In her recently published memoir, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., relays a chilling anecdote about how Washington really works. In 2009, she was running a congressional panel to oversee the Treasury Department's bailout of the financial industry, and the new Obama administration was unhappy that she was being as tough on them as she had been on its Republican predecessors. So the president's top economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers, took Warren out for a friendly dinner.
"Late in the evening, Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice," Warren writes. "I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don't listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access. … But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don't criticize other insiders."
Warren decided to remain an outsider and went right on flaying then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner for failing to help distressed homeowners while he was rescuing big banks. When President Obama decided against nominating Warren to run the new Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, she ran for the Senate instead. And last year, from that seat, she was one of several senators who helped kill Summers' likely nomination as chairman of the Federal Reserve.
She's smart, eloquent, liberal and fiery. Her ferocity as a critic of Wall Street has made her a heroine to the Democratic left. A potential presidential candidate?
"I am not running for president," she says over and over.
"No, no, no, no, no," she told the Boston Globe.
To avoid stirring any speculation, an aide said, she's not setting foot in New Hampshire, not even to campaign for her colleague Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., only 45 minutes from her home in Massachusetts.
Of course, plenty of candidates have said they aren't running two years before the election, only to undergo a change of heart later on -- Barack Obama among them. But people who know Warren say they take her at her word. Her chief fundraiser has reportedly told donors to forget it; she isn't running.
Instead, she's doing what most freshman senators do. She's proposing bills on her favorite issues. She's trying to strike alliances with Republicans, a useful skill in a closely divided Senate; her co-sponsors on bills have included GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.
And although Warren criticized Hillary Rodham Clinton in a previous book for her vote in favor of a 2001 bill that would have made it harder for ordinary people to declare bankruptcy, she's now saying nice things about the woman most likely to become her party's next presidential nominee.
Could it be that Elizabeth Warren, the ultimate outsider, has decided to play the inside game, too?
If Clinton runs for president and wins, Warren can logically be expected to do her best to pull the new administration in her direction -- and a few friendly noises now, when the candidate needs them, could pay big dividends then.
And if Clinton opts not to run, her supporters will be looking for a new champion -- perhaps a dynamic liberal woman who hasn't been too tough on Hillary.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at email@example.com
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