Elizabeth Warren Makes It Personal

Relieved from the day to day responsibilities of running the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, she seems to be embracing a newfound freedom


Editor's Note, 9/14: Warren will seek the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate from Massachusetts to challenge Scott Brown in 2012.

Elizabeth Warren is ready to name and shame. After 10 long months spent crafting a brand-new federal agency in her image and likeness, years before that willing the institution into statutory existence, only to be passed over on Sunday in favor of Richard Cordray just as the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is moving out of beta, Warren, on a press call late yesterday afternoon, was eager to share her clarity on who's to blame for the especially precarious position the new federal-friend-to-the-American-consumer now finds itself in.

Those enemies of Warren, of the CFPB? Republicans, first and foremost, namely Senate Banking ranking member Richard Shelby (R-AL) and the forty three other Republican senators who signed a letter to Obama in May raising heck over the "unfettered authority" the CFPB had supposedly been granted by the Dodd-Frank Act, passed in the wake of the mortgage meltdown. That's no surprise. But Warren's also annoyed with the press for buying the GOP's story that it's simply a more efficient consumer advocate they're eager for, when really what Republicans want is for the CFPB to die an early death. She also blames her own political naiveté. She's been "too busy busting [her] tail" in starting an agency, she says, and didn't pay all that much attention to those inside the Beltway sharpening their knives. Some heard those noises over at 1600 Pennsylvania. Perhaps she's heard the chatter that Obama was more sold in public than in private on her eventual appointment as CFPB's first-ever director. But Warren gives Obama and fellow Democrats a pass.

"Let me put it this way," said Warren on yesterday's call. "I'm saving all the rocks in my pockets for Republicans. And if that's too partisan for you, then shame on me." Other officials drone. But Warren, an Oklahoma native and once-and-future Harvard Law School professor, never mastered the Washington monotone. She speaks with passion. It's not too much to say that it's that sort of thing that didn't help her case all that much. You'll hear talk in Washington that Warren was too anti-bank, too anti-Wall Street. And there's something too that, by her own admission. "We're not here to serve banks. We're not here to serve Wall Street. We're not here," she emphasizes that last bit, "to serve Congress. We're here to serve American families." But there's a real way in which Warren just seemed, well, too invested in her cause -- creating a powerful Washington presence that would bring transparency, structure, and some measure of sanity to the consumer credit market.

"I have become con-tro-ver-see-uhl," she says, "which I think is code for getting something done."

And so, Obama has named Richard Cordray to take over things from here. Cordray, a Democrat, is a former Attorney General of Ohio with a record of fighting banks, and he's been working with Warren in standing up the bureau.

But, wait. That anti-CFPB Shelby letter from May, signed by all by three Senate Republicans, objected to the very idea of a consumer agency that looks like what Warren and her team have created. The Senate GOP called for replacing Warren -- excuse me, the CFPB director -- with a board of directors, subjecting the agency's funding to the congressional appropriations process (so as to better let financial industry lobbyists have their way, says Warren), and having other federal financial regulators play nanny to whatever the up-with-people CFPB should come up with. "Such a check by the prudential regulators," explains the Senate Republicans' letter to Obama, "will provide a reasonable restraint on the CFPB's authority." Concludes the missive, "we will not support the consideration of any nominee, regardless of party affiliation, to be the CFPB director until the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is reformed."

And so, in light of all that, is there any real chance that Cordray will ever actually head this agency? Is he meant to just be the nominated piñata while Warren goes on to do something else -- say, run for Senate in Massachusetts, as some are speculating? Warren tries explaining Obama's strategy, but she seems to be selling herself on it as she talks. "You know...I don't know," she says. "People seem to think that a lot of this is on me. And more than anything else, I don't want to hurt this agency. If I'm drawing fire, then that's it." She goes on. "The president can say, 'Okay, you objected like crazy to this woman,'" but now, he "can say quite reasonably, 'I put somebody else on the table. He's got a resume that's worth taking a look at.'" Her leaving, she says, creates an opportunity to battle out the CFPB's existence in a way that's not so, well, about her.

"We now have a nominee. And that actually frees us up to have a big political discussion, or if need be, fight." It's an existential battle. "A year ago, we had a fight about whether to have this agency at all, about whether to make it a strong, independent agency, or make it some weak, lame thing that isn't going to get anything done.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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