Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) addresses a rally in support of Social Security and Medicare on Capitol Hill, Sept. 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. The rally was organized by American United for Change, a liberal advocacy group founded to fight the privitization of Social Security.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Elizabeth’s Warren moment

Updated

Elizabeth Warren is having a moment. After a week that exposed divisions inside the Democratic Party, Warren’s profile has never been higher, both in and outside the Senate. And even though she may have lost this one battle, she’s focused on the war. 

On the outside, major progressive groups like MoveOn.org joined the effort to try to draft Warren to run for president in 2016, and more than 300 alumni of the Obama campaign signed onto a letter urging the senator to run Friday morning. “We believed in an unlikely candidate who no one thought had a chance. We worked for him,” they wrote.

But for Warren, the real payoff is most likely inside the Capitol, where she can leverage the outside pressure and support to strengthen her hand as a leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic party in Congress. And this week, she started to flex that muscle unlike ever before.

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When Warren entered the Senate, coming off her high-profile 2012 campaign, she disappointed some fans by laying low and following the standard script of the newly-minted rock star senator. “She started off her time in the Senate ripping off a play from former senator [Hillary] Clinton: Keep your head down, attend all your committee hearings, avoid the national press, read the briefing books,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “This is the first time that she’s gone so far.”

Even when Warren had disagreements with the White House or leadership in the past, it was usually on secondary issues or handled quietly. She was one of the last progressive senators to sign on to the opposition to Larry Summers’ nomination for Fed Chairman last year. And she said nothing publicly, informing her old Harvard colleague of her opposition in a private meeting before Summers withdrew himself from contention.

But after the 2014 election – which saw Warren on demand from candidates across the country, even in unfriendly territory for liberal Democrats – the senator returned to Washington with a new vigor and willingness to seize the moment of Democratic uncertainty after a drubbing at the polls to remake the party in her image.

“In chaos, lead,” is a mantra of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has close ties to Warren, and it helps explain her thinking this week.

In her first major public and direct confrontation with the White House after the election, she opposed the president’s number-three pick for the Treasury Department because of his current job at the investment giant Lazard. Critics didn’t understand why Warren was making so much hay over a relatively obscure administration post, but her allies say it was not just about Antonio Weiss, but what he represented. Warren wanted to draw a hard line against filling the government with more Wall Streeters.

She quickly proved she was able to build a coalition beyond the usual suspects, getting a wide range of colleagues to oppose the nomination, from Dick Durbin, the Senate’s number-two Democrat, to conservative West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin.

That was the backdrop when Democrats began to consider a $1.1 trillion spending bill loaded with measures anathema to progressive Democrats, like a measure that would weaken the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law and another that would expand the amount of money rich people could donate to political parties tenfold.

Warren quickly moved to gather opposition to the bill, and not just in the Senate, but in the House as well. Flanked by House members at a press conference, she called on her colleagues in the lower chamber to kill the bill. “A vote for this bill is a vote for future taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street,” Warren said Thursday. “It is time for all of us to stand up and fight.”

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The vote ultimately didn’t go Warren’s way, passing the House late Thursday night. But almost three times as many Democrats voted against the measure as for it – 139 against to 57 in favor.

And Warren is playing a long game, looking to build a coalition in the Senate and move her party in a certain direction, rather than kill any particular bill or nomination per se. “I think she’s trying to draw a line in the sand as we get ready to have Republicans take over the senate next year,” Manley added.

Her tactics have drawn comparison to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who like Warren, led his party’s fight against a government funding bill as a freshman in the Senate.

But neither side is particularly eager to make the connection.

“Maybe this thing could be her coming out party, but she is not yet a force in Washington. She is not single-handedly changing the conversation,” said Dan Holler of Heritage Action, a close Cruz ally in his fight against Obamacare last fall, which ultimately led to a government shutdown.

On the left, fans of Warren and otherwise see real differences. “The comparison is inapt for several reasons,” agreed Ari Rabin-Havt, a former Senate leadership staffer and Media Matters executive who now hosts a liberal talk show on Sirius/XM.

Rabin-Havt pointed to the fact that Cruz’s opposition to Obamacare was tangential to the government funding bill itself, while Warren fought the so-called Cromnibus itself, and the riders attached to it. And he noted that a government shutdown was never really on the table this time, as a failure to pass the bill would have led to a shorter-term continuing resolution bill.

More broadly, Warren is more cautious and strategic than Cruz, carefully choosing her battles and coloring within the lines of the Senate power structure as much as possible. She hasn’t run afoul of her party’s leadership the way Cruz has, nor have its longer established members criticized her publicly, as many have for Cruz. She was even appointed to a leadership post after the election, for a job she herself created (Cruz got a post too, but never seemed interested in it).

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And the Democratic revolt over the spending bill is much larger than Warren, and its seeds were planted before she was even in the Senate. But she’s a compelling face for the fight and Democrats seem eager to have her.

In the House, it was Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi who led the charge.““I’m enormously disappointed the White House feels the only way they could get a bill is to go along with this,” she said in the House floor.

And progressive tensions with the White House over budget issues go back at least to 2011, during a major debt ceiling standoff when some Democrats felt Obama was too quick to sign away the farm. In 2012, progressives in and outside the Capitol began to coalesce into a more unified opposition bloc after the White House included a change to Social Security known as chained CPI that was a deal-breaker for progressives. They’ve also show their teeth in opposition to White House priorities like free trade agreements and to some extent on foreign policy.

But what they lacked was a high-profile leader. Pelosi, as her party’s leader in the House, occasionally has to disappoint progressive sometimes and cut deals, while progressive leaders like Keith Ellison in the House or Sherrod Brown in the Senate have had a harder time breaking through and commanding serious attention. Warren has now assumed the role that was waiting for her.

“There are lots of Democrats who are as good as her on banking policy,” said Rabin-Havt. “But she can take an issue that most people find to be esoteric and complex, and explain it in a way that people understand and care about. There’s nobody else in the Democratic party that does that as well as she does right now.” It’s why so many other Democrats have borrowed her rhetoric and message. 

Even some conservatives can’t help but admire her directness and communication skills. “You could certainly have one of the better political debates for our country between someone liked Ted Cruz and someone like Elizabeth Warren. If you want to have a real debate about policy, rather than partisan power,” said Heritage’s Holler.

She’s ruffled feathers, no doubt – when her leadership post was named at a private Democratic Caucus meeting, some Democrats left grumbling, and moderate Sen. Mark Warner was later also given a post to ease concerns – but she’s clearly the playing the inside game.

The same cannot be said for Cruz, who has fully embraced his role as a radical and rabble-rouser, and is clearly positioning himself for a presidential run.

And inside the Senate is likely where Warren will stay.

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth's Warren moment

Updated