Yvonne Abraham

A voice we need to hear

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / August 21, 2011

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It’s hard to tell who is more fired up about Elizabeth Warren’s likely US Senate candidacy.

Is it Democrats, joyful at the prospect of the Harvard law professor taking on incumbent Senator Scott Brown? Or Republicans, frothing up a storm in an attempt to define and defeat her before she even announces?

It’s a close call, but I’m going to give it to the GOP.

In a flurry of press releases, they’ve been pushing an image of Warren - who established the new federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau - as an outsider from Oklahoma, a Washington insider, and an Ivory Tower elitist who knows little of the world beyond Cambridge.

In addition to these all-over-the-map appellations, they’re also calling her “militant.’’ Seen most often in the company of “Islam’’ and “feminist,’’ it’s a dog-whistle word, meant to freak out voters who identify with men in barn jackets and pickups.

Warren is certainly passionate and direct.

In a press call a few weeks ago, she blamed Republicans for trying to throttle the agency she set up even before it gets going.

“I’m saving all the rocks in my pockets for Republicans,’’ she said in an Atlantic Monthly account. “A year ago, we had a fight about whether to make it a strong, independent agency, or make it some weak, lame thing that isn’t going to get anything done. Republicans lost that fight. Now they want to turn around and see if they can fight it again. They want to embrace the system that failed.’’

Warren called it right. The new agency is designed to protect consumers from the deceptive, predatory practices of mortgage and credit card companies, and of banks - the institutions that led us into the subprime morass, derailed the economy and, in some cases, were rewarded with bailouts using our money.

Republican lawmakers, some of them in the pockets of these very institutions, are trying to declaw the bureau, partly by making it dependent on Congress for funding. Increasingly allergic to regulation of any kind, they’ve pulled out their tired “let the market work it out’’ argument - the very approach that got us into this mess in the first place.

“We’re not here to serve banks,’’ Warren said. “We’re not here to serve Wall Street. We’re not here to serve Congress. We’re here to serve American families.’’

Warren fought for a fully independent agency, or nothing. She is determined not to let it go down without a fight, or, as she told local Democratic activists, without “blood and teeth on the floor.’’

I could do without the bodily injury metaphors, but I’m grateful for Warren’s tough talk. (I’m less thrilled that she has declined to let local reporters hear it so far.)

We could have used more of that frankness from other Democrats, and especially from President Obama, during the debt ceiling fiasco, laying out exactly what the Republicans were doing: holding the economy - and especially poor and middle-class Americans - hostage to the interests of the rich and powerful.

For all of his strengths as a campaigner, directness is a quality Scott Brown lacks - or avoids. He declines to state clear positions on most issues until his vote doesn’t matter, often ducking reporters altogether.

Warren isn’t the only Democrat hoping to unseat the Republican who tells it like it is. But right now, she has the biggest megaphone.

If she runs, I hope she resists the temptation to go native, to start sounding like a politician. That she’ll be as forceful and unvarnished as a candidate as she is as a consumer advocate.

Massachusetts voters like politicians who say exactly what they think. They can handle the truth, without hedging or sugar-coating. And now, more than ever, they need to hear it.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at