Thursday, August 18, 2011

At the Feet of Passion: Elizabeth Warren

As insubstantial as Elizabeth Warren is physically, she is a monster in intellect, insight and rhetoric. With the help of a serious team — including Doug Rubin and Kyle Sullivan, who wrote the lyrics and choreographed the moves that gave us Gov. Deval Patrick — and the sudden splash of an exploratory committee, she is a click away from running for U.S. Senator from MA next year.

Reuben Kantor helped with the JP meet and greet, but is not an advisor.

After sitting a few feet away as she worked the 70 or so of us last evening, I went in dubious and came out impressed. Despite last night's cost of admission to the event (no quotes), I got Sullivan's blessing by cell this afternoon to write what I want. That's a relief, as I have some index cards here that need transcription. I regret not turning on the digital recorder, so you could get more than a small taste.

She's hot stuff. She's real. She's earthy, most particularly rare for a Harvard faculty member. Her entry into this race for the seat that Scott Brown is warming might raise the level of discussion an order of magnitude. For all his clich├ęs and bobble-headed sappiness, Brown is not stupid, but I'd bet she has 30 IQ points on his...and more important, an abiding understanding of and respect for the middle and lower classes.

So,what you might ask was it like to sit in a room overflowing with JP pinkos and progressives with Warren?

Inconsequential disclaimers: I found myself identifying with her more than I expected. I'm a year and a couple of days order than she. We're both long-term Boston-area residents, who were born in Oklahoma — always a conversation stopper around here. She's Southern enough to have good manners (and to expect good manners) and yet be plain spoken. It must have been a terrific surprise to her, as shown in the video, when ethically dim Republicans called her a liar. I bet she is incapable of deceit.

Talented orator


From my hour with her, I think Warren's only delusion is that she is loud. She did the school-teacher thing and pulled the audience in toward her feet in the living room, with the dining room peeking in and a few hallway and front porch lurkers. She has a nice, rotund delivery, but is no stentor.

Yet her ideas and passions are so powerful that she seems much larger than her voice or body. she is not big and does not dress big, not like a business slut or lawyer set to impress with tailoring. Instead, she was like an updated beatnik, in black trousers and top, with a long, open, tan cardigan sort of duster thingummy. The effect was judge what I say, not what I wear.

Indeed what she said was powerful. She had been to two or three of these staged listening events (which were a lot more audience listening to her than she to them) already yesterday. She was not tired though.

She started with bio slivers considerably more evocative and powerful than Brown's immaculate barn coat or spotless pickup bought to lug around hay for his privileged daughter's pony. She was a hick from poor stock in our mutual birth state. She had a magnificent grandma tale of widowed great granddad on a horse headed out in the Sooner land rush to an arable plot, while her grandmother drove a wagon of household goods and siblings behind. That was not a trust-fund history, but the authentic American pioneer story.

She still could smile as she recounted growing up "on the ragged edge of the middle class." She remembers her mother weighing how sick the child or children really were against whether they had been able to pay the doctor anything on their bill to justify a visit. She remembers being delighted at 9 to earn 35¢ an hour babysitting a terribly colicky baby and relieving small bit of strain on the family. She is well aware of how important it was to be the first in her family to get a college education and feels deeply grateful for state colleges that let students work their way through to such accomplishment.

She married at 19, had her first child, Amelia, at 22, and threw herself into potty training so she could attend Rutgers Law with a little one. All of these elements live through her understanding of and compassion for ordinary people's challenges to survive and thrive. Much of her academic and financial research at the university and federal level reflects these realities of the masses. In fact, the drive to create the Consumer Financial Protect Bureau over the howls and bricks of the many in Congress and lobbyists who don't know or don't care about plain folk has been quite a shock down on the Potomac.

Bankers or families


In that sense, Warren displayed her amazing populism in that hour in JP. She described our terrifying recession as "a crisis of one family at a time and one lousy mortgage at a time."

Therein appeared the theme of the evening. Not only did she see the problem clearly, she was enough of a scholar to come in with solution(s). Unlike not only Brown, but most in both the Senate and House, Warren wants to understand both the problem and the solution.

In the case of the current economic morass, she pointed to the real national lesson from the Great Depression. That is, "Write a good set of rules." Then, as with the FDR administration forward, we got 50 years to apply those rules, revitalize the middle class, and get America working.

That's one aspect of her consumer bureau work in D.C. She saw the need for very specific good rules for credit cards, mortgages and such. Even when she learned that many in and around Congress wanted to smother her effort and have her crawl away, she knew her job wasn't complete. She gave great credit to President Barack Obama for saying and continuing to say he'd veto any effort to neuter her bureau. Instead of being frightened when lobbyists and House members who favored banks attacked her, Warren got country, thinking, "Don't leave your game in the locker room." With the POTUS' support, she did not get to head the bureau, but she got the bureau up and running.

She came away a bit bruised, realizing, "They can vote for the banks or they can for for families." I am sure if she runs, we'll hear that more than once, and we can look to the voting record of Brown and others on middle-class economic issues.

To the wolves


The JP audience was with her on her problem definitions and solutions. They alternately were fawning and a few angry, but not at her. Some expressed now stereotypical progressive exasperation at Obama specifically and Democrats more generally, with their seeming eagerness to lay waste to many decades of social safety net components, like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. I share that frustration and think of the Dem reaction like the melodrama of the Russians in the troika tossing animals and then kids off to placate the pack of chasing wolves.

Asked a few ways if she'd run against Brown, Warren did no quite say, "Yes." Instead, she started with, "I can only do this if it's a grass roots movement." (I note with mild amusement that ads pop up on BlueMassGroup and my own blog here to draft her.) She added that when she and Rubin spoke of the possibility of a run he told her, "If you'll do this, I'll help you."

That sent her into grandmotherly paroxysms. She was genuinely endearing as she went into a rapture of her nine-month-old grandson, Atticus. "He's delicious," she said, smiling broadly enough to crinkle her eyes and displace her glasses. "The hardest thing when I'm with him is not to eat his toes off." As a dad of three, I recall the amazing glories of and wonderment at my sons' tiny fingers and toes, and that was before they had even begun to show their wit.

She used her grandchildren as a segue to wondering aloud whether we were headed for an America where they would have diminished opportunities as a result of our government's decisions and policies. Here, she only hinted at what seemed to be the clearest campaign issue, and pointing back to whether Congress would work for bankers or families.

Other questions brought up one of my issues, familiar to regular readers here. Asked about the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), she was as unequivocal as she has been on economics. As she bluntly put it, "I think it's just staggering that the government of the United States would have an official policy to discriminate against some of our people."

They had to wrap up the event before she called on me. I was ready to put her on the spot, which I'll do when she comes on Left Ahead. I want to know whether she can see herself as a lion/lioness of the Senate in what is still to many of us Ted Kennedy's seat. Our current senior Senator has neither the hunger for the right nor the rhetorical and personal power of Kennedy. She seems to, to me. Would she expect to carry that shield?

Regardless, she pegged the progressives at the end by saying she would carry on these battles. "I can't change. I don't know how." If we hadn't noticed in the previous hour, she said not to expect equivocation from her. As she put it, "You will never doubt what I think about anything."

Warren added that if she ran for Senate, "it is only because I care about driving these issues home."


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