On the day after Tuesday's electoral loss, the Obama administration brought an unfamiliar face to the White House -- Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law professor noted for her staunch advocacy on behalf the middle class and fierce criticism of the bank bailouts. Perhaps the administration will take a more aggressive approach to Wall Street, along the lines of what Warren wants. But for Democrats to truly take ownership of the economic crisis, Warren will need to play a more prominent role. Not just her ideas, but the force of her personality is needed.
Warren and the Democratic Party need to think seriously about her prospects for higher office. Going into 2012, Massachusetts Democrats will have no shortage of candidates to choose from, eager, party-trained politicians ready to take a run. Republican Scott Brown's victory to the US Senate last week made clear that voters crave something besides the norm: someone from outside the traditional political structure who can speak to their everyday, bread-and-butter concerns in a credible way. Warren fits the bill.
Warren has spent her career laying the groundwork for what might be called progressive populism. From her perch in Cambridge, she's excoriated the unfair credit and lending practices that, in part, gave rise to the current crisis. She was the architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which, if created, would regulate credit cards and mortgages in the same way home appliances are regulated now. (Full disclosure: Warren once wrote about the agency in the publication I help edit.) And well before the bubble broke in the summer of 2007, when America was still riding high on George W. Bush's economy, Warren was speaking out against the incredible pressure the 21st century economy was putting on the middle class. She was derided as a Cassandra, but she was right.
If all this made Warren a household name among progressives, it was the economic crisis that catapulted her onto the national stage. As chairwoman of the TARP Oversight Committee, she's been responsible for examining the bank bailouts and the regulatory response. Warren has vocalized the concerns of many Americans -- but not many politicians -- who are outraged by the rampant greed that led to the crisis, and the refusal of Wall Street to take responsibility. "I think the problem has been all the way throughout this crisis, that the banks have been treated gently and everyone else has been treated really pretty tough,'' said an exasperated Warren last fall, echoing what so many others -- in both parties -- have come to believe.
These people need someone of Warren's stature. The timing is perfect: her term at TARP Oversight will come to an end in the spring of 2011, just as a Senate candidate would have to be ramping up. She'd have a base of support on the Internet as soon as she announces. Sure, a Warren campaign would provoke guffaws from the right: What does a Harvard professor really know about an economic crisis? Yet underneath the polished pedigree is a teenage bride from Oklahoma. She's as much an everyday person as Scott Brown; she just happens to be a brilliant scholar as well. When she's championing the middle class, she's not doing so because it's politically expedient, but because she feels connected to it in a way few politicians are. And she has the intellectual chops to convert that connection into dramatic policy change. Sadly, few politicians can say that, either.
The wisdom of a Warren candidacy is about more than just one race or one candidate. As Scott Brown demonstrated -- and, yes, as Barack Obama demonstrated only last year -- we're living in an age that rewards candidates who can generate real enthusiasm on the Internet; who can credibly distance themselves from the party apparatus; and who offer populist but "post-ideological'' politics. Warren meets all three criteria.