For Elizabeth Warren, a Story from 1984

Jeff Jacoby

9/19/2011 3:30:00 PM - Jeff Jacoby

 

Elizabeth Warren, Harvard law professor and Wall Street scourge, formally opened her campaign for the Democratic US Senate nomination in Massachusetts last week. Six other candidates are in the race, but rapturous liberals and the Democratic establishment have already decided that Warren is her party's best bet to defeat Republican Scott Brown and reclaim what for so long was Ted Kennedy's seat.

The Boston Globe reported back in May that state and national activists were "pining" for Warren to run against Brown, and the liberals' crush on her has only intensified since then. EMILY's List has been singing Warren's praises. Boston's labor unions invited her to keynote their big Labor Day breakfast. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee launched a fundraising effort that amassed more than $200,000 by her first day as an official contender. Gary Trudeau even cheered her candidacy in a "Doonesbury" series.

Early opinion polls show Warren leading the other Democrats as a potential challenger to Brown. If she goes all the way -- wins the Democratic primary and beats Brown a year from November -- a lot of people will claim they had her pegged as a winner from the get-go. I offer no prediction. But I have a story to share.

In 1984, US Senator Paul Tsongas, one of the commonwealth's most popular Democrats, announced that he was being treated for cancer and would not seek reelection. Republican Party insiders were excited by the sudden prospect of an open Senate seat to compete for, especially in a year when a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, would top the ticket.

There was already a Republican candidate in the race: inventor/businessman Ray Shamie, whose first foray into politics had been a spirited run against Ted Kennedy two years earlier. Shamie had spent nearly a million dollars of his own money on what the Globe called a "plucky and optimistic" campaign in 1982, and the GOP establishment was happy to see him take on Tsongas in what most politicos and pundits assumed would be another hopeless cause. But with Tsongas's departure, party leaders began pining for a candidate with a higher profile and a national reputation. They began lobbying one of most illustrious Republicans in Washington – Elliot Richardson – to return to his native Boston and run for the Senate.

Richardson had had an extraordinary career. He was a decorated combat veteran who had been editor of the Harvard Law Review and a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. In Massachusetts in the 1960s, he had been elected lieutenant governor and attorney general. He had been the US ambassador to the United Kingdom. He had served two presidents in four Cabinet posts -- as US attorney general and as secretary of commerce, secretary of defense, and secretary of health, education, and welfare. So when he agreed to jump into the Massachusetts Senate race, many party leaders were thrilled.

"My phone is ringing like crazy and journalists from all over the country are asking questions about Elliot Richardson," exulted Gene Hartigan, the Republican State Committee's executive director. "When I see him mentioned on television, I notice they always roll that incredible resume across the screen."

Opinion polls showed Richardson a heavy favorite over Shamie. Prominent DC Republicans endorsed him. But Shamie had no intention of gracefully bowing out. Neither did his campaign staff. (I had worked on Shamie's first race, and was one of two deputy campaign managers in 1984). And over the spring and summer it gradually it became clear that the Man with the Golden Resume wasn't a very good candidate. He made strategic mistakes. He reacted badly to criticism, and distanced himself from his party's platform. Meanwhile Shamie's avuncular style and focused message galvanized the GOP base.

By September, Richardson's campaign was in free fall. Shamie won the nomination in a 25-point landslide.

The point of my story isn't that Elizabeth Warren will be another Elliot Richardson, off to a fast and gaudy start, only to fade badly in the stretch. Nor am I suggesting that City Year cofounder Alan Khazei or Newton mayor Setti Warren or one of the other Democrats in the race is a sleeper who will end up blowing away the presumed frontrunner.

My point is only that nobody knows. Party elites are often the last to realize what animates the rank-and-file. What voters tell pollsters today they may repudiate tomorrow. The Massachusetts Senate primary is still a year away. And in 2012 as in 1984, anything can happen.