Back in early November, the Republican independent expenditure juggernaut Crossroads GPS wanted to take Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren down a peg, so they cut an ad insinuating that her attempts to rein in big banks had put spark to the dry tinder in Zuccotti Park. “Elizabeth Warren sides with extreme left protests,” a narrator said over the squall of sirens. “At Occupy Wall Street, protesters attack police, do drugs and crash public parks…. But Warren boasts, ‘I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do.’” The message was in keeping with that of the campaign of Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, whom Warren is running against, which has been busy trying to paint Warren as an out-of-touch Harvard academic whose work on financial regulation was just too radical for the nice blue-collar folks of Massachusetts. Well, it didn’t exactly go as planned.
Although her unfavorable rating has jumped 9 points since late September–something for which Crossroads is taking credit–Warren is now leading Brown, a pretty popular incumbent, by seven points. The race is still a muddy picture, with major ad spending on all sides and both candidates have been bloodied. But there’s one sign that, despite its spin, Crossroads doesn’t think its Harvard Harpy ad campaign had the desired effect: It’s completely flipped the script. Here’s the latest TV spot:
Congress had Warren oversee how your tax dollars were spent bailing out the same banks that helped cause the financial meltdown, bailouts that helped pay big bonuses to banking executives while middle class Americans lost out. Later, Warren went on a charm offensive with some of the same banks that got bailed out.
Let’s sort a few things out: Warren was selected to head the Congressional Oversight Panel, a body of five outside experts tasked with monitoring how the Treasury Department was executing TARP. Using that to hang the albatross of bank bailouts around her neck is more than a stretch. Just in case there’s any doubt, here‘s Warren in 2009 as COA chief:
I’m totally in favor of increased regulatory scrutiny of these banks. But those are all regulatory tools. Regulations, over time, fail. I want to see Congress focus more on a credible system for liquidating the banks that are considered too big to fail.
As for the “charm offensive,” look just at the Wall Street Journal‘s page one headline on the relevant story from March: “Banking’s Scourge on Charm Offensive.” Scourge! After leaving the COA and working on some of the regulatory reform legislation, Warren took a job at the Treasury Department, setting up the consumer agency for financial products she had designed. As it happened, she wanted to be its director. Many bankers, suspicious of her crusading populism and still sore about her days overseeing TARP, really didn’t want her to have her own agency. So she went and talked to them, trying to convince them she wasn’t all that scary. That was the “charm offensive.” Obama never nominated her and she went back to Massachusetts to run for office.
All of this being said, the notable thing about the Crossroads ad is that it is exactly the argument Warren has been making against Brown, whom she has dubbed “Wall Street’s Favorite Senator.” (Also a somewhat dubious contention, but let’s leave that aside for now.) And because Crossroads’ ads are ostensibly supposed to be issues-based under campaign finance rules, not about the candidates themselves, there’s an even greater irony. Republicans don’t frequently argue that banks “helped cause the financial meltdown.” Their official position has long been that it was government lending policies and the mortgage giants Fannie and Freddie that caused the crisis. So as an “issues” ad, this borders on a Democratic sop*. I guess if you can’t beat ‘em, you join ‘em.
*One side-note: Not all the ads Crossroads released Thursday were weak tea. Here’s an absolutely devastating hit on Ben Nelson and the Cornhusker Kickback: