Noam Scheiber has a provocative cover story in the New Republic declaring that liberal Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren would be Hillary Clinton’s “nightmare” if she decided to challenge Clinton for the 2016 Democratic nomination. Scheiber bases this claim on the liberal shift the party’s base has undergone since the financial crisis. Voters of both parties, in fact, along with independents, have soured on Wall Street. Clinton, by virtue of the financial deregulation her husband presided over and the general buck-raking from rich financiers that attended his presidency and post-presidency, is trapped on the wrong side of this sentiment—inextricably linked not just to some unsavory characters but to the whole idea, powerful among the liberal grassroots, that a fundamentally immoral Wall Street influence has been allowed to perpetuate itself, even during the presidency of a guy who promised “hope and change.” The collapse of Larry Summers’s bid to become Fed chairman in the face of staunch liberal opposition was an expression of this anger.
This does indeed pose a challenge for Clinton. Perhaps, as Scheiber suggests, it will draw Warren into the race. But having spent some time talking to Warren and writing about what animates her Senate career, I think the Hillary-vs.-Elizabeth storyline isn’t the best way to understand Warren or how she may be thinking about Clinton and 2016.
Scheiber posits that if Clinton isn’t sufficiently Warren-like on matters of financial regulation and advancing middle-class economic interests, then Warren might try to steamroll her by marshaling her legions of liberal supporters. The piece devotes lots of space to examining the particulars of how this mortal battle would play out—how Warren would raise money and campaign, how Clinton’s staff would try to tear her to shreds. “Yeah, Hillary is running. And she’ll probably win,” a former aide tells him. “But Elizabeth doesn’t care about winning. She doesn’t care whose turn it is.”
Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect that Warren might regard Clinton less as a threat than an opportunity. Clinton is stronger than she’s ever been within the Democratic Party, the overwhelming favorite to be its next nominee. Yes, she blew the last election. But the great lesson of her political career is that she always learns from her mistakes and never repeats them. She won’t blow this one.
To Warren, this strength might actually be an attraction. What Clinton lacked in 2008 and appears to still lack today is an overarching rationale for why she should be president. Casting herself as inevitable flopped. The speeches she’s given recently on protecting voters’ rights, while laudable, haven’t cohered into anything larger.
In a legislature too divided to pass laws, Warren’s power in the Senate has been using her celebrity to set the agenda, at least on financial matters. The mere suggestion that she would go after Summers led him to drop out. That power would be magnified manyfold in a Democratic primary, especially against a front-runner so vulnerable in this area. If Warren were to issue a platform, her policies would almost certainly become a litmus test in the eyes of Democratic primary voters for what constitutes a true Democrat. Clinton would have no choice but to co-opt them—but doing so would also supply the purpose she has always lacked as a presidential candidate.
The salient comparison here would not be to an earlier party primary, but to Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign. Perot didn’t make it to the White House, but his popularity made his major priority—deficit reduction—a shaping force in the campaign and later in Bill Clinton’s presidency. Hillary Clinton has never given voters a compelling reason to put her in the White House. Warren could supply one, and that alone could be reason enough to get in the race.