Milbank: Warren more interested in the work than the spotlight

By Dana Milbank, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoDana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Email: danamilbank@washpost.com.

It was one of those important-but-dull Senate hearings that don't get broadcast even on C-SPAN 3. An obscure subcommittee was taking expert testimony on patient safety last week, and only four of its 14 members bothered to show up. Several of the public seats were empty, too.

But Elizabeth Warren was in her element. The committee's most junior member was the first senator to arrive, five minutes early, and when it was her turn to question the witnesses she blew past the time limit. It was as though she were back at Harvard Law School, using the Socratic method to lead students to her desired conclusions in favor of stricter standards for hospitals and prescriptions.

She nodded, waved, smiled and coaxed her pupils along with "right" and "mm-hmm." When the chairman finally cut her off, Warren had a concern. "I do want to be sure Dr. James gets a chance to participate," she said. Indeed, his class-participation grade was riding on it.

Watching Warren combine her encyclopedic knowledge of the regulatory system with her three decades of experience as a professor, it was difficult to picture her launching a bid for the presidency.

A draft-Warren boomlet is underway, with the purpose of encouraging her to challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016. It is eerily similar to the movement that propelled Barack Obama to challenge Clinton eight years ago even though, like Warren, Obama had then served not quite two years in the Senate. But while Warren is a compelling figure — a feisty populist at a time of inequality and resentment — her actions since arriving in the Senate suggest she has neither interest in nor aptitude for a presidential candidacy.

I wanted to write about the Warren presidential hoopla, so I mentioned to her spokeswoman, Lacey Rose, that I'd buttonhole the senator after the subcommittee meeting. "We don't do hallway interviews," Rose replied. She said she would "see about" a phone interview but six hours later reported that she "couldn't make this work." (Warren had been on the Senate floor, writing thank-you notes on official stationery while taking a turn in the presiding officer's chair.)

This, I learned, is typical. Congressional reporters say that Warren is unusual among senators in her refusal to take questions. Such reticence is certainly not a fault. But it is the behavior of a lawmaker who plans to keep her head down and to do her job as a legislator — not somebody who is contemplating the glare of the national spotlight.

Different from Obama

At this point in 2006, Obama had already hired national political consultants David Axelrod and Anita Dunn. He clearly had ambitions beyond the Senate: The Post reported then that Obama himself "suggested that a presidential bid is a matter of when, not if."

Warren's apparent reluctance to propel herself to a national candidacy is well-grounded, because Democrats may be less willing in 2016 to put their hopes in another neophyte. Liberals saw Obama as purer than Clinton, but his inconsistent leadership has disappointed many of them.

None of this has stopped the "Ready For Warren" movement, which recently launched a website with a draft-Warren petition. "Run, Elizabeth, Run!" was the headline atop John Dickerson's Slate piece last week. In the Wall Street Journal, conservative John Feehery proclaimed that Warren "would beat the former first lady for the presidential nomination." In recent months Warren has made a dozen or so appearances in eight states for Democratic candidates.

It is, in other words, a bit like Obama in 2006. Then, the young senator was getting more than 300 requests a week for appearances and drawing overflow crowds. But there is a crucial difference. As The Post reported at the time, Obama's Senate colleagues were grumbling about him being "drawn to news conferences and speeches more than to the hard details of lawmaking."

Warren, by contrast, is all about the hard details.