Clinton vs. Warren: Problem or Opportunity?

Many who saw the remarkable conversation between Senator Elizabeth Warren and economist Thomas Piketty on economic inequality, got the impression that Warren was preparing to run for president. Warren's candidacy alarms some Democrats because it raises the specter of a battle for the Democratic nomination that might divide the party. But there's a substantial upside.

At this point Warren's candidacy seems unlikely. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll found that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic nomination: 69 percent of respondents favored her versus 12 percent for Vice President Biden and 7 percent for Senator Warren. However, many of us remember 2006 when Hillary Clinton was also the overwhelming favorite before Barack Obama snatched the nomination from her.

Recently, political activist Guy Saperstein questioned whether Secretary Clinton is the inevitable or best Democratic presidential candidate. He noted she "has maintained consistently high 'unfavorable' ratings since at least 2007..."

Secretary Clinton is more conservative than most Democrats. Saperstein observed, "On nearly every important issue, except women's issues, Clinton stands to the right of her Democratic base."

Recently, University of California Economics Professor Robert Reich identified six principles of the new populism:

1. Cut the biggest Wall Street banks down to a size where they're no longer too big to fail.
2. Resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act, the law separating investment from commercial banking thereby preventing companies from gambling with their depositors' money.
3. End corporate welfare including subsidies to big oil, agribusiness, pharmaceuticals, and Wall Street.
4. Stop the National Security Agency from spying on Americans.
5. Scale back American interventions overseas.
6. Oppose trade agreements crafted by big corporations.

Secretary Clinton opposes these principles, while Senator Warren supports them.

Many Democratic women believe Clinton deserves the 2016 nomination because she was a graceful loser in 2008 and a good soldier thereafter. Nonetheless, having Clinton and Warren debate Democratic principles would be good for the party.

However, the most serious problem with a Clinton-Warren battle is not gender or ideology. It's money. Many Democrats believe that having Clinton as their presidential candidate would ensure that Dems would receive millions in Wall Street donations, and enough campaign funds in general, to triumph over any likely Republican candidate.

The Clinton wing of the Democratic Party has championed Third Way politics that mixes social liberalism with economic conservatism. Sponsored by Wall Street, Third Way embraces the status quo. This is the cornerstone of Clinton strategy to attract Independent voters.

In an important Pew Research study of contemporary American politics, the authors distinguished between Democrats, Independents, and Republicans by breaking voters into eight groups. Republicans decomposed into "Staunch conservatives: Highly engaged Tea Party supporters" (11 percent) and "Main Street Republicans: Conservative on most issues" (14 percent). These are the Republican foot soldiers and their financial backers, such as the Koch brothers.

Independents broke into three groups: "Libertarians: free market, small government seculars," (10 percent) "Disaffecteds: downscale and cynical," (11 percent) and "Post Moderns: moderate but liberal on social issues" (14 percent). Disaffected voters are unlikely to vote and when they do, it's primarily on the basis of personality, for the candidate they like the best. However, Post Moderns include many of the denizens of Wall Street; they're likely to vote for the presidential candidate that will best represent their interests.

The Pew study assigned Democrats to three groups: "New Coalition Democrats: upbeat, majority-minority" (9 percent), "Hard-pressed Democrats: religious, financially struggling" (15 percent), and "Solid Liberals: across-the-board liberal positions" (16 percent). The Solid Liberals are Warren's base, they're likely to accept all of the principles of the new populism and, therefore, to be skeptical of Secretary Clinton. "New Coalition Democrats" and "Hard Pressed Democrats" are not as engaged as Solid Liberals and, therefore, more sympathetic to Clinton.

Including libertarians, Republicans have about 35 percent of the vote. Democrats have about 40 percent. Therefore each party needs to appeal to Independent voters.

Writing in Politico journalists Ben White and Maggie Haberman reported on political conversations with two dozen unaligned GOP donors, Wall Street executives, and corporate lobbyists. When asked about the 2016 presidential election, these Post Modern voters viewed potential Republican Candidate Jeb Bush and Secretary Clinton as interchangeable and observed:

The darkest secret in the big money world of the Republican coastal elite is that the most palatable alternative to a nominee such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas or Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky would be Clinton, a familiar face on Wall Street following her tenure as a New York senator with relatively moderate views on taxation and financial regulation.

There are two likely consequences if Secretary Clinton battles Senator Warren for the 2016 Democratic nomination. Democrats would have to decide between Clinton's centrist "Third Way" policies and the populist policies defended by Warren. And, if Warren prevailed, Democrats would have to compensate for the Wall Street millions that would go to the Republican presidential candidate.