Democrats Tap Warren as Liaison to Liberal Groups

November 17, 2014

Senator Elizabeth Warren on Thursday was handed a specially created slot in the Senate Democratic leadership, further elevating her profile as the party’s liaison to liberal groups.

The job, strategic policy adviser to the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, cements her role as the Senate’s most prominent conduit to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

But it also could pose complications for the Massachusetts politician who positioned herself as a populist outsider and now must try to thrive in partnership with the party establishment. Under the arrangement, Warren, one of Wall Street’s severest critics, will work alongside New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who often collaborates with financial institutions.

Warren was given the job as Democrats struggle to rebrand themselves after a blistering defeat in the midterm elections and loss of the Senate majority.

“Being part of leadership means I’ve got a seat at the table,” Warren said in an interview. It “creates an opportunity to talk, to persuade, and sometimes to lead.”

The job carries significant symbolism and some new power.

“There are plenty of folks in her party who believe that her message on economic inequality and the system at large really does resonate,” said Peter Ubertaccio, an associate professor of political science at Stonehill College in Easton.

But he noted the role could put her closer to the kind of deals and Wall Street powerbrokers she vilifies. “Part of the responsibility of leadership is to support the party line,” he said, “For someone as high profile as her, it’s a little bit of challenge.”

The vote for party leaders is held in secret — with no tally released — but Warren said she did not hear opposition to her position during the meeting.

“People seemed happy,” she said. “That was it.”

During the meeting, which lasted nearly four hours, Senate Democrats also elected Senator Harry Reid of Nevada to continue as their leader. Republicans separately elected Senator Mitch McConnell to take over as Senate majority leader when the GOP takes control in January. House Speaker John Boehner also easily won another term.

Warren stood smiling behind Reid when the new Democratic leadership emerged.

Senate Democrats balanced the Warren pick with the selection of Senator Jon Tester, a moderate from Montana, to the powerful position of Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman. His job involves raising money to help the chamber take back control in 2016.

Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat on the leadership team, said the simultaneous selection of Warren and Tester signaled the party’s broad reach.

“It’s good to have both wings of the party’s input strongly represented, and that’s what we’re doing here,” he said.

Reid began discussing the job with Warren last week, and on Wednesday presented a more specific idea of her role.

“Somebody said to me, ‘Elizabeth Warren is going to be part of your leadership. What do you expect her do to?’ ” Reid told reporters after the meeting. “I expect her to be Elizabeth Warren.”

Others share that view.

“Liz Warren was going to be a powerhouse no matter what Senate title was on her business card,” said Isaac Boltansky, an analyst at Compass Point Research & Trading, a Washington financial services firm, and former staffer for Warren on the Congressional Oversight Panel.

Warren was one of the most sought-after surrogates during the campaign, traveling across the country to stump with Democratic nominees. She has also been one of the party’s biggest fund-raising draws.

Her decision to join the leadership could be another indication that she wants to chart a career in the Senate, rather than running for president. Although she has repeatedly denied a desire to run in 2016, her supporters continue to push.

Warren has built much of her career on arguments that working families suffer while Wall Street profits. Her views could energize liberal Democrats, but they could also make it more difficult to cut deals with newly empowered Republicans.

“Before leaders in Congress and the president get caught up in proving they can pass some new laws, everyone should take a skeptical look at whom those new laws will serve,” Warren wrote last week in a Washington Post op-ed.

Robert Reich, who served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, said he hoped Warren’s role will make the party less dependent on Wall Street.

“I hope she lets Charles Schumer and other Wall Street Democrats know how much damage they’re doing to the Democratic Party,” he said in an e-mail.

The senators in the party top spots — held by Reid, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Schumer, and Patty Murray of Washington — will remain.

Not everyone wanted Reid to stay their leader. A handful of senators, including Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said the party needed new leadership after the midterm election result.

“To me that means changing leadership,” McCaskill said. “It’s just that simple.” Manchin, along with a number of other senators, appeared confused by Warren’s post. “In West Virginia, that wouldn’t work,” he said.