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A Saint With Sharp Elbows

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Most important, the Obama team that had been so good at uplift during the campaign never could get a firm grip on how to talk about governing. Obama tuned out Warren’s Manichaean view of Wall Street. “He meets with bankers,” she complained to Confidence Men author Ron Suskind. “He doesn’t meet with me.” Her biggest difference with Obama was over whether she’d be nominated to head the CFPB, a fight that the administration, given Republican opposition to Warren, was pretty sure it would lose. Congressman Barney Frank says he advised Obama that nominating Warren to head the CFPB was “a win-win, because if the Republicans filibuster her, they’ll make her a hero who can run for the Senate, and because of that, to avoid her being a Senate candidate, you might get them to confirm her.” But the White House didn’t have the stomach for such a confrontation and ultimately concluded that the CFPB nomination would have to go to one of Warren’s deputies, Richard Cordray (who himself, it should be noted, has yet to be confirmed owing to GOP opposition).

It’s only now, after Warren has left Washington and launched her own political career, that Obama has appeared to heed her advice, taking a much more populist tone in recent months. “If you listen to the story that Obama is telling about the economy right now,” says Jared Bernstein, “it strikes me as very similar to the story that Liz is telling.” If Warren sees any irony in this development, she’s careful not to show it.

“Our job is to let Elizabeth be Elizabeth,” says Doug Rubin, “and to build a campaign around her.” A former top adviser to Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, Rubin is now Warren’s chief political strategist. When I met him recently at his Boston office, copies of The Tipping Point, Moneyball, and The Art of War were stacked on his desk, while Scott Brown’s memoir Against All Odds sat on the bookshelf. Rubin has worked in state politics for two decades, but the first time he ever spoke to Warren was this past summer, when she called him on a Sunday afternoon to pick his brain about a potential Senate race. “Normally when I talk to people who are thinking about running for office, it’s all logistics: How much money am I going to have to raise? How much time will I have to be out on the trail?” he says. “But she spent the first half-hour talking about why she wanted to do it, the issues she cared about. I was very impressed by that.”

By the time of Warren’s conversation with Rubin, she’d already been the focus of an intense, months-long lobbying effort by some of the Democratic Party’s biggest names to get her to join the race. It began in earnest in March after Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, went to Boston to meet with all of the Massachusetts Democrats contemplating a run against Brown. For Cecil and the DSCC, no 2012 Senate race was more important than Massachusetts—the bluest state currently represented by a Republican. But none of the candidates whom Cecil met seemed capable of beating Brown. So when he returned to Washington, the DSCC commissioned a poll of Massachusetts voters that included Warren’s name, biography, and political positions. When the poll found Warren and Brown in a statistical dead heat, the DSCC had its preferred candidate, and three senators—Patty Murray, Harry Reid, and Chuck Schumer—were tasked with the job of persuading Warren to enter the race.

Murray talked about the importance of having more women in the Senate. Reid made the case about preserving the Democrats’ Senate majority. And Schumer, over dinner at a Washington restaurant, appealed to Warren’s more basic instincts, casting the race as an opportunity for her to exact revenge on the Republican senators who’d prevented her from helming her beloved CFPB. It didn’t seem to matter that some of Warren’s suitors had previously clashed with her and would presumably clash with her again—Reid, for instance, voted for the 2005 bankruptcy bill, while Schumer’s close ties to Wall Street led one close Warren adviser to dub him “the senator from Bankistan.” “Their only test is, ‘Can she help us hold on to the majority? And once she gets here, she may be a pain in the ass, but we’ll figure it out,’ ” says one senior Democratic aide. “Their diametrically opposed worldviews will stay below the surface until 2013.”

Meanwhile, the White House was also lobbying Warren to run. It didn’t want her final act to be getting passed over for the CFPB job—if only because it didn’t want her legions of liberal admirers to be any more angry at Obama than they already were. Having Warren run for the Senate was a much more uplifting next chapter, and several of Obama’s advisers, including David Axelrod and Pete Rouse, encouraged her to take the plunge. Indeed, Axelrod eventually played a key role in connecting Warren with Rubin, with whom he’d worked on Patrick’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign.


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