Missed Opportunities: Elizabeth Warren Edition

Elizabeth Warren

I’ve written before about the tragedy of Barack Obama. But today comes word of a whole new chapter.

Maybe you’ve heard of Elizabeth Warren. She’s the law professor whose crusade for stronger banking, investment and credit protections for consumers led directly to the creation of a new agency tasked with providing such protections — the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) — in this year’s financial reform bill.

Well, now that the bill’s been passed into law, the next question has been who should be the new CFPB’s first director. And a lot of people have been recommending Ms. Warren for that job. After all, if it wasn’t for her tireless advocacy, the agency wouldn’t exist in the first place. So why not let her take charge of the new agency? What better way could there be to ensure that it really does stand up for consumers then to put one of America’s foremost consumer advocates in its director’s chair?

The answer is that there is no better way; and that’s why the financial industry, and its lackeys, have vociferously opposed the idea of nominating Ms. Warren. One example is Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who was notably cool on the idea.

So here’s the dilemma for President Obama. On one side he has progressives and consumer advocates urging him to name Ms. Warren to lead the CFPB. On the other side he has Wall Street urging him not to.

What to do? What to do?

He’s been hemming and hawing on the subject for a while, but today he announced his decision: he’ll ask Ms. Warren to lead the CFPB. Just not, you know, officially.

Elizabeth Warren, who conceived of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, will oversee its establishment as an assistant to President Obama, an official briefed on the decision said Wednesday evening.

The decision, which Mr. Obama is to announce this week, would allow Ms. Warren, a Harvard law professor, to effectively run the new agency without having to go through a potentially contentious confirmation battle in the Senate. The creation of the bureau is a centerpiece of the Wall Street financial overhaul that Mr. Obama signed in July.

The pitch for this “compromise” solution goes like this: the President will ask Ms. Warren to work for him in an advisory capacity, overseeing the starting-up of the new agency. And because she’s technically an advisor to the President rather than the head of a Federal agency, she won’t need to go through Senate confirmation, which the Republicans would just turn into a circus anyway. And even though Ms. Warren won’t have formal leadership of the CFPB, she’ll still be an advisor to the President, so if she makes a suggestion to the people at the new agency they’ll be sure to listen carefully, if you know what I mean, wink wink.

So, say the political geniuses in the White House, it’s the best of both worlds! We still get Warren’s leadership at CFPB, making progressives happy, and we avoid a bruising confirmation fight. Everybody wins! Right?


Here’s the thing the political geniuses in the White House don’t get: they’re not going to skip the fight just by skipping the confirmation. If Warren was formally nominated, I imagine there would be a brutal confirmation fight. But if she’s put in charge without a formal nomination, there will still be a brutal fight; it’ll just take place in the media rather than in the Senate. The Republicans will scream to the high heavens that Elizabeth Warren is a new “czar,” part of a devious plan Obama cooked up with Saul Alinsky in a Columbia University dorm room while sky-high on cocaine and chanting the sayings of Chairman Mao. If there was a confirmation hearing, they’d fire off their crazy-cannons there; but if there isn’t, it’s not going to get them to hold their fire. They’ll just spout their nonsense to Fox News instead of C-SPAN.

So if you’re not going to stop the right wing from their usual flying-monkey attacks, what’s the logic of skipping the confirmation? An anonymous Super Genius explains:

Some called on Mr. Obama to formally nominate Ms. Warren to lead the bureau even if it led to a confirmation battle, arguing that Democrats should embrace such a battle as a means of drawing attention to the bureau’s significance.

However, the White House saw drawbacks to that approach, according to the official. If Ms. Warren’s nomination were in limbo for months, she would be generally precluded from serving fully as the public face of the bureau, or even testifying before Congress.

“The stakes are too high to delay the standing up of this agency,” the official said.

So they’re worried that the Republicans would drag the confirmation out for months, preventing Ms. Warren from getting down to business in her new job.

To which I say: we should be so lucky!

I don’t say that because I think Ms. Warren is unsuited for the job; far from it. I say that because, as a Democrat, I’m hard pressed to think of anything that would be better for my party’s political fortunes than for the GOP to spend the weeks remaining between now and the election loudly defining itself as the party that stands with your credit card company against you.

That’s not a crisis. That’s a gift! It would give every Democrat running this year a clear way to draw a distinction between themselves and their opponents.

“You want to know why I’m running for Congress? I’m running for Congress because I stand with people like Elizabeth Warren. We want to get the banks and the credit card companies off your back. My opponent and his party are fighting tooth and nail to keep that from happening.”

This is the sort of message that every Democrat from Obama on down should be hammering on every day between now and Election Day. And having a high-profile fight in the Senate over the merits of nominating Ms. Warren would be a terrific opportunity to do that.

In politics, a fight, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Sometimes a fight is a great thing, because it can take political arguments outside the realm of abstraction and highlight the consequences of your vote.

Think back to the 1995 government shutdown, for instance. The Republicans launched it as an effort to paint themselves as the party of fiscal conservatism. But what it actually ended up doing was handing Bill Clinton a golden opportunity to be the politician who was fighting a gang of ideologues to ensure that your mail would still be delivered. Clinton, a deeply unpopular President in 1995 after his early initiatives like health care reform foundered, seized that opportunity and rode it to re-election in ’96.

Obama could have seized on the conservative opposition to Warren in a similar fashion — going to the public with the message that he was fighting for their interests rather than those of the billionaire CEOs of “too big to fail” banks. But instead, in classic Obama fashion, he tried to avoid the fight, to split the difference. And he ended up with a solution that will please no one.

This is the corner the President has painted himself into by embracing “post-partisanship” as a governing ideology. Post-partisanship implies that there are no fights anymore, because we all operate from a collective consensus instead. But it also means that anyone who wants to can veto anything you try to do simply by threatening to pitch a fit about it. After all, if you define success as “we didn’t fight about it,” all the other side has to do to make you a failure is… fight.

Which is why you sometimes have to be willing to do some fighting yourself. Unfortunately for all of us, if today’s news is any indication, the President isn’t quite there yet.

UPDATE (Sep. 16): Twelve hours after I wrote this, TPM reports:

Conservatives are already calling her a banking “czar.”

Gosh, nobody could have seen that coming…