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Who's Afraid of Elizabeth Warren?

Oct 24, 2011 8:22 PM EDT


The Harvard professor has spooked the right. As she begins her

high-profile Senate campaign against GOP star Scott Brown in

Massachusetts, the consumer advocate tells Samuel P. Jacobs how she

created 'much of the intellectual foundation' for the Occupy Wall

Street movement. She also talks about her past life as a Republican

and the challenges of being a woman on the campaign trail—and says

she's no 'guileless Marxist.'

Elizabeth Warren is running for office in the most high-profile race

in the country not involving Barack Obama. It’s a position that calls

for some tact. So what does she think about the Occupy Wall Street

protests that are roiling the country?


“I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do,” she

says. “I support what they do.”


Warren’s boast isn’t bluster: As a professor of commercial law at

Harvard and the force behind Obama’s consumer-protection bureau,

Warren has been one of the most articulate voices challenging the

excesses of Wall Street. Still, she enjoys an outsize celebrity for an

academic and bureaucrat: a favorite guest of Jon Stewart, Warren, 62,

has become a hero to the left, a villain to the right, and a

fascination for everyone in between. Now that she is challenging

Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown, she has emerged this year

as a poster child for what some of America loves, and an increasing

swath of America hates, about the president.

No one else has Warren’s gift to send the right into a sputtering frenzy.


She is, in the words of former Reagan operative Jeffrey Lord, “a

guileless, fevered Marxist.” George Will put it more primly, but with

the same sense of trepidation. Warren, he wrote, “clarifies the

liberal project and the stakes of contemporary politics. The project

is to dilute the concept of individualism.” Warren likely didn’t calm

those fears by attending a fundraiser hosted by George Soros—the

billionaire bogeyman of the right—in Manhattan last week.


Thanks to her service in Washington, overseeing money distributed to

woozy banks and creating a consumer financial protection agency,

Warren is feared as somebody out to soak the rich and redistribute

wealth. But a look at her biography reveals that she’s not the

hardened leftist some suspect. Here’s Warren’s challenge: Most

first-time candidates for office struggle to create a compelling story

about themselves. Warren has a different problem. She has to un-make


For all those quaking on the right at the sight of an ascendant

Warren, rest easy. Warren’s no lefty. In fact, Warren was a registered

Republican into her 40s. When it comes to ideology, Warren makes for a

rotten heir to Kennedy.


“I was a Republican because I thought that those were the people who

best supported markets. I think that is not true anymore,” Warren

says. “I was a Republican at a time when I felt like there was a

problem that the markets were under a lot more strain. It worried me

whether or not the government played too activist a role.”

Did she vote for Ronald Reagan, who ushered in much of the financial

deregulation which Warren has devoted her life to stopping? “I’m not

going to talk about who I voted for,” she says.


It wasn’t until later in life, when Warren was 46, that she had her

political awakening. At the time, she was serving on a committee

recommending changes to the nation’s bankruptcy laws. Until then,

Warren says, “I said, ‘No, no, no, not for me on the politics.' ”

Warren decided then, in 1995, she could no longer retreat into the

ivory tower. “I can’t just leave this to people who are going to wreck

the lives of millions of American families if they get the chance,”

she says. “I waded in.”


Warren adds that she voted for both Republicans and Democrats and

thought that neither party deserved to dominate. “There should be some

Republicans and some Democrats,” she says. Brown’s campaign could make

the same point. In a state dominated by Democrats, it might help to

have a Republican providing some healthy opposition.


Warren’s political sympathies are as much a product of upbringing as

anything else. Born on the worn-down side of Norman, Oklahoma, young

Betsy Herring grew up in a home that clung to the bottom of the middle

class. She had pluck, taking her babysitting earnings to pay for

application fees to two colleges where she thought she might have a

chance at a debating scholarship. At 19, Herring married NASA engineer

Jim Warren, her childhood sweetheart. A decade later, she was a

divorced, mother of two, starting out a career as a junior law

professor in Houston.


Starting in 1979, Warren embarked on influential, decades-long

research of what causes families to go bankrupt. By 1992, Harvard Law

School asked her to join the faculty. At that time, only five of 60

tenured professors were women. Three years later, Warren agreed to

teach there permanently. The offer was a rich one. In 1996, Warren

was the third-highest compensated employee at the university. Warren

and her husband now live in a $1.7 million Cambridge home. The

candidate who is accused of instigating class warfare seems like she

has stepped out of a Horatio Alger story.