On a recent sweltering Tuesday night in Brockton, Mass., Elizabeth Warren told a crowd of 200 people packed into a storefront campaign office that she’s no typical campaigner. “I’m not a politician,” she said. It’s a line she repeats often, one that has a certain appeal — who likes politicians these days? — without really being true. Warren is running for Senate, her first attempt at elected office after years spent teaching law, studying bankruptcy and, most recently, setting up a federal bureau in Washington to police consumer financial products like credit cards and mortgages.
Warren’s point is that, unlike Republican incumbent Scott Brown, a longtime state lawmaker who won Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat in a dramatic special election two years ago, she is new to electoral politics. But as she explained to supporters in Brockton, who sweat as they ate ice cream from single-serving cups and stole glances at a small fan on one wall, that doesn’t mean she would be new to Washington’s ways. Warren speaks of the government agency she designed like a proud grandmother (its first birthday was on Saturday!) and recounts her work on the Congressional Oversight Panel, a bipartisan group created in 2008 to oversee the Treasury Department’s implementation of the bank bailout known as TARP. “I believe in working bipartisan,” Warren said, though she added a qualifier: “You’ve got to be willing to fight.”
Bipartisanship — its merits, its limits — is a hot topic right now in this closely watched Senate race, already the most expensive in state history. Although Massachusetts overwhelmingly votes Democratic, independents make up 52% of the state’s electorate, and it’s a narrow band of those unaffiliated voters who will determine what looks likely to be a tiny margin of victory in November. Brown is the lone Republican in the state’s congressional delegation, but he’s remained popular at home, thanks in part to his skillful navigation of partisan Washington and his reputation as an independent thinker. “I think he’s a done a pretty good job of threading the needle and balancing different competing interests,” says Jim Manley, a former spokesman for Ted Kennedy and Harry Reid. “He avoids the extremes and tries real hard to find the center as much as he can.”
Despite the fact that Brown ran in 2010 on a pledge to be a bulwark against Democrats’ health reforms, he has lined up with his Republican colleagues only 54% of the time since then, a fact he isn’t shy about mentioning. He has opposed all tax increases, but voted against some of his own party’s deepest spending cuts and in favor of the Wall Street regulation bill that Warren championed. New York’s three-term independent mayor, Michael Bloomberg, just endorsed Brown, citing his moderate position on gun control, and his campaign’s latest ad features a glowing testimonial from Ray Flynn, a former Democratic mayor of Boston.
This record is both Brown’s central case for re-election and his strongest critique of Warren. “She’s certainly a very qualified, thoughtful teacher, academic,” Brown said backstage at a Veterans Assisting Veterans benefit concert on Saturday in Lowell, where his daughter, a former American Idol contestant, performed. “When it comes to being someone who can work across party lines to get things done, I’ve never heard one thing, when asked, that she would work with the Republicans on … Imagine 100 Professor Warrens down there [in Washington]. We have people down there who are not working together. That’s what the problem is.”
Warren points to her time chairing the Congressional Oversight Panel and its bipartisan reports as evidence of her coalition-building skills and draws a distinction between “the inside game” of winning consensus “for everyone who can hire an army of lobbyists” and the kind of groundswell support that helped create her consumer agency. Bringing that support to bear is not necessarily a polite business. As the Boston Globe wrote on Sunday, Warren is better remembered in Washington for her unrelenting advocacy and clashes with members of Congress and the Obama Administration than for making friends. And that “willingness to fight” as Warren called it in Brockton remains a central part of her political identity — and her case for turning out Brown.
Asked in an interview what legislation she would introduce that might win over Republicans, Warren instead focused on her contrasts with the GOP. “Part of this is about investing in the future. Investing in education, in roads and bridges. The [Republican Paul] Ryan budget goes in exactly the opposite direction,” she said. “This is a real difference. This is, fundamentally, how we build a future, what kind of a people we are. And the Republicans say the way we build our future is to cut taxes for the richest, cut regulations for those who are in power.” If you hadn’t just been told otherwise, you might assume you were talking to a politician.