Elizabeth Warren was the only senator on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, aside from the chair and ranking minority, to show up at last Thursday's hearing on indexing the minimum wage to inflation. This was unfortunate for the two witnesses representing the National Restaurant Association in opposition of the idea, because it meant that every 15 minutes it was Warren's turn to ask questions again.
She carved them up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Has their association ever, in its history, supported an increase in the minimum wage, Warren asked — and if not, does that mean they believe it should still be one dollar an hour? Where, she inquired, had the extra $14.75 per hour gone, representing the difference since 1960 between increased worker productivity and the increase in the minimum wage? And which should we take as more meaningful, your speculation about what might happen at your store, or this study of what did happen at tens of thousands of companies in states that adopted minimum-wage indexing?
It was quite a brazen performance for a Senate freshman, let alone one not yet three months into her first job in elected office. But it was relatively tame, compared with Warren's behavior in other recent hearings, where the victims were not such obvious foils for a Democrat. Like a trial lawyer exposing a witness's false alibi, Warren has used Banking Committee hearings to fluster Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury and Comptroller executives, and a Securities and Exchange Commission nominee — and by proxy, Barack Obama's Attorney General Eric Holder, whose approach to financial institutions Warren viciously summed up as "too big for trial."
This is not the head-down, limelight-avoiding playbook typically followed by Senate freshmen — especially celebrities, such as Hillary Clinton in 2001 or Barack Obama in 2005.
In fact, it is the kind of behavior that would get a lot of new lawmakers smacked down hard, or marginalized into ineffectiveness. Few new Senators behave this way — other than the occasional bomb-thrower more interested in headlines than results. (Ted Cruz of Texas currently fits this category.)
But Warren has an independence and authority that frees her to be outspoken without getting alienated. She can embarrass the Barack Obama administration for failing to send bankers to jail without fear.
>> SIDEBAR: William "Mo" Cowan takes his turn <<
She can also react with righteous outrage when I asked about Obama's recent support of "chained Consumer Price Index (CPI)," which liberals view as a cut to Social Security benefits. When I suggest that most brand-new senators would not undercut their own party's president that way, she responds: "Better I should say this now, than wait to have anybody surprised about it later on."
There's a reason for her confidence: not only does Warren have tremendous credibility on the issues, she is simply too popular, with too broad and devoted a following, for anyone to threaten — up to and including the Obama administration.
She is not a career politician, entangled by the favors and deals traded on her way up the ladder. Some $25 million of the $41 million raised for her campaign came not PACs or big-dollar donors, but from individuals giving less than $200 each — an almost unprecedented national grassroots following, who stand ready to move as one to help Warren and her allies, and to oppose those seen as obstacles.