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Joan Vennochi

Consolation prize: The Senate

(Associated Press)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / July 14, 2011

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FROM THE lips of Washington’s top Democrats to the ears of Massachusetts party leaders, all systems are go for a US Senate run by Elizabeth Warren - if she wants it.

It’s unlikely that the Harvard professor and bankruptcy law expert will get to lead the new consumer protection agency she created. So, now Warren is being touted as a Democratic star worthy of taking on Republican Senator Scott Brown. It’s a combination consolation prize and rescue mission.

“Elizabeth Warren is still in the running for the consumer protection job. I hope she gets that job,’’ said Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman John Walsh. But if it doesn’t come through, “I would love it if she were interested in joining the race. I would talk to her and encourage her in a heartbeat,’’ said Walsh, officially embracing the buzz that began with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator Patty Murray of Washington, who also chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Warren was put temporarily in charge of the fledgling Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last fall, but can’t officially head it unless President Obama nominates her and the Senate confirms her. Blocking her appointment is now a major Republican crusade.

Warren didn’t help her cause when she told a House committee last May she could only stay for an hour to answer questions; she is scheduled for a repeat committee appearance today.

This should be Obama’s fight. Yet once Republicans cast Warren as anti-business, the president was afraid to play his strongest hand: Taking on Wall Street and an economic meltdown spawned by greed and irresponsibility. In backing down, the administration lost a big chance to showcase Democrats as the party of middle-class values instead of big business.

“Did (the White House) squander an opportunity to make the Elizabeth Warren nomination a defining battle? Big time,’’ said one Senate Democratic adviser who is close to the Warren drama.

The president “hasn’t been willing to spend the political capital to fight for her,’’ added Theresa Amato, executive director of Citizens Works, a nonprofit consumer protection agency founded by Ralph Nader.

Warren’s supporters are now trying to convert prospective political loss in Washington into a Senate campaign in Massachusetts. On paper, her candidacy would attract women, liberals, and money from both constituencies, locally and nationally.

“She’s tough as nails . . . She’s smart as hell and she could wrap Scott Brown around her little finger in a debate,’’ said Philip Johnston, Walsh’s predecessor as state party chairman.

But Warren isn’t well-known, beyond a small circle of elite Democrats. She has never run for office or built a grassroots organization. And a handful of candidates already in the race won’t be happy about being big-footed, leaving current supporters in an awkward spot.

Johnston said he would “probably be with’’ another Warren already in the race: Setti Warren, the mayor of Newton and onetime aide to Senator John Kerry, who also worked for Johnston. “Given present circumstances, I’m with Setti,’’ Johnston said.

The idea of Washington Democrats imposing their will on Massachusetts Democrats is distasteful. The DSCC, especially, is not popular here after its tactics largely backfired in the special election that Brown stunningly won. A lack of initial support for Democrat Martha Coakley was followed up by a belated barrage of negative ads that hurt rather than helped Coakley.

The DSCC can also come off as bullies.

Last month, when Kerry was hosting a fundraiser for the DSCC at his Beacon Hill home, he wanted to invite Setti Warren to the event. But the DSCC said no to inviting only one candidate because the group didn’t want to look like it is taking sides - unless, of course, it’s Elizabeth Warren’s side.

The Warren drama has yet to play out fully in Washington. “No way will she get confirmed,’’ predicted Johnston. “Then the question is, where does that leave Obama? Does he nominate her knowing she gets rejected?’’

That could be the defining battle that sets up a Warren campaign against Brown.

But it’s also the battle that Obama, so far, has not been willing to wage.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi @globe.com.