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Now More Than Ever, We Need Elizabeth Warren In The Senate — Not The White House

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., addresses an audience at Belkin Family Lookout Farm during a town hall event, Sunday, July 8, 2018, in Natick, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., addresses an audience at Belkin Family Lookout Farm during a town hall event, Sunday, July 8, 2018, in Natick, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP)

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The circus in the Senate surrounding the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court is exactly why Elizabeth Warren should not run for president of the United States in 2020.

The Oval Office is not the only place in Washington in need of grown-ups.

Yes, it was appalling to watch the occupant of the Oval Office at a political rally in Mississippi mock a woman who had testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that his nominee for the high court sexually assaulted her in high school; we have come to expect no better from Donald Trump. But, equally disturbing was the breakdown of procedural norms and basic civility in the Senate, where Republicans and Democrats in full-throated fury accused each other of “smear campaigns” and “sham investigations” concerning Kavanaugh, Trump’s nominee and a sitting federal appeals court judge.

The lunacy in Mississippi and Washington led Warren on Saturday to tell an audience in Holyoke that she would take a “hard look” at running for president in 2020. Set aside the arrogance of signaling to voters that she is weighing another job while campaigning to keep the one she hasn’t held all that long. Set aside, too, her presumption that she will win re-election next month because, this being Massachusetts, she will.

...just because she could does not mean she should.

To be sure, other senators — Barack Obama of Illinois and John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts — made successful runs for the presidency having spent little or no more time on Capitol Hill than Warren. But just because she could does not mean she should.

The Senate is not just a staging area for personal political ambition. It might not be “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” But on its best days — too few of which we have seen of late — it is where the substantive work of public policy gets done. A visitor to the chamber might well wonder about that. Nothing much happens on the floor there most of the time. But, in saner periods, the work has gone on out of public view, in senators’ offices and party cloakrooms where compromise was the watchword, not a dirty word. When historic issues arose — civil rights in the 1960s, immigration in the '80s, national security in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — the impassioned but measured tone of those debates confirmed the promise that, in a democracy, rational discourse could help us resolve our most intractable challenges.

Warren has distinguished herself in that work in her first Senate term as the fighter she promised to be for working families. She has been as a fierce advocate for homeowners, credit card holders and college students fleeced by predatory lenders. She prevailed in her fight to protect patients with pre-existing medical conditions from losing their health insurance. She fought hard, if to no avail, to stop the ruinous Trump tax cuts that were a giveaway to millionaires and corporations.

But the former Harvard Law School professor’s labors are hardly done in the Senate, a body rent by rancor and paralyzed by partisanship. If ever there were a time and a place desperate for committed, reasonable leadership, it is now in the United States Senate.

At the center of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate is replica of the real U.S. Senate chamber — a majestic room with gilded wallpaper and wooden desks modeled off the original congressional furniture. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
At the center of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate is replica of the real U.S. Senate chamber — a majestic room with gilded wallpaper and wooden desks modeled off the original congressional furniture. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The catnip of a presidential campaign has long been irresistible to Massachusetts politicians, including Warren’s predecessor, Edward M. Kennedy. He ran and lost, but did that defeat lessen the legacy of the 47 years he spent representing Massachusetts in the Senate? Hardly. Kennedy created the Institute for the United States Senate in Boston that bears his name to underscore its importance to the American experiment and to counter the scourge of public cynicism about government service.

It was an act of idealism, what President Obama called “a living example of the hard, frustrating, never-ending, but critical work required to make that idealism real.” At the institute’s dedication ceremony three years ago, the president noted that Kennedy “left for a new generation of Americans — a monument not to himself but to what we, the people, have the power to do together.” In his later years, Obama noted, Kennedy had “grieved the loss of camaraderie and collegiality, the face-to-face interaction. I think he regretted the arguments now made to cameras instead of colleagues, directed at a narrow base instead of the body politic as a whole.”

If ever there were a time and a place desperate for committed, reasonable leadership, it is now in the United States Senate.

How much deeper would those regrets be now, nine years after Kennedy’s death, in these dysfunctional days of Trump?

For weeks, Senator Warren has been urging Americans to get involved, to exercise their right to vote, to help restore some balance to a Congress that has been captured by congressional Republicans in thrall to a madman.

“It’s not just Brett Kavanaugh,” she says in a video widely distributed on social media. “Donald Trump is packing the federal courts with unqualified extremist judges. One guy spread racist birther conspiracies about President Obama. Another thinks we should 'abolish all restrictions on campaign finance.' Another defended a sexual harasser, worked for a politician who called LGBTQ people 'disgusting' and opposed renewing the Voting Rights Act. Democrats have got to take back the Senate to stop Donald Trump’s judges.”

And Elizabeth Warren needs to stay right where she is to lead that fight.

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Eileen McNamara Cognoscenti contributor
A Pulitzer Prize-winning former columnist for The Boston Globe, Eileen McNamara is the author of "Eunice, The Kennedy Who Changed the World."

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