There’s no question that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is the face of the Democratic Party’s anti-Wall Street populist movement. Her message of tough regulation and financial security for middle-class families has made her a phenomena, first as a Harvard professor, then as administration adviser to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and now as the senior senator from Massachusetts. But does this make her a presidential contender, and challenger to Hillary Clinton’s “inevitability”?
In a lengthy and persuasive feature, New Republic senior editor Noam Scheiber says yes, calling her Clinton’s “nightmare,” a monomaniacal candidate who lies with the “soul” of the Democratic Party and can capitalize on growing concern with mass unemployment and income inequality. Indeed, as Scheiber argues, when you combine her disregard for the party establishment—he likens her to a “militant who doesn’t fear death”—with her fundraising prowess and deep connection to Democratic voters, she represents an existential threat to Clinton’s (presumed) presidential ambitions.
Or, at least, she could represent an existential threat. But I don’t think she will. It’s noteworthy that, in his piece, Scheiber doesn’t say much about Warren’s signature on a secret letter urging Clinton to run for the Democratic nomination. At most, he argues, it’s a pledge that won’t stand if Warren decides the presidency is key to advancing her policy agenda.
But, to my eyes, that letter says everything about where Clinton stands vis a vis the rest of the Democratic Party. In short, 2016 won't be 2008, where Clinton was a powerful but contentious figure in the party, and a well-organized challenger could capitalize on grassroots anger and establishment discontent to derail her path to the nomination. Now, Clinton is a wildly popular figure, with one of the highest statures in American politics. Among Democrats, 67 percent favor her for the nomination (compared to 4 percent for Warren) , and in an early poll of potential New Hampshire primary voters, she has the highest favorability ratings—near 80 percent—of any potential candidate. This is a far cry from 2006, where—at most—she had support from a plurality of Democrats.
She also benefits from her quasi-connection to the Obama administration. On one hand, she is part and parcel of the president’s legacy, a fact that heightens her appeal to Democratic voters. On the other, she can plausibly present herself as an alternative to “Obama-ism” and its focus on compromise, which has been a source of ongoing frustration for the president's supporters. Democrats are furious with the GOP, and want someone who can stand up to their extremism, and take the fight to the their side. As the "fighter" in the 2008 race, her persona is an excellent fit for the post-Obama Democratic Party. More than anyone, I think, she can run as the person who will stop playing nice with the revanchist leaders of the Republican Party.
Or, to put all of this another way, there are few candidates with Clinton’s visibility and qualifications who haven’t won their bids for the presidential nomination, and if she runs, there’s no reason to think she’ll be an exception.
As for Elizabeth Warren? She’s is popular, and her anti-Wall Street advocacy is a perfect blend of center-left concerns and mainstream rhetoric. I don’t think she’ll run—in addition to the letter, she’s done nothing but deny interest—but if she does, she’ll force Democrats to have a necessary conversation about where it stands on economic issues as it moves from Obama’s tenure. And if she stays in the Senate? As we saw with the shutdown, a charismatic senator with a mass constituency can do a lot to influence the direction of a political party.