What is Elizabeth Warren up to?
Elizabeth Warren's offhand remark in an interview with People magazine strongly suggested that the Massachusetts senator has revised her previous firm declarations of non-candidacy for president and is now deliberately leaving the door open a crack. Asked whether she was considering a run in 2016, Warren said disarmingly, "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."
That sure opened one door. Is Warren really thinking about challenging frontrunner Hillary Clinton? I'd be surprised if Warren has made any decision on that question, but her remark immediately set off two kinds of political waves.
First, it produced great excitement among the Democratic Party's long-suffering progressive base. And second, it reminded many commentators of Clinton's several vulnerabilities.
Clinton, after all, was the certain Democratic nominee once before, in 2008. But she couldn't quite close the sale. Despite her extensive experience, Clinton was overtaken by a novice senator, an African American, no less.
Among her other liabilities, Clinton is well to the right of the party base, both on issues of financial reform and on foreign policy. She comes attached to Bill Clinton, who is a superb politician but also something of a loose cannon. The financial/political conglomerate that links the Clinton Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative and other family enterprises to six-figure speaking gigs could present a high profile target.
Her one trump, despite the fact that Hillary often seems so yesterday and so centrist is that she represents a dazzling breakthrough in American politics -- she would be the first woman nominee of a major party and the first female president. On the other hand, if Warren ran, she would immediately deny Clinton that trump. And unlike Clinton, Warren is a woman who made it in politics on her own, and not as half of a couple whose husband was president first.
Warren has dazzled progressive Democrats as the loyal opposition to Barack Obama in her role as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the financial bailout known as the TARP. She also came from behind to win a senate race in Massachusetts raising the most money -- $43 million -- ever raised for a senate campaign, most of it in small donations. She assembled an army of 250,000 grass roots volunteers.
The conventional assumption is that it's Hillary's turn, but in a sense this is more Elizabeth Warren's moment than it is Hillary Clinton's. The economy is still stagnant, and the health of the financial industry has been put ahead of the wellbeing of regular Americans.
Warren has a capacity to energize passion among grassroots voters, probably to a greater degree than Clinton does. One of the reasons for the rise of the Tea Parties was the sense that the Obama administration was too close to Wall Street. Nobody could say that of Elizabeth Warren.
That said, it is still a long shot that Warren would challenge Clinton. I have no inside information on this, but I suspect that Warren softened her Shermanesque declaration of non-candidate because Clinton in fact may not run. If Clinton decided not to make the race, for health or other reasons, Warren would find grassroots pressure well nigh irresistible. She is the de facto leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and for good reason. She has now signaled that there are in fact circumstances under which she would run.
Warren may also want to keep Hillary guessing in order to put salutary pressure on her to run as a more resolute progressive. And sure enough, in her recent appearance on behalf of Martha Coakley, the Democrats' lackluster candidate for governor of Massachusetts, Clinton gave a populist speech right out of Warren's playbook, declaring, "I am so pleased to be here with your senior senator, the passionate champion for working people and middle-class families, Elizabeth Warren!"
In the latest issue of the American Prospect, I wrote a feature piece comparing Warren's strengths with Clinton's latent weaknesses. I couldn't quite believe that Warren would run against Clinton, so I framed the piece as "What Clinton Can Learn from Warren."
Clinton may yet learn a few campaign tricks from Warren. But she will be 69 years old in 2016, and it would take a miracle for her to be reborn as a Warren-style progressive. It's still a long shot that Warren will make the race, but stranger things have happened in American politics.
Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos, and teaches at Brandeis University's Heller School.