Has trade battle helped Liz Warren don the mantle of Ted Kennedy?

The trade fight plays to the senator’s strengths as champion for workers. Warren has mastered the art of the fight, but to wear Kennedy’s mantle, she would have to master the art of the deal, one political scientist says.

Damian Dovarganes/AP
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at the California Democrats State Convention in Anaheim, Calif., on May 16.

Update: This story was updated at 9:32 p.m.

With the Senate passage of "fast track" trade negotiating authority Friday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren looks to have lost this round in her battle against the president's pursuit of a historic trade deal with Pacific-rim nations.

But don't count it as a loss for the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, who has become a bullhorn for the left, arguing that the president’s trade agenda is bad for the working class. If anything, her fight has solidified her standing among progressives, with some likening her to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy –  the liberal lion from the Bay State.

Senator Warren’s roar has echoed across the nation in recent weeks, as she rebutted President Obama’s comment on April 20 that she was “wrong” on trade. On Monday, Warren released a report documenting decades of failure to enforce labor standards in “new-and-improved” free trade agreements. She did not spare Mr. Obama, who the next day disputed the criticism with his own statement on enforcement of free trade, which he says promotes economic growth and jobs.

So, is a defeat in the Senate – which was expected to pass fast track anyway – a setback for Warren? 

“That isn’t the test,” says Rep. Sander Levin (D) of Michigan, who has been a leader against fast track in the House, where a much tougher battle awaits the president. “All along, there’s been a need to talk about what [the Pacific trade deal] is all about.” Warren, he adds, “helped focus on the issues.”

She sure did, in speeches, media interviews, tweets, legislation, remarks on the Senate floor, and in a defiant union rally on the Capitol grounds last month.

The trade fight plays perfectly to the senator’s strengths as a spry, slingshot-wielding warrior taking on big corporations and big banks. Though she did not win the trade battle in the Senate, her focus on the potential impacts for working-class Americans has only cemented her status as as a champion for consumers and workers.

True, Warren “didn’t obstruct in the end, but she certainly caused political debate and problems that the president was hoping to avoid,” says Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Indeed, the Senate’s anti-fast-track wing, led by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio in the Finance Committee where the trade legislation was hatched, temporarily blocked the trade package last week. But the bill passed Friday, 62 to 37.

As the public face against the trade bill, Warren has focused like a laser on three main criticisms: First, that terms of the Pacific trade deal, which is still being negotiated between the administration and 11 nations, is “secret” to the public; second, that panels to resolve trade disputes can be used to overturn a nation’s regulations; and third, that financial regulations in the United States could be at risk under a future GOP president invoking fast track, which allows Congress only an up-or-down vote on a final trade deal – not the ability to amend it.

Obama said Warren’s arguments “don’t stand the test of scrutiny,” but the former Harvard law professor is unfazed by the criticism from the Oval Office. “For me, this is not personal. For me, this is about protecting American workers,” the senator said in an interview with Bloomberg TV on Monday. “Look, this is basically what I have worked on all my life, what's been happening to America's middle class,” she said.

It may surprise some, but Warren was a registered Republican as late as 1996, according to the National Journal. Her encounter with struggling families during research into bankruptcy changed her vision, she has said. An expert in bankruptcy law and consumer issues, she testified before Congress, churned out writings, and appeared on talk shows.

Warren was already warning against big banks and financial institutions before the Wall Street crash of 2008, which launched her to liberal stardom. She was named to direct a congressionally appointed panel to oversee the $700 billion bank bailout. The Obama administration took her on as an assistant to the president and special adviser to the Treasury secretary.

She lacerated the financial industry, and was blocked by Republicans from leading the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she helped to design under the "Dodd-Frank" law. Instead, she ran for the Senate against incumbent Scott Brown (R), handily beating him in 2012. She was helped by a $42 million war chest and is a fundraising powerhouse, much sought-after during last year’s Senate races.

After the election, minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, created a new leadership position just for her so she could spread her policy message.

While progressives are still hoping to draft Warren for 2016, it’s clear she’s not interested. If they don’t believe her many protestations, they should take the trade crusade as another "no."

Professor Zelizer’s take on Warren is that she sees herself as “Ted-Kennedy-like,” impacting public debate, and not just Senate debate. “I think that’s what she wants to do as a senator. She’s done it on financial regulations, with consumer protection, and now she’s done it with the issue of trade.”

She’s already had an impact on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, pushing her leftward, observers say. The former secretary of State has sought Warren’s views in private meetings. In a laudatory piece for Time last month, Mrs. Clinton praised the liberal icon for picking up “Ted Kennedy’s mantle.”

But that hasn’t stopped Warren from publicly finding fault with Clinton. She urged the candidate to get “clearer” on trade – a subject which the former first lady has skirted. And last year, Warren deep-sixed Obama’s nominee for undersecretary of the Treasury, Antonio Weiss, because he had been a senior investment banker at Lazard, the financial advice and management firm. In January, he withdrew his name from consideration.

Warren has mastered the art of the fight, for sure, but to wear Kennedy’s mantle, she would have to master the art of the deal, says Jennifer Duffy, of the independent Cook Political Report.

“This is what the Senate increasingly lacks. It lacks somebody like Kennedy who could find the deal that didn’t sacrifice his principles,” said Ms. Duffy. “I don’t think she has any interest in crafting compromises.”

Indeed, Warren's now carrying the fight to the House, where according to Congressman Levin, she has had “considerable back and forth” on trade issues. The Washington Post reports that she has been lobbying junior members of the Massachusetts delegation to vote against “grease the skids” trade authority, as she calls fast track.

Levin describes the House vote on the trade package as still “up in the air.” A contingent of Republicans opposes the package on the grounds that it gives the president too much power, and because it includes assistance for laid-off workers affected by trade. Most Democrats oppose it as a jobs killer, as does the umbrella organization for labor unions, the AFL-CIO.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York, who works with Levin on trade, describes Warren as “very vocal,” a relatively new politician who is “enjoying every bit of the spotlight.” But she isn’t changing minds. “She’s reinforcing those that already agree with her, but I don’t think she’s changing a vote.”

Which gets back to the Kennedy question. In the vacuum left behind by liberal senators, Warren is the left’s darling. Her stand on trade “cements her role as sort of the leader of the progressive Democrats,” says Duffy. “She was the person out there fighting, and part of the party needs somebody out there fighting.”

But Kennedy could also change minds. He could build bipartisan bridges – on immigration, on education, on a host of major issues. That part of Warren, a freshman senator, has yet to be developed. 

“Perhaps for her” as Duffy says, “giving it voice is enough.”

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