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
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
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.

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