Are Thoughts of Warren Keeping Brown Up Nights? Did Baker Make Patrick Tremble?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Some leaders of the Democratic Party in Massachusetts are already measuring the drapes for Elizabeth Warren's office in a U.S. Senate building in D.C.

But before they get carried away with their dream of Professor Warren toppling Scott "The People's Seat" Brown next year, they might want to consider the wisdom of the late, great Sam Rayburn.

Rayburn was Speaker of the U.S. House back in 1960 when his friend and fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson, newly nominated for the vice presidency on the ticket with John F. Kennedy, came to him extolling the brain trust around Kennedy.

Rayburn listened for a while about how smart and articulate this or that Kennedy advisor was, and how the Kennedy strategists had devised a brilliant campaign strategy, etc., then interrupted to exclaim:

"Damn it, Lyndon, I'd be a hell of a lot more impressed if one of this bunch had ever run for sheriff."

I mean no disrespect. Elizabeth Warren, daughter of Oklahoma, resident of Cambridge, and tenured professor at Harvard Law, is a huge talent. She was a champion debater in high school, graduated from the University of Houston and Rutgers Law School, and worked as a lawyer on Wall Street before teaching at two Ivy League law schools: the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. She has written scores of scholarly articles, six academic books, and two bestsellers, All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan and The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke.

When President Obama needed someone of stature last fall to head the new U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which had been set up to protect people from the kinds of abuses that created the sub-prime-lending monster and led to the world-threatening meltdown of the financial markets in 2008, he turned to Warren. He saw her as a savvy, tough-minded individual who could more than hold her own in the ferocious fights over fiscal policy and regulations that engulf the capital.

Warren served in that role until a few days ago when she had to step aside in favor of Richard Cordray, a former attorney general of Ohio, because the president conceded that Warren would never win Congressional confirmation as bureau director. Too many members of Congress viewed her as consumer-friendly in the extreme. They used, with shameless abandon, the stereotype of the liberal Democrat from the People's Republic of Cambridge against her.

Democratic leaders rightly see Warren's consumer protection bona fides as a plus in a campaign against Brown. But she will need more than that to beat this Massachusetts anomaly -- a down-to-earth, genuinely popular Republican senator who sits where TED used to sit.

The biggest reason not to leap onto the Warren bandwagon is Sam Rayburn's: she's never stood for office, any office. She's never been around the track, so how can anybody say how well she'll run?

She could be great on the trail, a natural. She might prove to be charming and natural in person, and telegenic on the tube, a mini-Streep. She could possess a store of charisma that only a high-stakes campaign could bring out. But we should assume the opposite based on the unfortunate history of talented-but-untested candidates for high office.

Is it just me, or does this Warren groundswell remind you of the straight-from-the-echo-chamber longing for Charlie Baker that gripped Massachusetts Republicans in 2009-10? Then, the conventional GOP view was that someone with Charlie's brain and business record couldn't lose to a muddled liberal like Deval.

The history of big-dreaming-but-doomed political neophytes is long, and we only have to glance back two years for a pertinent exhibit in Massachusetts. Remember Steve Pagliuca, an owner of the Boston Celtics, and Alan Khazei, founder of City Year, two highly accomplished individuals? Martha Coakley, a ballot fixture for years, whipped them in the Democratic Senatorial primary without breaking a sweat.

At this time, I don't think the name Elizabeth Warren is sending a chill up the spine of hoops-shooting, pickup-driving, Bud-drinking Scottie Brown. Voters love the folks who can play the role well. (Right, Sarah Palin, Fred Thompson, Ronald Reagan?) And you've got to admit, so far Brown has nailed the role of senator.

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