Elizabeth Warren: The GOP’s New Favorite Foil

Even when she’s not directly involved, the GOP sees the Massachusetts liberal lurking in Democrats’ platform.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts attends a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on February 27, 2014.
National Journal
Dec. 11, 2014, 5:17 p.m.

With con­gres­sion­al com­prom­ises col­lapsing all around them and fa­cing a pending gov­ern­ment shut­down, Re­pub­lic­ans are test­ing a new mes­sage: Blame it all on Eliza­beth War­ren.

In less than 24 hours this week, two bicam­er­al deals over must-pass le­gis­la­tion ap­peared near col­lapse. Con­gress needs to ex­tend fed­er­al fund­ing if it wants to keep the gov­ern­ment run­ning, and it is also fa­cing the ex­pir­a­tion of a ter­ror­ism in­sur­ance pro­gram that law­makers from both parties are set on ex­tend­ing. But both deals hit tur­moil in their fi­nal hours, in part over planned ad­di­tions to the le­gis­lat­ive pack­ages that would pull back parts of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reg­u­la­tion law.

As stale­mates loom, Re­pub­lic­ans aren’t put­ting blame for the im­passe on Harry Re­id, or on Nancy Pelosi, or even on Pres­id­ent Obama. They’re tar­get­ing War­ren: One Re­pub­lic­an aide griped an­onym­ously to Politico that if the deals col­lapsed, it was be­cause of War­ren’s in­flu­ence over the rest of the party.

How much power the Mas­sachu­setts Demo­crat has over ne­go­ti­ations, however, is an open ques­tion. Staffers on both sides of the aisle in­volved in the dis­cus­sions over the om­ni­bus spend­ing bill and Ter­ror­ism Risk In­sur­ance Act (TRIA) say War­ren was not party to any of those talks. In­stead, Sens. Bar­bara Mikul­ski and Chuck Schu­mer lead those ne­go­ti­ations, re­spect­ively. And giv­en War­ren’s frantic re­ac­tion to the pro­vi­sions when they be­came pub­lic this week, it ap­pears she was just as shocked by last-minute changes to Dodd-Frank as every­one else.

Re­pub­lic­ans say War­ren is re­spons­ible non­ethe­less. “Be­ing present in the room is not ne­ces­sary to have your pres­ence felt,” Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee spokes­man Sean Spicer ex­plained. “Every lead­ing Demo­crat feels like Eliza­beth War­ren is look­ing over their shoulder to go fur­ther to the left.”

The swift­ness with which Re­pub­lic­ans blamed War­ren sig­nals that they see her as both a threat and an easy tar­get. And as War­ren’s star rises with­in the Demo­crat­ic Party, it’s a tac­tic that prom­ises to see much more air­time.

War­ren was re­cently named to Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship (she won’t ac­tu­ally take her seat in soon-to-be Minor­ity Lead­er Re­id’s of­fice un­til Janu­ary) and while she’s re­peatedly said whe won’t run for pres­id­ent, she’s of­ten men­tioned as a po­ten­tial con­tender in the race—though not un­less Hil­lary Clin­ton takes a pass. But she has no com­mit­tee chair­man­ships and, for now, little real power in the Sen­ate. War­ren is the least-seni­or seni­or sen­at­or in Con­gress, hav­ing served for less than two years.

Re­pub­lic­ans see War­ren as a way to paint the Demo­crat­ic Party as in­creas­ingly be­hold­en to its lib­er­al wing and re­moved from mod­er­ates. (Demo­crats take the same tack with Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Ted Cruz, of­ten re­fer­ring to the Tex­an as “Speak­er Cruz” to im­ply that his wishes hold sway in the House.)

War­ren is hardly the only Dodd-Frank cham­pi­on among con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats. And she’s far from alone in op­pos­ing the changes pushed by Re­pub­lic­ans this week. Lib­er­al icons like Sen. Sher­rod Brown and even Wall Street-aligned Demo­crats like Schu­mer op­pose the Dodd-Frank re­forms. “It’s not unique to her,” one seni­or Demo­crat­ic aide said, adding that many Demo­crats see us­ing the deals to re­open Dodd-Frank as a non­starter. “I don’t think her be­ing out­spoken on it has made oth­er people out­spoken.”

But oth­er mem­bers of the Demo­crat­ic Con­fer­ence in the Sen­ate aren’t seen as rising stars the way War­ren is. Few are con­sidered po­ten­tial pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates. And none serves as well in the role of lib­er­al specter over the next two years as War­ren will, par­tic­u­larly now that she is a mem­ber of lead­er­ship. “The more ex­pos­ure she gets, the bet­ter for us,” Spicer said. War­ren could eas­ily be­come a poster-wo­man for the Demo­crat­ic Party over the next two years, he ar­gued, serving the same pur­pose as Pelosi and Re­id have in Re­pub­lic­an ad­vert­ising and strategy.

Of course, War­ren isn’t as well known as Pelosi or Re­id—and cer­tainly not Hil­lary Clin­ton—and the Re­pub­lic­an fo­cus on her will only serve to in­crease her na­tion­al pro­file, as she con­tem­plates mov­ing up in the polit­ic­al sphere. But Re­pub­lic­ans ar­gue that War­ren’s pop­ular­ity is lim­ited to a spe­cif­ic con­stitu­ency; sure, she could do well among Demo­crats, but she’d have a hard time ap­peal­ing to the cen­ter. In high­light­ing her, Re­pub­lic­ans are bet­ting that the neg­at­ives will out­weigh the pos­it­ives.

“You’re build­ing them up, but in the pro­cess of build­ing them up you’re mak­ing them so un­vi­able,” Spicer said. “If you told me today that Hil­lary Clin­ton had an­nounced that she isn’t run­ning [for pres­id­ent] and Eliza­beth War­ren is, I would be do­ing the biggest jig in my of­fice.”

But the seni­or Demo­crat­ic aide simply poin­ted to the 2014 elec­tions, when War­ren traveled the coun­try on be­half of Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates, draw­ing huge crowds. “Look at how many people show up when she goes and cam­paigns, even in red states,” the aide said. “She has the pulse of what people are anxious about … that there’s a sys­tem that is work­ing against grow­ing wages and bet­ter-pay­ing jobs. And that’s ex­actly why people are cry­ing out for. And that’s why she res­on­ates in Mas­sachu­setts, that’s why she gets in­vited to places like West Vir­gin­ia, Ken­tucky. She has a mes­sage for all audi­ences. It’s a uni­ver­sal mes­sage.”

Re­pub­lic­ans plan to use that very mes­sage against War­ren. Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Dav­id Win­ston notes that in 2008, exit polls showed that Amer­ic­ans felt that gov­ern­ment should do more by an 8-point mar­gin. In the wake of the 2014 midterm elec­tions, that num­ber flipped sig­ni­fic­antly; Amer­ic­ans now prefer that gov­ern­ment do less by a 13-point mar­gin.

“[War­ren’s] whole fo­cus is gov­ern­ment be­ing the solu­tion. What she’s say­ing and what the pub­lic is say­ing are two dif­fer­ent things,” Win­ston said.

Demo­crats dis­agree. In a speech last month at the Na­tion­al Press Club, Schu­mer moun­ted a strong de­fense of a pro-gov­ern­ment Demo­crat­ic Party, point­ing to Gal­lup polling that has shown that about a third of Amer­ic­ans prefer a more act­ive gov­ern­ment, a third prefer less gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion, and a third want something in the middle. Those num­bers have hardly changed since 2010. War­ren, who will work un­der Schu­mer when she joins the lead­er­ship team, is a key part of spread­ing that mes­sage.

War­ren’s pro­mo­tion to lead­er­ship only re­in­forces the idea that she speaks for the party as a whole, Win­ston and Spicer said. And as she gains in­flu­ence with­in the con­fer­ence, they say, it only helps Re­pub­lic­ans. “I un­der­stand why Harry Re­id and Demo­crats put her in lead­er­ship, but I wouldn’t be sur­prised if a year or more from now they re­gret that,” Spicer said.

But War­ren’s in­flu­ence isn’t lim­ited to just the Sen­ate. Pelosi for­war­ded a copy of War­ren’s en­tire floor speech on her ob­jec­tions to the Dodd-Frank pro­vi­sion in the om­ni­bus to re­port­ers Wed­nes­day. And the grass­roots ef­fort lead by Mo­ve­On.Org, Ready for War­ren, and oth­er lib­er­al groups to draft War­ren to run for pres­id­ent is only rais­ing her pro­file even high­er.

War­ren is hardly walk­ing away from that po­s­i­tion. She spoke at length on the Sen­ate floor Wed­nes­day, say­ing she would vote against the om­ni­bus spend­ing bill that will keep the gov­ern­ment’s doors open over the Dodd-Frank pro­vi­sion. She has worked tire­lessly over the past few days to unite Demo­crats in the House and Sen­ate around the is­sue, even hold­ing a press con­fer­ence with col­leagues in the House ur­ging Demo­crats in the lower cham­ber to pull their sup­port from the bill un­til the Dodd-Frank lan­guage is re­moved.

And House Demo­crats did just that, for­cing Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship to pull the om­ni­bus at the last minute and huddle with their mem­bers over how to pass the bill with just hours re­main­ing be­fore a sched­uled gov­ern­ment shut­down.

War­ren wasn’t alone in her op­pos­i­tion to the Dodd-Frank changes, but she was among the most vo­cal. For Re­pub­lic­ans, that’s good enough.

What We're Following See More »
Kelly Craft Nominated for UN Post
9 hours ago
Trump Signs Border Deal
1 weeks ago

"President Trump signed a sweeping spending bill Friday afternoon, averting another partial government shutdown. The action came after Trump had declared a national emergency in a move designed to circumvent Congress and build additional barriers at the southern border, where he said the United States faces 'an invasion of our country.'"

Trump Declares National Emergency
1 weeks ago

"President Donald Trump on Friday declared a state of emergency on the southern border and immediately direct $8 billion to construct or repair as many as 234 miles of a border barrier. The move — which is sure to invite vigorous legal challenges from activists and government officials — comes after Trump failed to get the $5.7 billion he was seeking from lawmakers. Instead, Trump agreed to sign a deal that included just $1.375 for border security."

House Will Condemn Emergency Declaration
1 weeks ago

"House Democrats are gearing up to pass a joint resolution disapproving of President Trump’s emergency declaration to build his U.S.-Mexico border wall, a move that will force Senate Republicans to vote on a contentious issue that divides their party. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Thursday evening in an interview with The Washington Post that the House would take up the resolution in the coming days or weeks. The measure is expected to easily clear the Democratic-led House, and because it would be privileged, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would be forced to put the resolution to a vote that he could lose."

Where Will the Emergency Money Come From?
1 weeks ago

"ABC News has learned the president plans to announce on Friday his intention to spend about $8 billion on the border wall with a mix of spending from Congressional appropriations approved Thursday night, executive action and an emergency declaration. A senior White House official familiar with the plan told ABC News that $1.375 billion would come from the spending bill Congress passed Thursday; $600 million would come from the Treasury Department's drug forfeiture fund; $2.5 billion would come from the Pentagon's drug interdiction program; and through an emergency declaration: $3.5 billion from the Pentagon's military construction budget."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.