Why Elizabeth Warren’s new book doesn’t read like presidential prologue
Elizabeth Warren’s ninth book is a campaign biography with a twist.
Warren, who emerged as a national figure during the early days of the financial crisis, rapidly became a star of the Democratic Party’s liberal-populist wing. Her 2012 Senate campaign in Massachusetts attracted so much money and attention that admirers began talking her up as a presidential candidate even before she won.
“A Fighting Chance” could easily fit as the next step toward that goal. It weaves her life story and political manifesto in the classic manner of books designed to accompany a run for office. Publication inevitably will crank up the speculation about her plans for 2016.
But the “will you run” question likely misses the point; she almost certainly won’t. Those who doubt her disclaimers of interest should examine how generously the book treats leading Democrats, starting with the woman she presumably would have to defeat, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
This is not a score-settling book — at least not with fellow Democrats — nor one designed to lay the groundwork for an insurgent campaign. It offers more earnestness than revelation.
Warren does criticize “the president’s team” for worrying too much about bankers and not enough about average Americans during the financial crisis, but only in the abstract. When she names names — at least of fellow Democrats — it is usually for praise.
Take former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, for example. Warren and he had a famously fraught relationship. But the only example of specific disagreement she provides here comes in an anecdote about her chiding Geithner for not wearing a seat belt while en route to dinner. On more substantive matters, she says Geithner “had our back” during creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the achievement that catapulted her to the Senate.
As for Geithner’s boss, Warren recounts a few tense moments with President Obama, including a meeting on the patio outside the Oval Office in which Obama asked her to get the consumer agency set up and accused her of “jamming me” as she held out for more authority. But she also praises him for pushing ahead with the agency despite the opposition of unnamed advisors.
Warren is only slightly harder on Lawrence Summers, Obama’s chief economic advisor during the first term.
Early in the new administration, while she was serving on the congressional panel designed to oversee the bank bailout, Summers took her to dinner at an expensive restaurant two blocks from the White House, she writes. He counseled her that to have influence in Washington, she needed to be an insider. And, he explained, insiders “understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.”
Warren makes clear that she ignored that advice. What she thought of Summers became similarly clear last year when Obama considered appointing him to head the Federal Reserve. Warren joined other liberal Democratic senators to kill the idea.
Ironically, though, it is Warren who now belongs to the ultimate insider’s club, the Senate. And her reticence to criticize fellow Democrats suggests she may have belatedly taken Summers’ words to heart in the quest to influence the party’s direction.
The policy area she most wants to shape involves the regulation of banks. That also happens to be the issue that most deeply divides a Democratic Party that on most other topics has enjoyed a decade of unaccustomed unity.
On one side of the divide are many of the party’s biggest financial backers as well as economic policymakers such as Geithner, Summers and their mentor, Robert Rubin, who headed the National Economic Council for President Bill Clinton. Since the financial crisis, those men have backed greater regulation of banks, but they also see a large, healthy and internationally competitive financial industry as critical to U.S. prosperity.
Warren views the world differently.
“The system is rigged,” she declared in a speech to the 2012 Democratic convention, which she recaps in the book. Indeed, that phrase encapsulates her view so well that she considered it for the title. She leaves no question that she sees the financial industry as the force behind much of the rigging.
Her book draws sharp lines between those she labels “the good guys” — unions, consumer advocates, environmentalists — and the bankers she holds responsible for the nation’s economic malaise. Wall Street has too much power over the U.S. economy and its political system, she writes. For the middle class to survive, that power must be curtailed.
The argument is not a new one. From Thomas Jefferson’s battle against Alexander Hamilton to Andrew Jackson’s efforts to kill the Bank of the United States to William Jennings Bryan’s denunciations of financiers who would “crucify mankind on a cross of gold,” struggles against financial power have helped define the Democratic Party since its earliest days.
But wariness of radicalism has provided a powerful counterweight, counseling the party against too close an embrace of populism. Even as Democrats have run against Wall Street, presidents from John F. Kennedy to Obama have hired its alumni to guide economic policy and comfort nervous voters.
Warren’s appeal to Democrats on the left comes in part from her ability to sell a populist message without seeming risky. “I’m a wife, a mother and a grandmother,” she says in the book’s opening lines.
She is also a former Harvard Law School professor and expert on bankruptcy law, an academic background tailor-made to appeal to a party that increasingly relies on white-collar and college-educated voters. Even in this book, which is light on specific policy proposals, she bolsters her points with 57 pages of footnotes.
That combination, a crusading passion wrapped with academic rigor and covered by grandmotherly reassurance has helped give Warren the rarified status of having an entire wing of the party named for her. By the evidence of this book, she won’t parlay that prominence into a run for the 2016 nomination, but she’ll do whatever she can to influence those who do.
Lauter is The Times’ Washington bureau chief.
A Fighting Chance
Metropolitan Books: 384 pp., $28
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