Elizabeth Warren only ever encounters three kinds of human obstacles: proud, tragic, or pathetic. You can plunk Alabama Rep. Spencer Bachus into the “pathetic” column. In A Fighting Chance, her new memoir, the senator from Massachusetts recalls when she was the hamstrung, unconfirmed adviser who was supposed to run the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Lacking access to the CFPB’s full powers, she darted through Congress, taking meetings with skeptics. A 2010 encounter with Bachus—months before he became House Financial Services chairman—stood out to her.
“He spoke movingly about people who had been swindled,” writes Warren. “He really seemed to feel their pain. He concluded by saying that if he had more courage, he’d go after the people who did that to families. I was stunned by his use of the word courage and his small, tight, smile.”
Was he climbing on board with Warren? Had the wizard given him courage? No and no. Warren remembers his “accent twanging” as he explained his next move: “I’ll go after the consumer agency, but I hope you understand, it isn’t personal.”
Bachus is retiring this year, but scores of people like him populate A Fighting Chance—well-meaning, yearning to agree with her, but crushed by the realities of politics. It’s a friendlier book than anyone had reason to expect. Warren’s working title was Rigged, as in “how the economic system’s too often rigged against families who work hard and play by the rules.”
Those words are still in the book, but the system is something to be conquered, not feared. Warren’s previous pop-finance books had called out Democrats, the Clintons especially, for callously tightening bankruptcy laws. Here, as the New Republic’s Noam Scheiber has already glumly noted, there’s hardly a whisper of that.
Warren spends no time criticizing Clinton and quite a lot of time praising the Democrats (even John Edwards!) who listened to her ideas. She credits Bill Clinton with putting her on a commission that delayed, for a decade, a bill to make it harder to declare bankruptcy. In 2002, when a version of the bill goes down, she remembers exactly what Sen. Ted Kennedy told her: “We showed those #*&!!s. They shouldn’t mess with us!” Us. In 2005, when the bill passes, Warren names no names and blames no particular politicians. That’s considerably less than Barack Obama did when he ran for president, and Obama himself comes off well here. A scene in which he sits Warren down and asks her to “trust your president” and take an advisory CFPB job is about how steadfast he is, not about how the current president didn’t fight hard enough for consumers.
Of course, Warren is not running for president. She’s the most exciting and eloquent figure on the political left, and progressives cling to her brand whenever they can. The monomania of the political press corps demands that such a figure must run for the nation’s highest office because there’s no other way to change the Democratic Party or—well, to make the media cover what Warren stands for.
Warren begs to differ. Her book is a sort of ruse, clothed in the jacket of a precampaign biography but designed to depoliticize its subject. It spins the clock back, to a time when Warren wasn’t even identified with “the left.” As recently as 2011, conservative (not Republican) writers were praising Warren’s research on the banks and advocacy for the middle class. She wanted to make it affordable to start a family and not fear being wiped out. How was that left-wing? “Her understanding of the financial crisis is best described as populist, conservative, even right-wing,” wrote Christopher Caldwell in The Weekly Standard, after Warren finally gave up on being appointed to run the CFPB. “She was the only white working-class Democrat left in captivity.”
She’s still in captivity. She’s in politics. The political world, for Warren, is a Lewis Carroll derp-o-sphere where no one can focus on what matters. Her 2012 Senate race makes up only 64 of the book’s 277 pages, with plenty of digressions about where she ate (“We refueled at Burger King or Chipotle”) and how she sought solace from her grandkids or her dog (“I started sitting on the floor and gently combing Otis and rubbing his belly while I talked to people miles away.”)
The remaining pages make up the book’s only slog. Warren keeps repeating the same lessons—she met inspiring people, and the media refused to cover what mattered. Surprise, surprise, she was “hurt” when Republicans attacked her for stating a Native American ancestry on her old law school job applications. What hurt more was that the story broke simultaneously with the JPMorgan Chase “London Whale”—the scandal caused by trader Bruno Iksil, who earned the nickname because of the size of his bets. As a result, Warren’s “encounters with the press during this period were dominated by questions about my mother’s background—almost nobody asked about Jamie Dimon’s recklessness.”
What a contrast with the people she worked with in the academic world, or even the commissions she got with the government. Warren recalls everything about how she got those jobs and uses them to quickly summarize the research on why people go broke, and the reasons, like “mortgages that zoom from unbelievably low monthly payments to unbelievably high monthly payments.”
Yes, Warren confirms that she wanted to be recess-appointed to run the CFPB. The administration got that one wrong—it was bamboozled, by Republicans, into dumping her and promoting another nominee who they blocked anyway. (Richard Cordray floated in limbo from late 2011 until the first Senate filibuster deal of 2013.) Again, the structural problem identified by Warren is a GOP that’s simply misguided, or scared of the bankers.
These are separate but overlapping tragedies. The bankers never tell Warren why they oppose her. They just send representatives to all of her public hearings on bankruptcy and attempt to bait her into a debate with a lobbyist. (She refuses.) One congressman, whom Warren does not name, literally recites financial industry talking points to her in a private meeting. Another congressman, New York’s Michael Grimm, seems to oppose her work out of pure ignorance. “When I launched into an enthusiastic description of what we were trying to get done at the agency,” she writes, “the congressman looked surprised. After a bit, he cut me off so he could make one thing clear: He didn’t believe in government.” In a fit of esprit de l'escalier, Warren runs through all the government services that Grimm surely uses and wonders why he can’t see that regulating the banks is exactly like putting cops on drug corners.
Surely he can be taught. Warren’s memoir reads a bit like The Payoff, Jeff Connaughton’s story of his lobbying career and the two-year Senate residency of Delaware’s Ted Kaufman. Both books contain head-shaking anecdotes about banks attempting to rebut decades of studies with junk data that they paid for; both portray members of Congress as gibbering ideologues. Connaughton concluded that the system was, well, rigged. Warren decides that the people running the system are so blatant in their venality, laziness, and graft that they can be beaten. That’s the battle. Leave the White House to some other sucker.