Harry Reid announced Friday that he won’t seek re-election in 2016, bringing a fascinating three-decade political career into its final chapter. Reid has been a unique Senate leader who, contrary to the old Lincoln maxim, actually kept most Democrats happy most of the time. While Reid often (though not always) maintained the trust and support of conservative Democrats all the way back to Joe Lieberman, liberals remember his heroic stance against Social Security cuts and outright privatization, his elimination of the filibuster on nominations, the gun-control battle of early 2013, and a variety of other skirmishes over the years where Reid demonstrated a willingness to fight for progressive causes—and a refusal to cave to the vocal minority of conservative Democratic Senators.
Already, the horse race to replace Reid in 2017 is on—whether it’s as majority or minority leader, though the electoral map and 2016 presidential election make the former more likely.
Liberals are sure to be skeptical of the heavy favorite to win the job, Senator Chuck Schumer, who has represented Wall Street literally as New York’s senior senator and figuratively in a variety of ways over the years. Reid has also already endorsed Schumer for the job, which comes off as heavy-handed.
Two progressive groups, Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, are stoking the idea that Senator Elizabeth Warren should become the new leader. Neil Sroka, Democracy for America spokesman, said the position “shouldn’t be a slam dunk for any early front-runner, especially someone closer to Wall Street while the Wall Street wing of the party is dying and the Elizabeth Warren wing is rising.”
This is a tempting idea for progressives. It replicates the logic of the movement to draft Warren for president: by advancing the prospects of a populist crusader, it puts the more moderate sector of the party on notice that things are changing.
Greg Sargent makes a persuasive case that it’s great to start that debate now, even if it’s a steep uphill climb for Warren, as the Senate prepares to take up crucial debates on things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership; it’s good for progressives if Schumer and other moderate Democrats hear Warren’s footsteps when they are deciding whether to support Obama’s plea for a fast-tracked proposal.
There are other attractive things about Senate majority leader Warren, too—she is a prodigious fund-raiser for other Democrats, which is a crucial job requirement for Senate leader, and during the midterms she drew large crowds even in red states like West Virginia. The Senate leader also exercises a unique power to bless (or kill) potential Senate candidacies; in this role, Warren could help ensure strong progressive candidates emerged as the Democratic candidates in Senate races across the country.
So what’s not to like? I’m not sure the Warren push is a bad idea, but I have some serious concerns.
There are a few smaller-bore worries that could possibly be overcome, but are worth thinking about. For one, Warren’s office already said she doesn’t want the job. That’s a pretty big roadblock.
As leader of the Senate Democrats, Warren would necessarily lose the consistency of her positions. Her job every day would be to bring Democrats—all of them—into line to either support or oppose a particular provision. There would be messy compromises, especially when dealing with a House that’s likely to be Republican for the foreseeable future. One wonders if Warren would actually better serve progressive causes using her popularity as a normal senator, giving floor speeches and rallying Democrats away from some bad position the leadership wanted, instead of trying to herd all the cats herself.
Senate majority leader Warren also wouldn’t sit on any committees, meaning the senator who subjects the administration’s economic team or Wall Street executives to granular, probing questions on the Senate Banking Committee would be gone. Warren’s direct oversight power over Wall Street—gone.
Maybe that’s all worth it in the end. But the main reason this seems like a bad battle for progressives: it’s one they just can’t win. It’s definitely possible someone other than Schumer could be elected leader, but Warren is way too heavy of a lift.
There is a plausible argument, I think, that Warren could actually be elected president. At the end of the day, all she needs is for people to come out and vote—and give her a donation or two. But Senate leadership elections aren’t purely democratic exercises like a presidential election.
All that matters are the votes of around fifty Democratic senators, give or take a few, which are cast in a secret ballot. Nobody else gets a say, making it a pretty bad target for an organizing campaign. Sure, progressives could theoretically extract pledges from Democratic candidates or incumbents in the 2016 elections to support Warren, but there probably aren’t enough open, competitive seats to get a Warren majority that way.
The leadership election also comes at a uniquely bad time—right after the general election, and as far as possible from the next one. In other words, it happens when activists have the least amount of leverage.
Moreover, seniority is the lifeblood of the Senate. It’s the system by which senators know their service and time served will hold greater benefits down the line. It might not be pretty, nor fair, but any Senate observer will tell you it’s how the institution works. Even a theoretical senator who really wanted Warren to lead the party over Schumer would still really worry about overthrowing the seniority system that has, or would, benefit them.
That doesn’t mean Schumer should get the job automatically, but the idea that senators would elevate a first-term member to the top seat borders on laughable. It won’t happen.
The danger in pushing a hopeless mission is that it weakens your stature. Earlier Friday, an anonymous Democratic aide in the Senate told TPM’s Sahil Kapur that the idea of Warren for leader is “absurd” and claimed the groups pushing it have little sway. I think there’s plenty of evidence of their influence—but it would be a shame if they helped prove that aide right.
Moreover, this all gets away from the task at hand: making Schumer scared of, and thus responsive to, the progressive wing of the party. Schumer almost surely isn’t worried about Warren.
My advice would be to pick a much more viable, veteran non-Schumer option like Dick Durbin, Patty Murray or even Sherrod Brown, and to throw the weight of progressives behind that person. Some of the those senators might make imperfect messengers, but the point is that they would be progressive-backed candidates who could actually win.