On Valentine's Day, the Senate banking committee held a hearing with the nation's top financial regulators. As a junior member, freshman Democrat Elizabeth Warren had to cool her heels waiting for a turn. But when it came, she made better use of the few available minutes than most of her colleagues: "Can you identify when you last took the Wall Street banks to trial?" she demanded.
Flummoxed, the officials tried to sidestep the question. Then the Massachusetts senator brought down the hammer: "There are district attorneys and United States attorneys out there every day squeezing ordinary citizens on sometimes very thin grounds and taking them to trial in order to make an example, as they put it. I'm really concerned that 'too big to fail' has become 'too big for trial.'"
Ka-boom. More than a million people ended up watching viral videos of the exchange. Wall Streeters were ticked off. Warren had achieved what veteran legislators crave to do: shape the national discourse while winning attention—all in her quiet but forceful, law-school-prof way. And wittingly or not, she had accomplished another difficult task: establishing a path forward for herself within the clubby, tradition-bound upper chamber.
Basically, there are two ways for a newbie senator to start her tenure: with bombast or with reserve. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have been recent examples of the former, each roaring into the Senate looking to establish himself as the tea party senator. Two decades earlier, Paul Wellstone, the former professor and community organizer, hit the Senate as a progressive firebrand. He held a press conference at the Vietnam War memorial to argue against war in the Middle East and cornered George H.W. Bush at a reception, causing the president to ask, "Who is this chickenshit?"
The other path was taken by Hillary Clinton and Al Franken, who entered the league of 100 amid expectations they would exploit the Senate as a personal soapbox or as a stage to advance progressive causes. Instead, these bona fide celebrities eschewed the limelight and focused on learning the crusty byways of the Senate and delivering for the folks at home.
So which way for Warren? She entered the Senate a darling of progressives with fans across the nation. An Oklahoma-reared populist who could parry with Jon Stewart, Warren had led a panel set up in 2008 to oversee the TARP bailout, and helped create the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. After routing incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown by 7.5 points last November, she was poised to be a high-profile star of the incoming class and a champion of the left.
But instead Warren started out quietly, with moves close to her established area of expertise: pushing for improved consumer credit reporting, seeking details of a federal settlement with mortgage servicers, and promoting the confirmation of Richard Cordray to be director of the CFPB she helped launch. Aside from the occasional high-octane moment—like a March speech slamming the NRA and DC's "armies of lobbyists"—she largely avoided the spotlight.
"Today a minority of the minority plays hostage politics. It's all-or-nothing politics at its worst."
According to the conventional wisdom among senators and staffers, that was the appropriate course. "You buckle down, study briefing books, attend hearings, build relationships, decline requests to go on cable shows, and pick and choose a few spots to focus on," says James Manley, who worked for years as a senior staffer for Ted Kennedy and then Harry Reid. "I'm a little afraid some friends on the left are trying to give Sen. Warren all sorts of powers and responsibilities far beyond what any one senator can handle." Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who served three terms before retiring in 2011, notes that it is difficult to work effectively within the system and still use the Senate as a platform for national organizing and messaging: "People can do both, but it's hard to do both immediately. You need to develop a reputation among other senators based on work. A key question is, are you likable and do people want to work with you?"
Recently, Warren was sitting in the ornate Senate Reception Room, waiting for a vote and contemplating her place in the upper chamber. (Due to John Kerry's departure to become secretary of state, she had already become the senior senator from the Bay State.) Amid the hustle and bustle—Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) was posing for a photo with a Boy Scout from his state, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) was huddling with military officers, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) was introducing the Cape Verdean ambassador—I asked if she had a senatorial role model. After saying she was "resistant" to name one ("I've received helpful advice from everybody from Harry Reid to Orrin Hatch"), she chose the obvious: Ted Kennedy. She admires how Kennedy—whose seat she now holds—entered the Senate without fanfare and then spent decades nurturing relationships with Republicans, building the influence he needed to rack up a series of consequential legislative victories. "Three-quarters of the Senate had fought alongside him at one point or another," she noted. "He was a master."
The idea of working with strange bedfellows is enticing for Warren. She'd found the Senate floor an intriguing place: "When you vote, you walk in and it's over in a blink. But during votes you have a chance to visit with other senators—no staffers are around—and they're more candid. People have come up to me from the other side of the aisle and said, 'I heard what you said about too-big-to-fail banks, and I'm worried about that, too. So what kind of things can we do?' That's how you start moving." (Indeed, Sen. Ron Johnson, a tea party favorite from Wisconsin, told National Review Online he was thinking of working with Warren on banking reform.)
Yet without missing a beat, Warren added that she fully appreciates the Wellstone method, noting he "had a very different approach." (Wellstone used to call Warren late at night when she was a professor at Harvard Law School, to discuss economic policy.) And these days, she said, working the back rooms to concoct worthwhile legislative compromises is tougher: "Today a minority of the minority plays hostage politics. It's all-or-nothing politics at its worst."
"I'm not here to shake. I'm here to get something done."
So, when hyperpartisanship, obstructionism, and dysfunction rule, is the Kennedy-style inside game outdated? Warren wouldn't say that. But echoing President Barack Obama, she pointed out that "change is possible in the Senate when change is demanded outside the Senate. The more people who say it's time to reduce gun violence or hold the big banks accountable, the more likely we'll get change here in Congress."
Perhaps for Warren, it's not a matter of being either a Capitol deal maker or an issues-thumping organizer. She, after all, has a third option: watchdog. She made her name pursuing the misdeeds of financial institutions, displaying little interest in a long-term political career. In 2010, when I asked if she'd consider running for the Senate, she remarked, "Or I can stab myself in the eye." Now she says, "I see this as a place where it is possible to make a difference." How? As a cop on the financial regulation beat: "The regulators already have a lot of law, but they have to use it. Congressional oversight over the regulators has potential for making a difference."
Warren has entered the Senate with more opportunity than the average greenhorn to have an impact. And she seems to realize and relish that as she crafts an all-of-the-above persona: legislative workhorse, regulatory gooser, and high-profile advocate (more viral videos!)—with an eye on a measurable bottom line. Asked about Cruz's boast that he's going to shake up the Senate, she quickly replied: "I'm not here to shake. I'm here to get something done. For me, it's an extension of the work I've done for 30 years to strengthen middle-class families. If I could find a way to do that here and never say another word publicly, I'm all for it."
As our time ran out, I asked: What was the biggest surprise of her first months in the chamber? She paused and said with a grin, "There are more tools to make changes than I expected." Then she winked and headed back to the Senate floor.