In 1995, Mike Synar was in search of a senior adviser to help him run the National Bankruptcy Review Commission. A liberal reformer fresh off losing his congressional seat in Oklahoma, Synar was appointed by President Bill Clinton to head the blue-ribbon panel. He had the difficult task of recommending changes to national bankruptcy laws right at the time when the banking industry was pushing hard to cut protections—even though, or perhaps because, the number of Americans declaring bankruptcy was skyrocketing. Clinton was battling a ferocious and newly empowered Republican Congress, and not many people thought the president actually had the appetite to start a fight with the financial sector. It was Synar’s job to produce the argument that Clinton should.
He turned to an old high school debate team foe, a Harvard professor named Elizabeth Warren. She had spent years doing intensive research on the topic, the bulk of which showed that contrary to prevailing Beltway wisdom, most Americans who declared bankruptcy weren’t cheating the system but, rather, faced dire economic circumstances and debts that truly never could be paid off. Would she be the commission’s senior adviser?
“I said, ‘No, not a chance. That’s political. I want to be pure. I want to be pristine,’” Warren recalled in a 2007 interview with University of California Television. “‘I don’t want to muddy what I do with political implications. I’m going to sit here, I’m going to do my research. I’ll turn out the numbers, and what you do with them is your business,’” she told Synar.
Warren eventually relented and joined the commission, after Synar promised to “insulate” her from politics. He assured her, “You will never be called on to talk to a reporter, you’ll never be called on to get into a political fight, to make the compromise, to make those decisions.”
But before the commission got started in earnest, Synar was diagnosed with brain cancer and died within months. The new commissioner asked Warren to stay aboard, and once again Warren was hesitant. But after a lot of inner turmoil, she ultimately decided to keep the job. “There were other people on the commission who were perfectly willing to take it over, and who frankly in my view had a totally wrongheaded view about the families who were in bankruptcy and the changes that needed to be made,” Warren recalled in the UCTV interview. “I just looked around and said, ‘Look, either I step up, or nobody does.’”
Today, Warren is the senior senator from Massachusetts, and the federal agency she essentially created, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is up and running. As Hillary Clinton, seen by many liberals as too close to Wall Street, appears to tighten her grip on the Democratic presidential nomination, a growing number of progressives want to persuade Warren to see the 2016 election the same way she saw that bankruptcy commission role: either she steps up, or nobody does.
While there are other names stirring in the stew of potential Clinton rivals—Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb, Brian Schweitzer, Martin O’Malley—none of those pols (all men, it should be noted) are being drafted by the party’s grassroots. In Iowa and New Hampshire, progressive groups have hired full-time staff to build support for a Warren run, hundreds of thousands of people have signed online petitions urging her to run, and house meetings about her potential candidacy are happening with increasing frequency in several states.
The premise of this push is simple: as income inequality rises unchecked and as Wall Street’s power continues to grow, even though the financial sector crashed the global economy in 2008, Democrats need a candidate who can confront head-on these broad and alarming structural problems. No small tweaks to the tax code, no laundry list of peripheral policies, no cabinets stuffed with former financial executives; progressive Democrats yearn for a crusader. During Warren’s meteoric rise, she has proved she’s quite capable of filling this role.
But is this the right movement for progressives, at the right time? Never mind that Warren has publicly insisted that she will not run—on at least fifty different occasions. Amid a huge debate inside the Democratic Party about how forcefully to embrace economic populism and push redistributive policies, why are so much energy and money being channeled into one nonexistent presidential campaign? Would progressive economic causes be better served if Warren keeps the power and relative purity of a Senate soapbox, instead of engaging in the messy politics and compromises that come with running for—or being—president of the United States?
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In New Hampshire, the official effort to draft Warren into the presidential race began in mid-January. I came upon a scene intimately familiar to followers of American politics: a bright-blue, freezing-cold day in Manchester with about 100 enthusiastic Warren supporters packed inside a renovated mill on the banks of the Merrimack River. Rock music thumped over the speakers. Red, white and blue bunting and Run Warren Run signs were everywhere. A map at the front of the room showed that people in seemingly every town in the state had signed up to help the cause.
There was, of course, no candidate, but that didn’t slow anyone down. Renny Cushing, a state representative from Rockingham, told the crowd, “What we’re facing in the next presidential election is a discussion about the viability, the survivability, of working people, of the middle class.” He continued, “Nobody can talk about holding people who do wrong, who are responsible for trashing this economy—no one can talk about holding them accountable better than Elizabeth Warren.”
The attendees mainly heard about the event from newspaper ads or direct contact from Democracy for America or MoveOn.Org, which teamed up to form the Run Warren Run outfit. Most of the ones I talked to were motivated to attend because of specific things they heard Warren say, not by any particular antipathy to Clinton.
“My parents were FDR Democrats, and so am I. I think [Warren] best represents the middle class, like FDR. That’s the reason right there,” Dennis Turpin, a retired chemical engineer from Manchester, told me, citing Warren’s “work down there with these Wall Street guys. They’ve got it made in the shade, and they can’t seem to accumulate enough money to make them happy, you know.” He added, “Initially I thought Hillary would be fine, but [I’m] maybe a little worn out with her.”
Organizers like to depict the draft effort as a movement, though if you talk to them long enough they will tacitly acknowledge it’s not quite there yet. At the back of the room, MoveOn’s executive director Ilya Sheyman framed the rally as just the beginning. “The idea is that every one of these folks can go out, host a house party, bring ten or fifteen neighbors into this campaign. That’s what it’s going to take to build the movement to get her to run,” he said.
So far, Run Warren Run has hired five full-time organizers in Iowa and four in New Hampshire. It is committed to spending $1.25 million on the effort and plans to focus on person-to-person organizing on the ground in both states. Over a quarter-million people have already signed a petition urging Warren to run, and already some state legislators and county chairs are joining as supporters, a key element of any successful primary effort.
A separate but complementary group, Ready for Warren, was launched last year and is an obvious play on the well-funded Ready for Hillary campaign. Erica Sagrans, an Obama campaign alumna, is running the operation like an actual early campaign, by getting the word out on Warren. “People don’t know her as well, and don’t necessarily think she’s running for president,” she said. “I think that Warren’s message resonates, but the job for us, if she were to run, is more just to introduce her as a candidate and as a person to people who don’t know much about her already.”
Sagrans isn’t the only Obama veteran turning attention to Warren; over 300 former campaign staffers signed a letter in December urging her to run. Sagrans’s group held over 200 house parties for Warren in one recent weekend.
The immediate problem facing these groups is Warren’s insistence that she doesn’t want to be president. Aside from the fact that she has said this publicly countless times, last year her lawyer sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission disavowing Ready for Warren: “The senator has not, and does not, explicitly or implicitly, authorize, endorse, or otherwise approve of the organization’s formation or activities,” it said. When I contacted Warren’s office for this article, a spokesperson reiterated that “Senator Warren does not support their efforts.”
The organizers see this not as a problem, however, but as their raison d’être. “I think this whole movement understands that Senator Warren isn’t currently planning on running. We take her at her word for it,” said Sheyman. “Our job here over the next year is to get her to change her mind.” The groups hope to show Warren she has enough supporters—and thus potential donors—to quickly jump in the presidential race. And it’s not just potential small-dollar donors they are courting. One of the times I spoke with Sagrans was at a Democracy Alliance event in Washington, where Democratic mega-donors meet to plot strategy.
The polls look rough at this point, but Warren supporters do see an opening. Clinton leads Warren by a whopping 57-point margin in a recent CNN poll, but there’s a theory that Clinton’s support is a mile wide and an inch deep and based primarily on name recognition and her relative insulation from politics over the past six years. When Clinton embarked on her book tour last summer and jumped back into the fray, her poll numbers declined—not steeply, but almost immediately.
Moreover, Warren backers are excitedly circulating a Wall Street Journal piece by the pollster Douglas Schoen, who found that “Ms. Warren is already considerably more competitive than national polls suggest.” Schoen’s own polling concluded that Clinton held just a 15-point lead over Warren in Iowa, 51 percent to 36 percent. He also tested Clinton’s public statements about the middle class against Warren’s and found that Clinton only performed better by a scant 4 points.
To be clear, that’s a small crack, not a wide-open door. Clinton still holds a 50-point lead over potential challengers, including Warren, compared with the 30-point lead she once held in 2008 before she narrowly lost the nomination. And so far, Warren’s poll numbers give some weight to the criticism that the draft movement primarily exists among liberal elites: her supporters skew toward the white, wealthy and educated. Unless she can expand that base, those numbers are a death knell in Democratic primaries.
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It’s really early to start parsing an electoral horse race between Clinton and Warren, especially since Clinton herself has not yet formally declared. Perhaps the best way to look at the matchup at this stage is as the latest proxy war between corporate-friendly centrists in the Democratic Party and their populist colleagues.
“This push to have her run is a stalking horse for a larger debate that is going on within the party,” said Jim Manley, a longtime Senate aide who worked for Ted Kennedy and later, during the early years of Obama’s presidency, for Senate minority leader Harry Reid. “I can’t sit here and talk to you honestly and deny that there’s a debate going on about what we in the party stand for, and more importantly, what happened in November, and where we’re going in the future, and how we’re going to get there.”
Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus in the House, agreed. He described a fight inside the Democratic Party that’s increasingly breaking into public view: an argument “between do we try to go figure out what industry and business wants, and then sort of do a few things at the margin for the poor and the middle class, or do we go all-in and really try to reshape this nation in a Roosevelt-type format?”
Warren has expertly positioned herself as a leader of those clamoring for more radical reforms, picking her openings carefully and maximizing the public impact. Her work on the panel overseeing the financial bailouts was a sneak preview. She battled Timothy Geithner, who was treasury secretary at the time, with specific policy complaints and great relish. These moments were immediately packaged into YouTube videos titled “It’s called accountability!” that got hundreds of thousands of hits.
There have been many YouTube-worthy confrontations in the Senate since then, primarily with members and potential members of Obama’s economic team, and the battle lines are usually about policies too friendly to Wall Street that negatively affect everyday Americans.
After the midterms, Warren was at the forefront of two crucial clashes inside the Democratic Party. At the end of the year, she almost single-handedly rallied House Democrats to reject a spending bill that included a provision substantially weakening a key part of the Dodd-Frank reforms. Both President Obama and Reid said they wanted the spending bill to pass despite being “concerned” about the provision. Ultimately it did, but Warren fired a major warning shot to the Democratic establishment.
Not long after, Warren led what began as a one-woman charge against Anthony Weiss, Obama’s appointee for deputy treasury secretary, and his ties to Wall Street. Her crusade later expanded to include the support of Senate Democrats, ranging from the conservative Joe Manchin to consummate team players like Jeanne Shaheen. (This, incidentally, was a small proxy fight between Warren and the nascent Clinton campaign; John Podesta, now a White House adviser who will likely be Hillary’s campaign chairman, was reportedly working the phones in favor of Weiss.) As more than a few people inside the Beltway noted, Warren emerged victorious, and Weiss withdrew his name from consideration.
With these confrontations, Warren is sending a message to the leadership of the Democratic Party that hewing too close to Wall Street is unacceptable. In that way, she’s not unlike Howard Dean and later Barack Obama, who challenged the party to back away from its support for the Iraq War—and she’s meeting resistance from folks used to six years of the party falling in behind Obama.
“One key thing that’s changed with Warren is that it used to be that the philosophical piece mattered—if you could demonstrate you’re committed to the president’s economic agenda, that’s what mattered,” huffed Ben LaBolt, a former top Obama official, to Bloomberg recently. “She’s established a new litmus test that you can’t have worked anywhere near Wall Street if you’re going to a regulatory agency or even an agency that touches on economic policy.”
Hillary Clinton will inescapably be seen as an extension of the Obama administration, and her husband’s history of financial-sector deregulation, coupled with her strong donor base on Wall Street, are likely to turn at least some progressives off. It’s not clear yet whether she’s even interested in courting them—during her summer book tour, she gave countless interviews to everyone up to and including Fox News, but not a single left-leaning outlet.
Some Democrats who plan to support Clinton want to see Warren run just to make the primary competitive. In recent weeks, Beltway publications have been filling up with insider dish about who Clinton will hire to run her campaign; one such Politico piece contained the ludicrous suggestion that Clinton might not even debate in the Democratic primaries.
Manley, who took strong exception to the idea that Clinton is too close to Wall Street and said he plans to support her, added: “I am of the opinion that it’s good to have a debate occur in the primary. I have no idea where it’s going to come from or if it’s going to happen, but I don’t think that a primary in itself is such a bad thing.”
Ellison, who remains undecided, not only wants the same debate but hopes it will push Clinton to the left. “My advice to Hillary Clinton would be: be loud about prospects of success for working people, for middle-class people. Be out there, be ample,” he said. “If you do that, you’re probably not going to have any problem. And if you don’t, you just might.”
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That’s the best-case scenario painted by the architects of the “Draft Warren” movement: that boosting her prospects right now is already shifting the party debate leftward and putting the proverbial fear of God into the people planning Clinton’s campaign and message. And if Warren runs, she can bring that debate to the main stage of the Democratic primary. Even if she ultimately loses, she might still play a John Edwards role—his “Two Americas” message demonstrably moved both Clinton and Obama to the left on economic issues in 2008, and few people remember that Hillary didn’t just lose to Obama in Iowa, but Edwards too.
It sounds great, but there is one major flaw: What if Warren simply doesn’t run? This could have the opposite effect on progressive prospects. If Clinton effectively scares off her main progressive challenger before the campaign even begins—with no disrespect to Bernie Sanders, who excites many progressives but isn’t yet attracting Warren levels of enthusiasm—it’s hard to see how that doesn’t paint the left flank of the party as weak and essentially impotent.
Moreover, it likely damages the progressive force Warren is trying to build in the Senate. Her stature would be weakened, and, through no fault of her own, she’d be dinged for bailing out of a presidential campaign she never wanted in the first place.
It’s hard to get a satisfying answer to this question from Warren backers, though they do have an inspiring one—they just want to make it inevitable that Warren runs. She didn’t want to run for Senate either, but was essentially drafted into that race. “We need to show her that there are moments in politics where the moment meets the person,” said Sheyman. “And this particular moment was built for Elizabeth Warren.”