Elizabeth Warren, buoyed by a national network of activist liberals, now heads to the Senate facing an uneasy challenge.
Some of her strongest supporters want her to be a vocal and visible champion of liberal causes, an advocate who will fundamentally change the conversation in Washington. But the Senate is a tradition-bound institution that rewards seniority and expects first-year lawmakers to fall in line and wait their turn.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who arrived in the Senate as the wife of a former president, famously chose to make herself a workhorse, not a showhorse, shunning the national media and paying due respect to the chamber’s customs. Warren has given mixed signals about the strategy she will use to navigate the Senate.
In her acceptance speech Tuesday night and in a series of national television interviews Wednesday morning, she indicated she would try to emulate some of Senator Scott Brown’s bipartisanship.
“Look, I understand that there was a message for people who voted for Senator Brown,” Warren said on CBS. “I think a lot of them were saying, ‘You’ve got to be willing to reach across the aisle,’ and I want them to know I heard that loud and clear, and it’s what I want to do.”
She reiterated that message later in the morning, while greeting commuters in South Boston at her first public appearance as senator-elect.
“I will work with anyone who’s out there to fight for America’s working families — Democrat, Republican, independent, Libertarian, contrarian, it doesn’t matter,” she said.
Warren was less conciliatory in an interview last year with New York magazine, in which she explicitly ruled out Clinton’s approach as a model for how to operate in the Senate.
“If the notion on this is, we’re going to elect somebody to the United States Senate so they can be the 100th least-
senior person in there and be polite,” she said, “and somewhere in their fourth or fifth year do some bipartisan bill that nobody cares about, don’t vote for me.”
Embracing the mantle of liberal champion, she added, “I’m not going so that I can create a long and illustrious career in the Senate. I’m going to make change.”
She struck a similarly tough stance in an interview with the Globe last year, when she indicated she would not bow to Senate customs.
“It’s about being willing to take a good idea and fight for it,’’ she said. “It’s being willing to throw your body in front of a bus to block bad ideas.’’
Of course, that confrontational language, while it excites some of Warren’s supporters, may not endear her to her new colleagues in Washington. Tom Daschle, the former Democratic leader of the Senate, said Clinton is the best model for Warren to follow if she wants to make the transition from political figure with a national profile to effective lawmaker.
“She probably did as well as anybody I can think of,” Daschle said of Clinton. “She really did her homework. She showed up at literally every hearing. She waited her turn, and sometimes it took hours. . . . She did as much as she could to show her commitment to her committee work and to try to avoid the media. The media hounds are the ones who lose respect very quickly.”
The most effective senators learn how to work with colleagues across the political spectrum, he said.
“There is a role for the legislative gadfly,” Daschle said. “But I wouldn’t say they’re the most accomplished or productive to get things done, because they’ve so alienated their relationships with their colleagues.”
Warren’s most passionate supporters may have little patience for low-key time spent building relationships in the Senate.
“We expect her to govern the same way that she campaigned, which is as a bold progressive fighter for working people,” said Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which raised $1.1 million for Warren’s campaign. “We think that she’ll quickly play a strategic leadership role in the Senate, really showing other Democrats how to fight and how to better articulate a message that resonates with everyday families.”
Warren argued during the campaign that she could be both effective and outspoken, pointing to her efforts in establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and her tenure as the chair of a bipartisan committee that helped monitor the federal bank bailout.
Some who have served in the Senate say that experience will help Warren strike a balance between her role as a standard-bearer for liberals and her need to advance legislation with more senior colleagues.
“Elizabeth is not going to walk though that door talking,” said Byron Dorgan, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota, who has known Warren for years. “She is really smart and will come through the Senate door with an agenda, but she is also very capable of trying to work through issues and learn in the Senate and will do that quickly.”
As she spends the coming weeks making the transition from candidate to senator, Warren may be torn about how to approach the job, said G. Calvin Mackenzie, a professor of government at Colby College.
“Who knows what she’s going to do there?” McKenzie said. “Does she want to be a senator for the next 10 years? Does she want to run for president or does she want to be the liberal darling here? She probably doesn’t have an answer to that. Politics is full of opportunities that you seize or don’t seize.”