BOSTON — On the chilly morning after her election to the U.S. Senate, Elizabeth Warren greeted ecstatic commuters and faced the next inevitable question.
How would the new, scholarly heroine of the political left, who once spoke of her willingness to leave “blood and teeth on the floor” in her fight for consumer protection, position herself at a moment when American politics demands both an unyielding brawler and bipartisan compromise?
Warren’s first post-election answer left plenty of room for speculation. “I will work with anyone who’s out there to fight for America’s working families,” she told reporters before retreating home to sleep.
“Democrat, Republican, independent, Libertarian, contrarian — it doesn’t matter.”
Among the models for how Warren might approach her role as a senator from Massachusetts, the one most often mentioned is that of the state’s late liberal icon, Edward M. Kennedy. He was a reliable voice for the left who also got things done, partnering, for instance, with George W. Bush on the No Child Left Behind Act and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on immigration policy.
And there is the model offered by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had even more star power than Warren and was, at first, viewed with suspicion by many of the GOP senators she eventually won over with dogged hard work.
There is another possibility, too, which is that Warren — a distinctive, quasi-populist figure at a transitional moment in politics — might forge a different path altogether.
“I wouldn’t point to any former senator as the model for what she does,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which launched the Draft Warren campaign in July 2011 to persuade her to run. “She is Elizabeth Warren.”
What is certain is that among new lawmakers heading to Washington in January, few carry the particular kind of popularity, hope and sheer expertise that the folksy Harvard law professor does. The question is how she will express her fiery progressivism in the deliberative body, where deference and seniority are often prized more than bravado.
There is also the question of her relationship with the White House — whether she will follow President Obama’s lead or try to nudge him to the left — and with a Democratic Party often accused of lacking spine.
“I don’t think she will disappoint anyone,” said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), speculating sarcastically about the expectations Warren faces. “There will be not one single person disappointed by anything she does or anything she says. Not one.”
Once an obscure academic studying bankruptcy law, Warren did not court the spotlight so much as the spotlight courted her — first as one of the nation’s preeminent chroniclers of middle-class decline and then as the outspoken head of a congressional panel established to oversee the 2008 Wall Street bailout. She perhaps gained the most notoriety when she set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
With her rolled-up blazer sleeves and wire-rimmed glasses, she was loved and reviled as the wonky, self-described champion of consumers against big-bank interests, often saying that as a tenured Harvard professor, she had little to lose by sticking her neck out.
As she campaigned for Senate, Warren remained bold, saying she would not shy from raising taxes on the wealthy or cutting the military budget to pay for education, deficit reduction and other priorities.
She also injected fresh language into the liberal-conservative debate, saying the issue is not big vs. small government but rather whose interest government serves.
In her victory speech Tuesday night, Warren maintained a populist tone, reiterating her pledge to “hold the big guys accountable.”
And so, as Warren prepares to enter the Senate, perhaps the highest expectations come from the progressives who helped press her into the race.
“We expect her to be the same person governing that she was when campaigning,” said Green, of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which raised $1.1 million of Warren’s $38 million campaign haul and made nearly 600,000 phone calls to potential voters.
Pointing to her record of taking on banks, he said her election was nothing less than a “defining moment in taking on corporate power.”
Of equal importance, he said, is that Warren will think differently about how to get things done in Washington, not just relying on relationships with other lawmakers but also heading to the grass roots for support — what Green called an “inside-out” strategy.
“She understands the importance of being bold and rallying the public on the outside in order to impact change on the inside, which is a game-changing mentality to bring to the Senate,” he said. “She will show what it means to have a people-powered candidate to take on the big guys. That is our hope.”
He added, “So, no pressure.”
Defining her path