It’s no wonder that despite the obstacle of Bridgegate on the one hand and the Hillary juggernaut on the other, rank-and-file voters across parties remain energized by the prospect of either Chris Christie or Elizabeth Warren running for president. In an era of politicians who are too cautious to take a bold stand on much of anything except for when it comes to the hyperbole of bashing the other party, Christie and Warren seem to be actual human beings—most importantly, ones with actual convictions that they’re willing to stand up for, even if it means standing against their own parties. The contrast is even more stark in the context of Hillary Clinton: Elizabeth Warren has populist policies, Chris Christie a populist personality, but Hillary Clinton has neither.
In a recent interview with Salon, Warren doubled down on her criticism of President Obama for letting Wall Street off the hook in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. After Wall Street reckless crashed the entire United States economy, costing millions of Americans their jobs, homes, and savings, the Obama Administration put forward only modest financial reform laws and didn’t prosecute a single culpable bank executive.
“[W]hen the going got tough, his economic team picked Wall Street,” Warren said. “They protected Wall Street. Not families who were losing their homes. Not people who lost their jobs. Not young people who were struggling to get an education. And it happened over and over and over.”
Warren echoed criticism she lobbed at President Obama in her book, A Fighting Chance, in which she cited Obama’s lack of action on comprehensive financial reform as a significant “lost opportunity” to hold Wall Street accountable and fix the structures of our economy to make it work for the middle class.
Meanwhile, The New York Times published a story about Chris Christie’s awkward courtship of evangelical Republicans. Christie actually siding with the Religious Right on a number of fundamental issues is somehow insufficient, the article accounts: “Although they are drawn to Mr. Christie’s bumptious style, and believe that his opposition to abortion, their chief priority, is deep-seated, they feel he has crossed them on pivotal issues and at key moments.”
In other words, although anyone markedly more socially conservative than Christie stands no realistic chance of being elected President of the United States of America as the electorate becomes even more socially liberal, the right of the right is so damned determined to police the borders of its increasingly irrelevant influence that it is eschewing Christie for not being right wing enough.
Christie’s attitude? According to the Times, “Asked about the depth of his conservatism this spring, Mr. Christie replied, ‘I just act like myself and people take it or leave it, and I’m completely content with that.’” It’s the sort of attitude that, I’ll confess, makes Christie hard to dislike—in spite of all his anti-teacher, anti-gay, anti-woman policies. And it’s the sort of attitude that has allowed him even still be toying with the presidency despite a year of seemingly disqualifying bad headlines.
Contrast both Warren and Christie with Clinton, the heir-apparent to the presidency as far as all the polls (PDF) so far are concerned. Clinton is cautious politically—trying, for instance, in her rhetoric to nod to the economic populism of the day while maintaining her allegiances to Wall Street. Or talking tough on foreign policy while trying to obscure the depths of a pro-war hawkishness for which voters simply don’t have an appetite.
And it doesn’t help that Clinton is also stylistically cautious—that every sentence she produces seems like a dehydrated piece of fruit that’s then been chewed up and spit out by three focus groups before being spoon fed in its final bland and listless form to the American public. Sure, it’s easy to get excited about the idea of Hillary Clinton—pioneering political figure who would break the ultimate glass ceiling if elected. But Hillary Clinton herself just ain’t exciting.
The tide of politics would seem to be leaving a Clinton-type behind as we as a nation become more hyper-partisan and simultaneously more fixated on big personality-driven characters, from real housewives to TV anchors to the candidates for whom we vote. And yet just like Mitt Romney survived (for a while) by being the last guy standing, Clinton may win out through simple endurance in spite of all her counter-cultural downsides. Then again, Mitt Romney’s primary opponents were perhaps a uniquely unqualified group of self-destructive yahoos.
Christie and Warren are real threats to Clinton both in real political terms, as potential opponents, but also conceptually in that their political talent spotlights Clinton’s deficiency. Odds are that Warren won’t run in 2016, but that she will wisely use the enthusiasm around her gift for authentically connecting with the populist outrage of voters to push an agenda with both Obama and Clinton, hopefully successfully nudging both further to the left—away from big business and Wall Street and toward middle class accountability.
On the other hand, Chris Christie will probably run—and the fact is that if he manages to survive the Republican primary process, even though the majority of American would side with Hillary Clinton especially on social policy (Christie is indeed far to the right of most voters), he would still pose a significant challenge because of his more winning personality. Without any real challengers, Clinton may be able to pull off looking populist and popular enough—but when the race gears up, the strengths of other candidates will simply emphasize her weaknesses.