Liberal fervor, which took a hit when it became apparent that Barack Obama the president was not going to live up to the promise of Barack Obama the Shepard Fairey poster, is back in action. From the streets of Manhattan to the pages of Facebook, from L.A.'s City Hall to email blasts from MoveOn.org, left-leaning types are getting their mojo back, summoning the spirit not just of the Obama campaign (that decorous, dignified affair) but kicking it old school in the vein of the wild and crazy 2004 Howard Dean campaign (you remember, back in the days when the word “liberal” was actually spoken out loud — in Dean’s case really loud).
I’m not talking just about the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, which, suffice it to say, are kicking it very old school (bongo drums!). I’m talking about the enthusiasm greeting Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor, Main Street champion and Congressional Oversight Panel chair turned Senate candidate from Massachusetts. In just a few weeks time, she’s gone from folk hero to superhero.
It all started with a homemade video that went viral last month on YouTube. Dubbed “Elizabeth Warren’s class warfare video,” it shows up on Facebook with almost as much frequency as photos of toddlers with cake smeared on their faces. Shot in August in a private home where Warren was testing the waters for a Senate run, the video has her holding forth before a rapt crowd, declaring “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own” and calling on wealthy business owners and entrepreneurs to “keep a big hunk [of their money]” but to also honor the social contract and “pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
In other words, she took the words out of the president’s mouth. At least she would have if those words were actually ever going to have left his mouth and reached the ears of lawmakers and the American people. Warren effectively grabbed the “hope” mantle out from under the president and placed it on her own shoulders.
If you don’t believe me, check out the comment streams on any left-leaning blog, news site or Facebook page and tell me those cries of “OMG she’s awesome!” and “she nails that point, nails it!” don’t give you a 2008 flashback. Or check out the conservative blowback, which ranged from George Will saying she has a “collectivist political agenda” to the usual pablum about socialism from people who still haven’t learned the definition of the word.
Ergo, the spirit formerly known as Obamania has found new life in (for lack of a better coinage) Elizapalooza.
This ought to be all good for liberals, but there’s a problem. Warren is not merely an exciting political voice; she’s an exciting political candidate. She could land in office, at which point her very survival will depend on compromising many of the ideals that made her exciting.
A transition from private citizen to elected public servant would almost certainly threaten the folksy/brainy Warren aura that makes so many of her fans delirious. And the more she succeeds, the worse it could get. (Not to get ridiculously ahead of the facts, but there’s already a Warren for President website.) One sign of the beginning of the end: an image makeover (lose the glasses, lift the brow, dye the hair and then shellac it into an immobile, helmet-like shape) making her look less like an academic and more like an acceptable female U.S. political figure.
That may sound like a shallow, sexist point, but politics is a shallow, sexist enterprise. It also has a way of turning people into caricatures of themselves and wiping away the qualities that galvanized followers in the beginning. In Warren’s case, she may dial back the straight talk, the unapologetic intellectualism, the earthiness born of Oklahoma roots and the apparent aversion to Botox.
I’m not suggesting that Warren shouldn’t be running for Senate (or that she’ll necessarily head for the Botox if she wins). From the looks of things, a Senate seat certainly beats working in the Obama administration. But now that liberals who’ve had their hearts broken by Obama have a reason to love again, they’d be wise to take things slowly — or at least not let Shepard Fairey anywhere near her.