Politics & Policy

The Queen Is Dead

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
Long live the queen?

I have argued for some time that there are certain “standing roles” in American public life, and filling one of those roles presents a way forward for certain aspirants who are otherwise undistinguished:

There are a number of permanent and semi-permanent roles in American public life, for instance MLK Analogue, the job held for a long time by Jesse Jackson, which Al Sharpton expects to inherit. There’s Boss Woman, which was Gloria Steinem’s gig for years, and right around the time Ann Richards was interviewing for the position Mrs. Clinton swept in and took it. (As young women, and particularly young feminists, turn their backs on Herself in great numbers, that position may pass to Governor Richards’s daughter, Cecile, currently head of the Butchers’ Guild.) There’s the not-especially-desirable position of Go-To-Libertarian Guy (Senator Paul, in the family trade) and Evangelical Pope (Franklin Graham, with Mike Huckabee trying to set up his own Avignon operation, presumably at Fox News) and Mr. Anti-Trade (Donald Trump), etc. You can trace the decline of parts of American public life through who holds these jobs: From Martin Luther King Jr. to Al Sharpton? Hyperion to a satyr. From Susan B. Anthony to Herself? Chicken salad to chickens**t.

After Mrs. Clinton’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Donald Trump, there have been whispers, if not shouts: “The queen is dead.”

Elizabeth Warren is doing her best to take over the position from Mrs. Clinton, and hence her dopey defamation of Jeff Sessions, alongside whom she was perfectly content to serve in the Senate until his nomination as attorney general gave her what every aspiring progressive leader wants most of all: a white, southern, Christian, male antagonist. Mitch McConnell has been criticized for making a “martyr” of Warren by invoking Senate rules mandating decorous behavior on the floor (my, but Republicans have picked a peculiar time to rediscover decorum!), but I do not think Warren has quite sealed the deal.

It is important to her that she do so and do so soon, because as anybody who has ever watched her up close doing the actual business of campaigning (as I have) knows, she is a terrible politician: awkward, stiff, humorless, afraid. One of my favorite political memories is watching Elizabeth Warren in Boston on Evacuation Day (a big deal in Boston), trying to sing “Charlie on the MTA” with a bunch of red-faced Muldoons who at 9 a.m. had already been going hard at the open bar, clapping like a seal and doing her best impersonation of a human being. She’s a very strange kind of populist, one who manifestly is much more comfortable with “the People” than with people.

If she cannot get herself promoted to Mrs. Clinton’s role and enjoy the sacrosanct position that comes along with it, she’ll have to seek advancement (either to the presidency or to a position of genuine national Democratic leadership) through the ordinary means of vote-grubbing and money-grubbing. She does not seem to have much of a gift or a taste for either.

But she will pretend to be whatever she thinks she needs to be. People who knew her earlier in life, from back in her Harvard Law days and her early career, describe a very different Elizabeth Warren, politically moderate and personally circumspect, not given to wild-eyed denunciations or bare-knuckled partisanship. Christopher Caldwell has even argued that she was, once, something of a “closet conservative”:

In 2003 Warren cowrote a brilliant and counterintuitive work of pop economics called The Two-Income Trap. People were going bankrupt at an alarming rate. . . . Warren herself later said she was looking for some failure of self-control, for “too many Gameboys.” But this was not the case. Bankruptcy was actually getting harder to declare, Warren proved. For bankrupt families, the ratio of nonmortgage debt to income rose from .79 in 1981 to 1.06 in 1991 to 1.5 in 2001. To quote, italics and all, the most stunning line in her book: “Having a child is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse.”

Why this was so had nothing to do with consumerism. Parents spent 32 percent less on clothing, and 52 percent less on appliances. What they spent more on was big necessities: mortgages (up 76 percent), cars (up 52 percent), taxes (up 25 percent), and health insurance (up 74 percent). And the reason for all but the last of these was the entry of women into the workplace. Working mothers “ratcheted up the price of a middle-class life for everyone, including families that wanted to keep Mom at home,” Warren wrote. . . . 

You can euphemize this account any way you like — and God knows Warren tries — but Michele Bachmann would find nothing to object to in this narrative.

Warren, who comes from a quite modest background in Oklahoma, has tried out for many roles: writer of silly self-help books (back when she was advertising herself as “Dr. Phil’s financial guru”), academic, Naderite populist, etc. You’ll note that her response to Senator McConnell’s invocation of Rule XIX was rhetorically organized around her being a woman, which had precisely nothing to do with her violation of Senate rules. But that is the role for which she is auditioning today: First Lady of the Left.

It’s a pretty good role, and a growing one: Back when Gloria Steinem had the job, all that meant was being popular on the college lecture circuit and editing a second-rate magazine. When Mrs. Clinton had the job, it meant being quite close to winning the presidency. Elizabeth Warren, the Clarice Starling of Democratic politics — which is to say, “a well-scrubbed hustling rube with a little taste” and a creepy mentor (Hannibal Lecter has nothing on Chuck Schumer) — is nothing if not upwardly mobile.

If you do not like this version of Elizabeth Warren, don’t worry: There will be others.

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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