You may have heard that there’s a new memoir out by a wily blond politician, a woman who rocks a pantsuit and could well run for the U.S. presidency in 2016. This politician, who left a job as a law professor for the tactical battles of the Senate floor, lays out a progressive, populist agenda in her new autobiography. It’s easy to imagine a wide swath of Americans casting a ballot for her.
Her name is Elizabeth Warren. Perhaps you thought I meant the other blond, pantsuit-wearing law-professor-turned-politician with a memoir out in bookstores?
Ms. Warren, a Democratic Massachusetts senator since 2013, resembles Hillary Clinton in many ways – they are both tough, shrewd, accomplished survivors, and grandmothers to boot. (At least, Ms. Clinton is on her way to becoming a grandma.) They are of similar age: Ms. Warren is 65 and Ms. Clinton is 66. But in the essential matter of narrative, they are poles apart.
A compelling story is crucial to a successful political trajectory, especially in U.S. presidential politics. Ms. Clinton’s is wobbling slightly at the moment, as she’s portrayed in the media as Marie Antoinette in mid-heel pumps. First there was her quote about being “dead broke” after her husband Bill’s legal bills upon leaving the White House. Then the woman who earns millions for her books and upward of $200,000 for each speaking engagement said in an interview that she and her husband pay “ordinary income tax,” in contrast to the “truly well off.”
As The Washington Post reported, “Some influential Democrats – including former advisers to President [Barack] Obama – said in interviews last week they fear that Clinton’s personal wealth and rarefied, cloistered lifestyle could jeopardize the Democratic Party’s historic edge with the middle class that powered Obama’s wins.”
Ms. Warren, however, is proudly from the wrong side of the tracks. A Harvard law school professor who triumphed over a hardscrabble Oklahoma childhood, she has positioned herself as a champion of Main Street and an enemy of Wall Street.
She was one of the congressional watchdogs overseeing the 2008 U.S. bank bailout, fought for years for bankruptcy legislation to protect average citizens, helped create a federal consumer agency to combat usurious credit-card fees and recently fought a (losing) battle against punishing interest rates on student loans.
She had never considered political office when she was approached to run for the Senate. One of the slogans of her 2013 campaign was, “The best senator money can’t buy.” When she spoke out for fair taxation rates, Rush Limbaugh called her, memorably, “a parasite who hates her host.”
Ms. Warren’s memoir, A Fighting Chance, is a wonderful read, a canny mix of wonkishness and gee-I-can’t-believe-I’m-actually-on-Capitol-Hill awe. She deliberately pitches herself as a woman of the people, a dog-loving political outsider who knows how much pork chops cost – and that some people can’t afford them. She writes movingly about the people she meets who are on a downward slide, like the well-educated woman who walks two miles to a campaign meeting, “hot and tired and maybe a little bit angry” because she’s lost her car and her job.
“How we spend our government’s money is about values, and it’s about choices,” she writes. “We could cut back on what we spend on seniors and kids and education, as the Republicans in Congress insisted we should. Or we could get rid of tax loopholes and ask the wealthy and big corporations to pay a little more and keep investing in our future.”
Even spewing such radical notions, and with the obvious difficulties in fundraising for a candidate the financial industry loathes, she is clearly seen as a contender for her country’s highest office. In an article about Ms. Clinton’s potential female rivals, Rebecca Traister called Ms. Warren “the troubadour of the populist left and the one challenger Team Clinton legitimately fears.”
There’s only one small problem: Elizabeth Warren says she’s not running for president. (To be fair, Hillary Clinton hasn’t said she is, either.) In fact, Ms. Warren signed a letter, along with other female politicians, urging Ms. Clinton to seek the Democratic nomination.
The Post put the question to Ms. Warren again recently and she said, “I am not running for president in 2016” – but she wouldn’t rule out a run altogether. Once, she would have said she had no interest in politics at all, and look where she is now. As the title of her book suggests, she’s a sucker for a good fight. Perhaps she’ll pick one again.