Rick Holmes: The Warren boom

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Rick Holmes

These are heady days for Elizabeth Warren.

Her book is a best-seller. She’s drawing big crowds and making headlines wherever she goes. She’s campaigning for Democrats even in states like North Carolina and West Virginia, where Barack Obama isn’t welcome.

She was treated like a rock star at last week’s Netroots convention, where the hippest progressives met her with “Warren for President” signs and T-shirts. They’ve created a “Ready for Warren” website — a slight, mocking tribute to the “Ready for Hillary” machine — with an online petition and a “Run Liz Run” campaign song that is earnest and cringe-inducing.

Warren’s got to be enjoying this bandwagon. Who wouldn’t? But I’m betting she’s smart enough not to get on board.

Still, it’s been interesting to watch. Three years ago, Warren was a Harvard professor who’d never run for anything. I was among those who urged her to come back to Massachusetts and challenge Sen. Scott Brown, but I was far from convinced she had what it takes to make a successful politician.

Could she shake a thousand hands a week in living rooms and coffee shops, convincing people that she was enough like them to care what they say? Brown is great at faking genuine; could she deliver the real thing?

But she took to the small group greetings like a natural, and has learned quickly how to rouse a large crowd. In her book and her speeches, she has proven able at merging policy talk with personal stories. The comments of a woman attending one of her speeches in Wisconsin show it’s working.

“I appreciate Hillary,” she told The New York Times, but I know that Elizabeth Warren has a perspective that is probably healthier. She has good economic principles. She has a depth of experience, and she knows how to share her deepest heart.”

Warren has something important to say, and she is saying it well. That doesn’t mean she’s running for president, and it doesn’t mean she should.

Warren says she’s not a candidate, over and over again, but we’re all used to politicians being coy, even when their ambitions are obvious. It’s what she’s doing — and not doing — that shows she’s not taking the “Run Liz Run” stuff seriously, at least not yet.

She’s reserving her campaign help for Democratic Senate candidates, not mayors and governors who could help her get out the vote in a national campaign. She hasn’t set up a political action committee. She’s staying out of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Warren is stingy with interviews and rarely hosts press conferences. She doesn’t jump on the story of the day. You don’t see her weighing in on the fighting in the Middle East or the immigration crisis.

When she talks, it’s about her economic initiatives: relief from student debt, narrowing the gap between the super-rich and everyone else, strengthening the safety net, reining in corporate power and re-regulating Wall Street.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank watched her holding forth at an obscure committee hearing and concluded that hers “is the behavior of a lawmaker who plans to keep her head down and to do her job as a legislator — not somebody who is contemplating the glare of the national spotlight.”

Politicians tend to fall into two categories: those driven by ambition and those on a mission. Warren is mission-directed. Her mission is about reining corporate power and reviving the middle class, and she was working on it decades before she ran for office. A presidential campaign this year would derail her mission; she wants this discussion to be about the issues, not about herself.

Warren’s mission is best-served by doing exactly what she’s doing: Putting her issues into the campaign conversation, helping to elect like-minded allies, being an effective senator, and using whatever buzz she generates to draw attention to her message.

Warren is also creating space in the 2016 campaign for some other candidate who can convincingly carry the populist liberal message. “We are the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party,” activist Adam Green told the Times. “We intend to pressure every candidate — including Hillary Clinton — to see if they agree with Elizabeth Warren on key economic populism issues.”

There’s even room for Warren’s message in conservative circles. “She has the ability to channel people’s rage against Wall Street and a financial system that is stacked against them that resonates with those on the left and right,” Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate majority leader Harry Reid, told Time. “If you listen real hard, sometimes her rhetoric is not that much different from conservative Senators like Rand Paul.”

Warren isn’t running for president, but she’s setting the agenda for those who will.


Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at rholmes@wickedlocal.com.