Elizabeth Warren's Challenge to Hillary Clinton

gauntlet thrown?

What Clinton Could Learn From Warren

A more insurgent campaign, like the one the former professor waged for the Senate, could make the Democratic frontrunner a stronger candidate.

October 24, 2014

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OCTOBER 24, 2014

This article was originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of The American Prospect magazine. The version here was published online in late October.

Senator Elizabeth Warren stunned the political world last October with her comment in an interview with People magazine, which seemed to leave the door open for a presidential run in 2016. Asked whether she would run, Warren said, ambiguously, “I don’t think so,” but added, “If there’s any lesson I’ve learned in the last five years, it’s don’t be so sure about what lies ahead. There are amazing doors that could open.”

Well! That certainly set liberal hearts palpitating. There is no way that this was just a careless remark. Warren, a consummate pro, knew what she was saying.

There are three possibilities here. One is that Warren decides to run against Hillary Clinton. That still seems highly unlikely. The second that Warren is open to a run should Clinton decide not to make the race. My own sense is that if Clinton dropped out, for health or other reasons, Warren would find the pressure from the progressive base irresistible. The third possibility is that Warren is signaling that she is keeping her options open, both to press Clinton to run a more progressive campaign, and possibly to run in 2020 should Clinton run in 2016 and lose. But all of a sudden, the idea of Warren as a presidential candidate doesn’t seem so outlandish.

For Democrats demoralized by a succession of presidents who ran as progressives but then governed as centrists, Elizabeth Warren is the real deal. She brought the house down at Netroots Nation last July with lines like these: “A kid gets caught with a few ounces of pot and goes to jail. But a big bank launders drug money and no one gets arrested. … The game is rigged and it isn’t right.”

It’s hard to imagine Hillary Clinton giving such a speech. And it’s easy to imagine this kind of appeal rousing Democrats and many independents as well—even the occasional Tea Party Republican who doesn’t like Wall Street any more than Warren does. Populism is damned in some quarters as demagogic, but there is a progressive brand of populism epitomized by Franklin Roosevelt that mobilizes the frustration of regular Americans against elites, in an entirely salutary form of class warfare. Progressive populism has been in short supply lately.

Warren’s speech had all the hallmarks of a political leader keeping her options open for a presidential run. But despite the tables in the lobby promoting a Warren campaign, the senator has emphatically disavowed that effort and issued Shermanesque declarations that under no circumstances will she run. This pleases some on the party left, such as Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, better known as Kos, who noted in a widely circulated piece last July that Hillary Clinton is the all but certain nominee, and that it would be divisive and ultimately futile for Warren to challenge her. “Warren is building a strong base of support, using her perch in the Senate to help move the entire Democratic Party to the left,” Kos wrote. “If she runs and sports anemic numbers, her critics will use that to paint her as a fringe figure, and god knows there are many people desperate to do that.”

Warren still might conceivably run if Clinton were to drop out, but that is highly improbable. Clinton has all but declared her candidacy. The ideal candidate would be some fusion of Clinton with Warren, blending Warren’s ability to mobilize voters using a powerful populist message with Clinton’s broad experience in government. Such a fusion is impossible, of course. But there are things Clinton could learn from Warren, including how to appeal to America’s stressed working- and middle-class voters, and how to wage the kind of grassroots campaign that Warren ran for her Senate seat.


(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton participates in a "Women for Cuomo" campaign event in New York, Thursday, October 23, 2014. 

Hillary Clinton could be the earliest non-incumbent candidate to lock up the nomination in the history of the Democratic Party. That would surely be good for Democratic unity in the general election. Unlike Clinton’s near miss in 2008, there is no outsider primary challenger like Barack Obama poised to drain off voter excitement. 

But political history is full of surprise insurgents who roughed up front-runners—and sometimes even defeated them. Obama improbably beat Clinton in 2008. Eugene McCarthy in 1967 set in motion forces that ousted a sitting president, in a pre-Internet children’s crusade that anticipated the Dean insurgency of 2004. Jimmy Carter began his presidential campaign with 1-percent national recognition ratings. In December 1974, when Carter called his press conference to formally declare his run for president, I was the junior reporter on the Washington Post’s national desk. I drew the assignment to cover his announcement, and not a single other reporter from the national political press showed up. My story ended up on the shipping page.

In 1984, the outsider Gary Hart nearly knocked off former Vice President Walter Mondale, the all but anointed nominee. Hart won 17 primaries and the race went all the way to the convention, where Mondale needed the votes of newly created “superdelegates” (party leaders and elected officials) to prevail. In 1988, Michael Dukakis did not begin as front-runner, but edged out better-established candidates, as did Bill Clinton in 1992. Of all recent Democratic nominees, only Al Gore in 2000, as a sitting vice president, cruised to nomination, defeating Bill Bradley in every primary.

At this early stage of the 2016 election cycle, it’s hard to envision any of the rumored rivals defeating Hillary Clinton. Vice President Joe Biden will be nearly 74, and in his several races for president he never broke out of the second tier. Martin O’Malley, the popular and liberal governor of Maryland, is respected as a manager, not as a crowd-pleaser. O’Malley is not plausible as the next Howard Dean (but then, neither was Howard Dean). Brian Schweitzer, the populist former governor of Montana, has signaled that he might contest the Democratic nomination. But though he’s progressive on economic issues, his views on issues like gun control would divide the party base. Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, with fiery anti-war speeches, has sought to position himself to Clinton’s left on both foreign policy and economic issues, though he is also to the right of the party base on social issues. Another possible dark horse making noises about running is Russ Feingold, the former Wisconsin senator, a much admired but out-of-the-news progressive. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a democratic socialist, has told supporters that he will run in the Democratic primaries if no other progressive does, mainly to raise issues and push Clinton to the left.

None of the above seems likely to deny Clinton the nomination. Yet, as former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi argues, someone invariably emerges and almost always gives the front-runner a closer race than anticipated. “As the netroots technology keeps evolving,” Trippi says, “it becomes easier and easier for an outsider to upset an incumbent.” And of course, because the press loves a contest, favorable publicity is lavished on the suddenly viable challenger, creating a snowball effect.

Clinton, moreover, could be more vulnerable to a challenger than she seems. At this point, she is somewhat to the right of the party base, both on foreign policy and on economics. In the campaign, the familiar complaints that dogged her in 2008 will be resurrected and redoubled—she is so-o-o last century and the public is sick of That ’90s Show; Bill is a loose cannon; she is too close to Wall Street. Everything vaguely unsavory about the cross-promotions of the Clinton family political-cum-financial conglomerate will be subjected to intense scrutiny. And this time she will be 69 years old. Some of her decisions in recent months—in particular, taking six-figure honorariums for speaking at public universities—suggest a political compass that has yet to be calibrated to the sensibilities of a nation going through hard times.

Clinton’s Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg was also odd. Her comments criticizing President Obama’s foreign policy—from the right—seemed calculating, disloyal, and opportunistic. It was the sort of interview, distancing yourself from an unpopular president whose administration you served, that you give in anticipation of the general election. Lately, Obama himself has moved in Clinton’s direction. Even so, by giving the interview two years out, Clinton did herself no favors with a more dovish Democratic base.

At a time of broad voter pocketbook disaffection, Clinton seems the antithesis of a populist. According to Nicco Mele, the mastermind of Howard Dean’s netroots strategy in 2004, “The two things Americans hate most are Wall Street and Washington, D.C. You’d be hard-pressed to find another American leader more closely identified with those two places than Hillary Clinton.”

Yet one big factor could bullet-proof Clinton against the perception that she is too much the establishment candidate—her gender. As the first likely woman nominee and first prospective woman president, Clinton represents something fresh and important. No matter how much she evokes past eras, Clinton will have an animated base of energized supporters. And there are a number of things that Clinton could do to turn herself into a more plausible progressive grassroots candidate. For starters, she could expand her personification of women’s issues into a broader plea for the working family in all of its economic distress. That would make her a champion of hard-pressed working- and middle-class voters, and would create some healthy distance from Wall Street.

Even better, argues Mele, “If Hillary voluntarily capped every donation at a hundred bucks, that would create an urgency and a sense of distance from special interests and from the wealthy elite in the United States. That would be exciting, especially if she’s up against a billionaire-funded Republican.”

Right now, however, Clinton is the opposite of a small-money insurgent, with her close ties to Wall Street financing and the far-flung money connections of the Clinton Foundation. Clinton would generate more enthusiasm as a candidate and, if elected, would stand a better chance of governing as an effective progressive if she took more seriously the pocketbook ills that have caused so many voters to turn against Democrats and the idea of affirmative government itself. In this respect, Warren is an important role model for the issues she’s championed, for the grassroots campaign she ran, and for what her Senate campaign demonstrated about the nexus of grassroots enthusiasm, small money, and voter turnout. 


(AP Photo/Detroit News, David Coates)

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren waves to the crowd after her introduction at the Netroots Nation conference in Detroit, Friday, July 18, 2014.

Warren has been underestimated throughout her political life. She is stereotyped as a preachy Harvard professor, but that’s far from either her life story or persona on the campaign trail. She came from a working-class family in Oklahoma and managed to go to college on a debate scholarship, after being named the best high school debater in her state. She attended George Washington University, one of only a few schools to offer debate scholarships, and married her high school boyfriend, Jim Warren, at 19. She dropped out to follow him to a new job in Houston, where she had her first child at 22. Warren managed to go back to school, toddler in tow, and eventually get a law degree. Far more than Clinton’s life story, Warren’s is one that workaday America can relate to—as they did in the 2012 Senate campaign where Scott Brown’s symbolic pickup truck was no match for Warren’s actual lived experience.

While a professor at Harvard Law School, Warren performed pioneering research demonstrating that the vast majority of families forced into the humiliation of personal bankruptcy were broken not by profligate spending but by life emergencies such as medical bills or the death or divorce of a breadwinner. Warren led the fight to block a bankruptcy “reform” bill promoted by bankers that would make it far harder for households to get a clean start. Congressional liberals were able to block the bill for a full decade, but it was finally passed and signed by President Bush in 2005.

Warren’s role in that battle brought her to the attention of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who in 2008 appointed her to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel, charged with oversight of the Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). In that post, she managed to investigate and sharply criticize the performance of top Obama economic officials Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, while staying on cordial terms with Obama. She achieved the remarkable feat of keeping control of the staff and report-writing of a panel that had three Democrats and two Republicans, even though one of the Democrats, Richard Neiman, was close to Wall Street. She broadened the narrow and technical post of chair of the panel. Soon she was effectively functioning as leader of the loyal opposition to Obama on financial reform. She also involved herself closely in the drafting of what became the Dodd-Frank Act, working closely with key legislators and allies in the administration and the advocacy community who were pressing for tougher legislation than the Treasury had drafted. By the time Warren decided to run for the Senate, she was no political novice, but one shrewd political player.

Warren won the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race by pursuing a strategy that has implications for presidential politics. First, she ran as a progressive, attracting hundreds of thousands of grassroots supporters—people who had been thirsting for a genuine liberal to run for high office. After a somewhat bumpy takeoff, Warren got really good at retail politics. Second, she built a superb campaign operation, drawing in part on the grassroots machine already assembled by Democratic Governor Deval Patrick. Finally, she raised a ton of money, almost half of it in small contributions, both because of the Commonwealth’s relatively low donation ceilings and because of her principled refusal to seek corporate or Wall Street money.

Warren’s $43 million, the most that had ever been raised in a Senate race, came from more than 350,000 people, a stunning feat in a state where the entire electorate is a little more than 4.3 million. Warren did not make use of dummy, nominally unaffiliated fundraising fronts, and the outlays by bona fide independent groups such as the League of Conservation Voters and EMILY’s List were relatively low. About 41 percent of Warren’s donors were in-state. Do the arithmetic: Massachusetts has about 2 percent of the U.S. population. If a presidential candidate were to duplicate this scale of small-donor fundraising nationally, she would raise several hundred million in small money—and in the process mobilize about seven million citizen activists. All of which suggests that someone like Warren, if not Warren herself, could have national appeal as a candidate.

In the ten years since Howard Dean pioneered this strategy, digital technology for use in campaigns has matured and ramified. That is both good news and bad news for prospective insurgent candidates. It’s good news because insurgents like Dean and Warren can cultivate a strong base of support and, with it, take more risks. It’s bad news because a candidate like Obama or Clinton, with plenty of money and an aroused base, can use netroots technology about as well as an upstart—and then, once elected, quickly move to disable an independent grassroots army. The Internet as leveler can cut both ways.

As Micah Sifry observes in a smart and skeptical new book, The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet), social media in the hands of a genuinely insurgent candidate can be transformative and complement traditional on-the-ground organizing. But it can also be a force for “computational management” and “passive democratic engagement.” But after bashing a lot of recent pseudo-grassroots use of social media, Sifry concludes, trying to summon up some optimism, “The Internet does not have to become one more means for mass marketing and manipulation. It can also transform civic life into something far more participatory, transparent and engaging.” One might say the same of the Democratic Party.


(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senator Elizabeth Warren, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Senator John Kerry's nomination to be secretary of state on January 24, 2014.

For half a century, progressive Democrats have clung to a fantasy that might uncharitably be described as Waiting for Lefty. If only a compelling candidate emerged, he or she could get nominated and elected—not as another centrist but as a progressive pledging to remedy the worsening economic conditions that mainstream politics never get around to fixing. Such a candidate could galvanize not just Democrats, but many social conservatives who vote Republican because Democrats offer too little practical help as conditions only worsen. But, as in the Clifford Odets play, Lefty never comes.

Why not? Is the fantasy a delusion? If a lefty candidate truly had the potential to rally disaffected voters, wouldn’t one have gotten nominated by now?

I think the story is more complex. If we look again at political history, two conclusions emerge. First, deep structural factors create an undertow that drags progressives down. The mainstream media tends to disparage leftist candidates as class warriors or protectionists. More centrist candidates that can gesture left yet raise a lot of business money (and thus not challenge business hegemony once in office) are more likely to win nomination and election.

Second, it takes a very unusual individual to overcome these structural factors, and such people are in short supply. Looking back half a century, one such candidate who offered a compelling progressive narrative, Robert Kennedy, was assassinated the night he won the California primary. Had he lived, he would likely have won the nomination and the election—and governed as an economic progressive. Another genius at rallying ordinary people on behalf of progressive policies, Paul Wellstone, who was contemplating a presidential run in 2000, died in a plane crash.

The other lefties who contested the Democratic nomination and failed to win it are a quirky crew. The one insurgent who did manage to get nominated, George McGovern in 1972, was a mainstream progressive on economic issues (he had directed the Food for Peace program for President Kennedy), but first and foremost an anti-war candidate. McGovern was swamped by Democratic Party divisions on one flank and the Nixon machine, then at its pre-Watergate apogee, on the other.

In 1976, two progressives, Fred Harris and Mo Udall, both sought the presidency and more or less canceled each other out. The three most instructive cases of economic progressives losing the nomination are those of Richard Gephardt in 1988, Howard Dean in 2004, and John Edwards in 2008. Gephardt was very much the labor candidate in 1988. He also ran against the unfair trade practices that were undermining the factory economy. For this, the mainstream press pilloried him as a protectionist. Gephardt also was less than scintillating as a candidate.

In 2004, Dean demonstrated the power of a grassroots insurgency using new Internet technology. Like McGovern, however, Dean came to prominence mainly as an anti-war candidate. Having been a competent and respected governor of Vermont, Dean was far from an economic populist and was a somewhat improbable insurgent hero—I recall covering one of his early press conferences where he spoke of the importance of fiscal discipline. But Dean broke out with powerful speeches in which he upbraided the Democratic establishment for supporting the Iraq War, the same strategy that served Barack Obama, who was a novice Senate candidate that year. Speaking to a meeting of the Democratic National Committee, along with six other candidates, Dean demanded, “What I want to know is, why in the world the Democratic leadership is supporting the president’s unilateral attack on Iraq?” He soon became the favorite of the MoveOn.org activists.

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean reaches into the crowd while campaigning in downtown Boston, Tuesday, September 23, 2003.

Dean’s genius was to hire dozens of young people like Mele and give them free rein to experiment. As a total outsider with no national reputation and hardly any money, he was willing to take huge risks. The result was transformational. Using first Meetup.com and later netroots technology of the campaign’s own invention, Dean enlisted what would eventually be about 165,000 volunteers, blending live gatherings with virtual ones, raising more money online than any candidate before him.

But Dean’s candidacy ultimately failed because his campaign was inept at combining the novel Internet organizing with the traditional bread and butter of a competent field operation. Trippi, his campaign manager, wrote of the run-up to the Iowa precinct caucuses (which became Dean’s swan song, or more accurately his swan scream), “Our guy has become an unmitigated disaster on the road. The unscripted candor that served him when he was the longest shot is now being played like a sort of political Tourette’s. … We’ve got no adults with him on the road—no seasoned political people—and so, naturally, he’s gaffing his way across Iowa.” The Dean campaign, however, laid the groundwork for the netroots era that followed.

In 2008, one more insurgent candidate auditioned for the role of Lefty, campaigning on the issue of poverty as an economically populist Southerner. But John Edwards, after winning considerable support among progressive Democrats, turned out to be a total phony. Running as the left candidate against strong female and African American contenders, he was almost certain to fail even had he not been a fraud.

Despite all these failures, what political scientist Walter Dean Burnham calls a “politics of excluded alternatives” is waiting in the wings for the right candidate, and a novel campaign technology has been created that could serve as her financial complement. But this politics takes a remarkable leader and the right circumstances for it to break through and reveal itself as majoritarian. That alignment has happened only twice in the past century. The first time was when Franklin Roosevelt moved to the left in office and used the crisis of the Great Depression, followed by World War II, to remake American capitalism and assemble a durable political coalition to support the modern mixed economy. The second was when Lyndon Johnson, an accidental president who had been a centrist majority leader and vice president, decided that it was his destiny to redeem the promises of Lincoln and Roosevelt.

Such leaders are extremely rare. The feeder system of American politics filters out most such people, well before they get to run for senator or governor. There are other effective progressives in American politics today, such as Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Al Franken of Minnesota, and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City. But none has quite Warren’s combination of mastery of the issues, astute political talents as an inside player, and mass popular appeal.

So the Waiting for Lefty fantasy is not completely fantastical, but really difficult to pull off. Though some think this is Elizabeth Warren’s moment, the stars are not in alignment. In the unlikely event that Clinton decides not to run, Warren might be drafted. But the wait for Lefty will probably continue.


(AP Photo/Detroit News, David Coates)

A "Run Liz Run" poster sits on the floor in front of LaNae Havens, center, as she cheers for U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren at the Netroots Nation conference in Detroit, Friday, July 18, 2014.

Clinton cannot make herself over into Warren, least of all at age 69, but she can learn from Warren’s experience—and from that of the man who beat her last time. Some progressive activists, who went all out for Obama in 2008 and then were disappointed by his presidency, will be warier this time. After his election, Obama tamed and neutered his massive volunteer operation, Obama for America, making it part of the Democratic National Committee. That move prompted cries of outrage, but it was predictable—no president would tolerate an in-house freelance opposition. More troubling was the fact that he turned to the same Wall Street–oriented officials who invited the financial collapse to staff his administration, where they bailed out the banks. It was opposition to those politics that won Warren a national reputation.

If Clinton runs true to form and wins, she will be the fourth president since Carter to run as a moderate progressive and govern as a centrist. There is also a generational fault line that should concern her. At 69, Clinton is the quintessential boomer candidate. If she defends Social Security and Medicare as all good progressive Democrats must, but fails to offer some real hope for the economically stressed young, she runs the risk of leaving millennials (who voted in large numbers for Obama) as easy prey for either Republicans or apathy. Putting work and family issues front and center could go a long way to neutralizing this risk. The real division in American society, despite the contentions of centrist political pundits, is not boomers versus millennials, but the one percent versus everyone else. There are millennial bond traders, just as there are boomers choosing between rent, food, and medicine.

For a front-runner, the greatest risk is playing it safe. Taking Mele’s suggestion and capping all donations at $100 would be more than a deft gesture. It would compel Clinton to fundamentally change the way she campaigns and give her license to break with Wall Street.

This time, the stakes are more than just ideological preference. The stakes are about what sort of country we are. Deep changes in the structure of the economy have produced a period of prolonged stagnation. Public systems that once offered opportunity and security to the non-rich have been seriously weakened. For many ordinary working people, tax-and-spend is not the attractive social bargain that it once was. Payroll employment with good benefits and career prospects is becoming the exception and non-standard jobs the norm. These tidal shifts especially afflict the barista generation.

It will take more than token fixes, of the sort that are acceptable to financial elites, to transform this economy and reverse the related voter disaffection. The Clinton operation has historically taken its advice on economic policy from Robert Rubin and his protégés. These days, Rubin is a headliner at Clinton Global Initiative events. The Rubinistas remain fixated on deficit reduction, combined with token outlays to help the poor. A Clinton campaign or presidency that offered such remedies as modest increases in the minimum wage, a little more job training, slight help for first-time homebuyers, and some mild relief from college debt will make no real difference. And voter cynicism about the value of the public sector and the Democratic Party will only cumulate.

To govern as an effective progressive, a Democrat not only needs to get elected. She needs to offer broad enough appeal and large enough coattails to rebuild a working Democratic majority in Congress. The arithmetic of 2016 suggests that this feat will be achievable in the Senate (in a year when many vulnerable Republican seats will be up) but much harder in the House. President Obama was far more effective politically on the campaign trail than as a chief executive. As president, Hillary Clinton would need to present a bolder program that offered to make a real difference in people’s lives, and then ask voters to elect a Congress that could deliver it, as Franklin Roosevelt did in 1934, and Lyndon Johnson did in 1964—and Barack Obama did not do in 2010.

In the era of the Gary Hart campaign, the young Sidney Blumenthal, who later became a Bill Clinton aide and who still advises Hillary Clinton, coined a very useful phrase and political concept—the insider as outsider. By that, he meant someone with enough experience in politics to be credible as a presidential candidate, but who champions the frustrations of people who feel excluded from the political system. 

Clinton today is the ultimate insider. She may well take Blumenthal’s advice and posture as outsider, using her role as the first prospective woman nominee and president to give that posture credibility. But for Clinton to be a successful candidate and president, it has to be more than a pose. She would do well to spend a lot less time with Rubin and a lot more with Warren.

Maybe Warren will even get to make the run herself. Stranger surprises have happened in American politics.