiate group purchasing rates on many important things. Medical care, pharmaceuticals, dental floss, individual fruit pies.

  13. nomolos says:

    Frankly I do believe for one moment that she would want to subject herself to any more of the childish and destructive infighting known as politics these days. And she has certainly seen enough of the turncoat democrats to last a lifetime.

  14. Mary says:

    I think the US Senate is a horribly ineffective place for someone like Warren to serve. Horrible. She would have made some impact on the bench, but Obama is far too bought off to put anyone like her on the bench.

    It’s too bad.

    OTOH, the Senate’s a corrupt worthless institution that has nothing really left to recommend it – she may as well end up there as anyone else.

    With everyone wanting constitutional amendments these days, how about just getting rid of the Senate and all its trappings and costs and corrupt “on my way to a lobbying career” staffers etc.? For that matter, why not axe most of the Fed criminal code other than civil rights and most of the DOJ with it?

    The problem is that the groups who really do more harm than good for this country – the CIA, DoD, FBI, Dept of JustkeepingcriminalsintheExecutivebranchcozy, etc. – whatever the budget issues, those guys are going to wade through buckets of money. Cutting government has nothing to do with its most corrupt institutions, like most of the Congress – it has to do with little old ladies being relieved of the decision over whether to pay for utilities and fans, rent, food or drugs – by not having money to pay for any of them.

    Warren in the US Senate won’t make a rats ass worth of difference on anything that means anything – she just will give the DSCC a possible opportunity to crow over a “win” they can put in their column.

  15. Jim White says:

    So is there anyplace in these corrupt things that have become US governance and the financial system where someone of Warren’s convictions could make a difference? I’m hard-pressed to come up with a real suggestion.

  16. Jim White says:

    What, you mean Timmeh isn’t teh awesome?

    Actually, that would be a great spot for her…

  17. EoH says:

    I agree with bmaz: the Cordray “nomination” is another Dawn Johnsen gambit. It is the sort of thing that Barack Obama has made his specialty, in an attempt to avoid the public realizing how conservative, corporatist, and establishmentarian he is, and how much that pits him against the interests of middle and working class Americans, who comprise the vast majority of voters of both parties.

  18. EoH says:

    Dropping Ms. Warren in the Senate would effectively bury her progressivism on an issue crucial to middle and working class Americans: consumer finance, which is becoming overwhelmingly predatory, owing to lax laws and poor oversight.

    If Mr. Obama were anything like his rhetoric, he would be championing Warren’s appointment to the CFPB. Instead, he has derailed it. In fact, he has been working for a year to derail the CFPB; his nomination of Cordray is merely an expression of it.

    This is not a fight involving Obama against the Republicans. It is a fight pitting Obama and the Republicans against working Americans.

    Rest assured that were Ms. Warren to put her hat into the senate race for Mass., the Democratic powers that be would do everything in their power to re-elect the GOP’s Brown. They would then turn around and tell their base that they tried hard, but the voters made their call.

    Expect also to hear something like this for the next year: Gosh, darn it, we’re ineffective at promoting your interests. In fact, we more often fight long and hard against them. But support us with your time and money, because the GOP wolf is at the door. Never mind Granny in the bedroom with her long ears and sharp teeth.

  19. gmoke says:

    There is already a fairly good slate of MA Senate candidates, all better than Martha Coakley. In particular, Bob Massie is quite impressive but gets absolutely no respect from the media and the pundits. He has a long track record bringing environmental concerns to mainstream businesses and a personal story which is miraculous but “Elizabeth Warren may run” is taking all the oxygen from the other, declared candidates.

  20. EoH says:

    Mass. is among the most liberal of American states. California lost the title, owing to its state legislature’s chronic inability to pass budgets – owing to an absurd voting requirement that gives a minority party (the Goopers) an effective veto over them – and its manifest willingness to cut the higher education and other programs that once led to its premier position in the United States.

    The not-so-liberal Mr. Obama and his rightwing political advisers might well consider it a benefit to derail the Democrats in that state by promoting a new candidate, Warren. If she wins the primary and general, the DC Dems will take credit. If they derail her, they will write it off to her shrillness, her novice stature as an elected politician, or “the will of the people”, which they normally disregard.

    Regardless of whether Warren won the primary, her candidacy would distract and gum up the state Democratic machinery. If she did win, it’s not likely that the Dems DC leadersheep would welcome her or any other liberal senator from Mass. with open arms.

  21. Fractal says:

    Marcy, your analysis is quite sharp and convincing. It’s so good you rattled a bunch of us. So the push-back is also quite persuasive! I like the simple points that the Senate will stay ineffective until we start putting people in it like Elizabeth Warren, she can knock off the annoying stud who stole Ted Kennedy’s seat, etc.

    Anyway, Warren is not really “from” Massachusetts, I think she grew up in Kansas, so who’s to say what state she might run in?

    Still, I went ahead and pledged monthly contribs to the Draft Warren fund over on ActBlue and I still signed the petition. [Blush]

  22. P J Evans says:

    Why push her toward the senate at all? If she wants to run, she’s certainly capable of making the decision without being pushed. (And if you have to push someone into doing something,I’d take that as a sign that they didn’t want to do it in the first place.)

  23. Dameocrat says:

    So what are you suggesting she do precisely, and dont give us this huffpost line of joining some undefined citizens movement, with no definition of what it will do and what its goals are and how it will change things precisely. I would like to see her run for President as an indy or a green or a new labor party. The dem party sucks no doubt but why arent you saying what you think she should do instead.

  24. orionATL says:

    but then,

    the senate desperately needs to be purged of great numbers of its current democratic incumbents.

    many of these unworthy senators think, speak, and vote as closet “moderate republicans” cum national security freaks.

    if warren is genuinely interested, unlike caroline kennedy, then she would be a good voice to join the udalls, franken, whitehouse, and a few others (who do not come rapidly to mind) as real democrats.

    until the republican-leaning, security-blankie democrats are purged from the senate, that body – corpse, really – will remain a dead-end, do-little institution.

    too much is made these days of the rules of the senate and the essential chumminess of the senate.

    lyndon johnson faced those same rules, but, thank god, he was no tom daschle or harry reid.

  25. orionATL says:

    i could have saved myself some trouble if i had just bothered to read fractal’s straightforward statement above at 9:29pm.

  26. orionATL says:

    and pjevans comment, also at 9:29, makes a good point.

    in fact, in brings to mind the distinct possibility that this sudden “eliz warren for senate” is just another too-clever-by half ploy by obama’s rodent to protect his boss from blame for not putting warren in as chair of the consumer protection board.

    our prez, the hyper-rational, no-fight-is-worth-fighting political calculator.

  27. Bob Schacht says:

    bmaz on July 18, 2011 at 4:26 pm said:

    “Treasury Secretary. Is that a helpful suggestion?”

    No, it is not a helpful suggestion because she has even less chance of being confirmed as Treasury Secretary than being confirmed as head of the CFPB.

    What are you drinking this morning?

    Bob in AZ

  28. JSF says:

    Elizabeth Warren is change I can believe in. That is, her message is the kind of change I wanted three years ago. Compare the nonstop bullshit we’ve seen regarding post-2008 financial reform with Warren’s message, which is so clear it scares the living crap out of the bankers.

  29. JSF says:

    Dear Elizabeth Warren,

    Please make a return visit to “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. Please produce a series of YouTube videos. Please make a smartly-produced independent documentary film (I’ll donate). The financial services industry wants you silenced. Please make some noise.

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