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.