MOVEMENT

The Most Powerful Democrat in America

Elizabeth Warren’s weekend heroics have endeared her even more to the Democratic base, and it’s time Hillary started getting worried.

12.15.14 10:45 AM ET

Are future historians going to look back on the past weekend as the one in which Elizabeth Warren took over the Democratic Party? She didn’t win the fight she led over the weekend to have the provision weakening the Dodd-Frank law stripped out of the spending bill, but she was never going to win that vote. What she did win, though, was the ever-more intense ardor of her growing number of liberal fans. They’d march with her over hot coals. There’s no other Democrat in the country with that kind of following.

So it’s hardly impossible that Warren could come to be the leader of the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton, who hasn’t been cutting an inspiring figure across the landscape of late, makes a few more “dead broke” missteps. Warren decides to run after all. The two go head to head through the primaries, but somehow Warren taps into Democrats’ emotional nerve-endings in a way Clinton simply can’t, and she becomes the nominee. And then...

As I said, that’s hardly an insane scenario, and it’s one Clinton should heed, and heed pretty quickly. The general assumption has been that Warren won’t challenge Clinton, and that’s probably correct. But Warren is well aware of how adoring and numerous her followers are and how much leverage that gives her in the party, and what she wants is to push the party to embrace her economic views. I doubt she really expects that she can be elected president, and I wonder if she even would really want the gig (she’s shown practically no interest in foreign policy, and that is destined to be by far the hardest and most hair-graying part of the job). But if she becomes convinced that challenging Clinton is the best—or only—way for her to maximize her leverage, then she might just do it.

Surely, after this last week, she can’t be blamed if she’s feeling a bit more intoxicated. After watching her astounding call to break up Citigroup, her admirers have been rushing forth with pleas and petitions for her to run. Referring to Citi’s role in the lobbying effort to get that anti Dodd-Frank provision put in the spending bill Congress just passed, Warren said on the Senate floor last Friday: “If a financial institution has become so big and so powerful that it can hold the entire country hostage, that alone is reason enough to break them up. Enough is enough. Enough is enough, with Wall Street insiders getting key position after key position, and the kind of cronyism that we have seen in the executive branch. Enough is enough, with Citigroup passing eleventh-hour deregulatory provisions that nobody takes ownership over but everybody will come to regret.”

I can’t remember the last time a prominent senator issued such a direct challenge to one of America’s leading corporations. That kind of talk went out of style long ago, in favor of the corporate leg-spreading so much more typical of our campaign-cash-obsessed era. Warren doesn’t need their money and represents a state where, barring a weird scandal, she can get reelected as long as she wants, so she can do what depressingly few senators can—speak her mind on money issues.

But she does have this problem: The media will always peg her as “left,” a word that in modern American media usage is clearly a pejorative. And if she just gets stuck there, her influence, however great among the Democratic base, will never grow outside of it. More centrist Democrats will make a few gestures in the Warren direction, but nothing more.

So Warren’s great challenge is to counter that dismissal by showing that her ideas do indeed have appeal outside the hard-shell Democratic Party base. They do, potentially—a number of polls have shown that Americans, including many in the center and even some on the right, have negative views of Wall Street and would back tighter regulation. She can speak to goo-goo eyed crowds in Boston and New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles, and while she’ll wow the already converted and rake in the money, she won’t be changing anything. But if she can take her message to Des Moines and Louisville and Columbus and Jacksonville and demonstrate that audiences are receptive there, then she’ll break out of the box the media wants to assign her. And if she can do that, she’ll become a figure of un-ignorable influence, and she’ll start making the likes of Clinton really pay attention.

But Clinton should be paying attention anyway. The feeling I sense right now about Clinton is: not very much real excitement, and just the slightest bit of resentment at her inevitability. She seems a little remote. She comments, sometimes, on issues that arise, but it always seems to take her a little longer than it ought to. She has a Twitter feed, but she tweets about once a week, and it’s always a total snooze. Why shouldn’t she—who needs to find ways to make people forget she’s nearly 70—use Twitter to comment on the news, and say some interesting and edgy things?

Those come under symbolism. Substantively, Clinton needs to see that what Warren represents is real and, once she starts taking positions, take some that demonstrate that she hears what these exasperated millions are trying to say about inequality and the rigged system. No one expects her to be Elizabeth Warren, but everyone expects Clinton to hear and respect Warren. If she doesn’t send convincing signals that she does, then Warren may well feel that she needs to run after all. The choice is Clinton’s.