To know that the Washington media manufactures narratives wholly divorced from pesky facts is to simply compare last week’s Politico article on freshman Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren with the actions of the senator in the same week.
In a vacuum and without actual evidence, Politico declared that Warren has a “quiet plan” to become a “silent senator” – one who refuses to speak out on controversial issues and therefore creates an image for herself that is “a sharp departure from her rousing campaign and outspoken consumer advocacy.” Yet, that very week, Warren showed she will likely be the opposite of a “silent senator.” She did this by slamming Republicans obstructing the nomination of a consumer regulator, publicly grilling negligent bank regulators and generally mustering a dominating performance at her very first committee hearing, thus generating national headlines.
What’s revelatory is not that rags like Politico fabricate story lines in order to fill their content quota and generate cheap web clicks. Nor is it shocking that other derivative political media obediently echo the story, repeating it as ironclad fact. After all, sloth and penny pinching have been around since the dawn of time (or at least since the dawn of the Internet), and so news organizations’ decisions to take the lazy and cheap route of just making shit up is hardly surprising.
No, what’s important here is what Politico actually got right in its story: namely, that the assumption in Washington is, indeed, that silence is a virtue – that, in other words, the best thing for a newly elected liberal senator to do is shut her mouth, go along to get along, play by the club’s rules and not make any waves. Summing up that Beltway conventional wisdom, Politico writes that only by “flying under the radar” can a liberal “star” like Warren develop a “reputation as a serious legislator.”
Before pondering the implications of that assumption, let’s first remember that in a capital city which tilts everything to the right, the same standard is not applied to conservative lawmakers. When, like Tea Party darling Marco Rubio, they “keep (their) head down and nose to the grindstone,” it is newsy precisely because a refusal to rock the boat is seen as out of character for newly elected Republicans. Meanwhile, rarely – if ever – do you see the Washington media portray junior boat-rocking firebrands like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz as unserious, stupid or politically harmed by refusing to “fly under the radar.” On the contrary, their iconoclasm is often presented as predictable, politically acceptable and even laudable – but definitely not a threat to their establishment credibility/credentials.
Case in point is Cruz, whose bombastic channeling of Joe McCarthy just earned him a slobbering New York Times profile praising his “zeal of the prosecutor,” trumpeting his behavior as “a jolt of positive energy” for conservatives, and touting him for making “his presence felt in an institution where new arrivals are usually not heard from for months, if not years.” He may be drawing some flack from a few Senate Republican veterans, but that was depicted not as a negative, but as proof that he’s “Washington’s new bad boy.”
The same treatment is never extended to liberals. Instead they are lauded by the political class only if they follow the Hillary Clinton Model.
As described by the Christian Science Monitor, it’s a path that requires newly elected liberals to do what the former First Lady did and “maintain a low profile, taking the measure of colleagues and learn the ways of that historic chamber” before ever trying to do anything significant. As the Wall Street Journal correctly notes, it is “a strategy that has been followed” loyally by most Democratic senators – and in particular, those who come to the office with an already engaged following and a high profile. Of Warren, the Journal declared that she is “expected to follow (that) fairly well-established model for making the switch from national figure to freshman senator: Keep your head down and stay out of the limelight.”
Now that Warren has – thankfully – defied such Beltway expectations, the questions are simple: Why is silence the expectation in the first place? Why is it so universally applauded by the Washington media? How has the Hillary Clinton Model become so revered? In short, in a Congress that is historically unpopular and whose dysfunction so often prevents the country from addressing major crises, what is the virtue of a newly elected lawmaker sitting down and shutting up?
During her Senate career, if Clinton had slowly but surely turned into some sort of “Master of the Senate”-style legislative hero, perhaps you could answer those questions by pointing to her record and invoking the Heinz ketchup slogan from the 1980s. She was, however, anything but. She cast some truly awful votes (for the Iraq War and the landmark bankruptcy bill) and more often was just an invisible back bencher. Indeed, it’s hard to name a single piece of major game-changing legislation she passed – and worse, it’s equally difficult to identify a bold new legislative idea was even willing to use her senate platform to insert into the national political conversation.
The same thing, by the way, goes for Barack Obama. After reaching national celebrity status from his 2004 Democratic convention speech, he became a reticent lawmaker who, like Clinton, cast some grotesque votes and ultimately forged an altogether forgettable senate tenure.
Of course, the one thing Clinton and Obama did achieve from their silence was further personal political success. By refusing to take on difficult or controversial challenges in any sort of high profile way, they limited their opponents’ potential attack points for their future presidential candidacies. At the same time, among a Democratic electorate often far more interested in media celebrity than in voting records, their inaction resulted in few consequences from primary voters. On the contrary, their fame and their blank legislative slates were perceived to be not merely assets, but the key hallmarks of their electoral viability and political legitimacy.
Thus, we arrive at the explanation for the expectations.
There is an enormous difference between achieving personal political success and actually doing something for the country – and the Washington political class is at once obsessed with the former and utterly uninterested in the latter. And because silence has been the clearest path to ascension in the Democratic Party, both the establishment and even some of the left-leaning media laud it as the ultimate sign of Seriousness for a Democratic politician.
This, no doubt, is a big reason why since the untimely death of Paul Wellstone and Ted Kennedy, the Senate Democratic Caucus still has yet to produce a true liberal counterpart to the Republican Conference’s headline-grabbing conservative iconoclasts. That’s not to say there isn’t a handful of staunch progressives in that caucus – there most certainly is. However, it is to say that there isn’t one liberal senator who has been consistently willing to use the senate platform and legislative mechanics to truly challenge the status quo with the same scorched earth intensity as a typical GOP freshman.
With Warren, though, that may change. She is someone who comes to the chamber with a no-holds-barred record that doesn’t conform to the country club’s staid rules. Not only that, she has ascended at a moment where groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee have built powerful political infrastructure to reward and incentivize her and other liberals to expose – rather than embrace – the D.C. omerta.
Perhaps that convergence will prove that quiescence is not a virtue and that good things do not come to those who wait – they can finally come to a new crop of liberal lawmakers who are willing to reject the old code of silence, to ignore the Beltway’s rules, to seriously embody their own anti-establishment campaign rhetoric, and to forcefully speak up for the voters who elected them.