The People’s Seat

Patrick-Warren Meeting

Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren meets with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick two days after her victory over incumbent Sen. Scott Brown. (Photo credit: Office of Governor Patrick’s photostream)

Three years after Ted Kennedy, Elizabeth Warren bests Scott Brown for a U.S. Senate seat that’s taken a life of its own.

“With all due respect,” then-candidate Scott Brown replied in a January 2011 debate, “it’s not the Kennedys’ seat and it’s not the Democrats’ seat. It’s the people’s seat.” The reply became his mantra, borne out when he stunned the Commonwealth’s political establishment to win the title of first Republican Senator from Massachusetts since 1953.

Not two years later, a humbled Brown again invoked the phrase that  propelled him to national attention. Elizabeth Warren, he said, “has received the high honor of holding the people’s seat.” The people spoke decisively; besting Brown 54-46%, Warren will take office in January as the Bay State’s first female U.S. Senator. Having returned a liberal Democrat to the post less than a term after Brown’s upset, what does that mean for “the people’s seat”?

In the broadest sense, nothing. The people weren’t duped or deceived, awarding Elizabeth Warren a landslide victory and a full six years in Washington. She’ll likely pick up where the late Ted Kennedy left off, though her sharing his liberal ideals doesn’t diminish the legitimacy of magnitude of her election. But the people can be fickle, and Warren may well follow Brown to defeat when her term expires in 2019. Whatever the outcome, it really is the people’s seat. And we can be sure that the people will still have their say.

Their say on November 6th was clear. Though he cast himself as a political moderate and relative outsider, Brown won just 60% of independents. In a state where 4 out of 10 voters registered Democratic, a block Warren dominated, that was enough to seal his defeat. With a commanding lead in almost every demographic (youth, seniors, women, minorities, the highly-educated, and the middle class), Warren’s message resonated with Bay Staters concerned for the economy but looking for someone who “understands people like me.” Republicans may have painted her as a dishonest Harvard elitist, but the charge failed to stick.

The 113th Congress will be younger, less male, and more diverse than any before, but it still faces the crippling partisan gridlock that doomed its predecessor. Congressional Democrats made considerable gains and retained the Presidency, but Republicans held their House majority and Senate filibuster. With a chamber apiece and no clear voter mandate, immediate compromise is unlikely. Senator-elect Warren probably won’t change that, considering her allegiance to President Obama and longtime opposition to modern Republican economics. That said, she certainly appears determined to bring her history of consumer advocacy to Washington.

Senior aides to Senate Democrats have suggested Warren’s assignment to the Senate Banking Committee, a move that would elevate her from outside advocate to key policymaker overnight. An expert in bankruptcy law, the Senator-elect seems “a logical fit” to the powerful watchdog given the recent financial crisis and global recession. Having led the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) — a first-of-its-kind federal agency tasked with guarding consumers against Wall Street excess — she left Washington two years ago opposed by Republicans determined to kill the Bureau in its infancy. The agency has since forced banks and credit companies to return hundreds of millions in wrongful fees, fitting vindication of Warren’s commitment and credentials.

Whatever their opinion of her, outside parties will be watching Warren’s first few months with interest. The Massachusetts defense industry cultivated a close relationship with outgoing Sen. Brown, a colonel in the Army National Guard, donating roughly $319,000 to his reelection campaign (and just $11,000 to Warren’s). Industry leaders nonetheless profess a willingness to work with the Senator-elect, but they’re still getting their second choice. Nemesis though she may be, financiers likewise recognize their weakened position with her election. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, went several very public rounds with Warren during and after the financial crisis. Last Friday, Dimon told CNBC  that he’d personally congratulated her on her victory in what must have been an immensely uncomfortable phone call.

Conservatives distrustful of her overall fiscal policy can at least take comfort in her nonpartisan efforts to even the playing field against financial titans. Consumer protection is to Warren what political independence was to Brown and health care to the late Sen. Kennedy; each of the last three individuals to hold “the people’s seat” professed a particular passion that dominated their tenure. For better or worse, its latest occupant brings something for everyone to the capital. Women will be especially thrilled at her election, bringing their number to a fifth of the Senate’s membership. And everyone should support her first major initiative; removing the Senate filibuster to lessen congressional gridlock.

As for Scott Brown, his concession speech may have put it best. “There are no obstacles you can’t overcome,” he told supporters, “and defeat is only temporary.” Young and influential, it’s all but certain that Brown will return to Massachusetts politics when the opportunity presents itself. And that window may be coming soon. With Hillary Clinton expected to retire as U.S. Secretary of State, senior Senator John Kerry presents a strong candidate for replacement. Should the post instead go to incumbent U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, Kerry’s also been floated as Obama’s second Secretary of Defense.

Either position would open Kerry’s Senate seat to special election with Scott Brown ready and willing to make another run for Washington. Would state Republicans back a candidate who lost decisively in a recent election after just two years in office? It’s unclear, but Democrats don’t have a presumptive challenger waiting in the wings (though it’s possible Attorney General Martha Coakley could run in a rematch of their 2011 contest). The prospect of a resurgent Senator Brown is reportedly a noted, if minor, factor in Kerry’s cabinet prospects.

Brown may instead set his sights closer to home. With Gov. Deval Patrick’s second (and allegedly final) term concluding in 2014, the former Senator may try his luck in a state open to moderate Republican executives. Considering former Governor Mitt Romney’s staggering electoral defeat there in the recent presidential election, however, Bay Staters may not warm to the idea this time around. Brown has several paths open to him, each with its own unique risks and potential rewards. Massachusetts will watch his next moves with interest, to say the least.

Out with the old, in with the new. As Sen. Brown returns to Washington for the final few weeks of his term, he offered congratulations to his successor and a warning for his peers. “I’m a pro-choice, moderate Republican. There’s a vanishing breed here,” he observed, “we know that now. That group in the middle? It’s vanishing. I’m hopeful we’ll be a more tolerant, open-minded party.” Even as he leaves office, there’s hope that Brown and others like him can turn back the radicals to remake the Republican Party from within. Until then, the people have chosen another to represent the Commonwealth and fight for its values. Elizabeth Warren’s election made history, but she’ll face her constituents six years from now to ask for a second term. And when she does, “the people’s seat” may again move on.

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