Don't Run, Elizabeth Warren, Don't Run!
Elizabeth Warren is a bold progressive in a party that needs them. But she just might actually have more leverage as a non-candidate.
And so the ratcheting up continues: Now The Boston Globe has weighed in with not one or two or three but four pieces, one of them an in-house editorial, urging Elizabeth Warren to run for president. All right; this is the kind of thing hometown newspapers do, and it gets them attention. And it means that more people will press Warren to take The Globe’s advice when they run into her at the Star Market. But does it really raise the pressure on her in any serious way?
The arguments, by the paper’s editorial board and by contributors Bob Kuttner, Josh Green, and Anna Galland, are reasonable and sound. Warren has a huge following (true). Warren is the Democratic Party’s most articulate and high-profile crusader for the middle and working classes (true). Warren uniquely can pressure Clinton to adopt more populist positions on these issues than she has been associated with in the past (true).
But then come two arguments I find less persuasive, and I write as an admirer of Warren’s. The first is that Warren can have more influence as a candidate than not. The second is that a primary run against an opponent who’s in her political weight class (none of the other Democrats are) will toughen Clinton up in all the good ways. I think there are very good reasons to be less sure about the validity of either of those.
Inside the Democratic Party right now, Warren has as much influence as just about anybody short of the president. She has moral authority. She can move armies. But here’s the next thought in that chain, and it’s important: She can move them without much—or even any—intra-party pushback. The Clinton people know that to throw a brushback pitch at Elizabeth Warren is to risk alienating her millions of followers in a deep way.
But if Warren gets into the race, that hesitation on the part of the Clinton people ends. It would not be a gloves-off, no-holds-barred kind of combat, but combat it would be. The Clinton team would plant negative stories about her. Is there even any real dirt on Elizabeth Warren? Not that anyone knows about, now that she danced her way across Scott Brown’s “fake Cherokee” bed of hot coals. But this is politics. There’s always something. Tim Geithner at least would probably try to supply it. Jim Carville would go on the Sunday shows and start popping off about it. So suddenly, her profile would change: Right now, she’s above the fray; as a candidate, she’d be knee-deep in it, against the Clinton operation.
Even so, Warren would probably win a primary or two, or more, maybe several more. What then? It could actually get kind of ugly in a way that damages both of them. Now I suppose we’ve segued into the second argument, about how a good primary would toughen Clinton up. Maybe. But no one who is writing that sentence today can possibly know for certain that that’s how it would turn out.
People say, “Oh, but look at how the 2008 primary process helped toughen up Obama.” Did it? I’m not so sure. Or if it did, this fabled toughening-up process didn’t have much to do with Clinton. The two biggest crises Obama had to work through during the primary process were entirely self-inflicted: explaining away both a) why he spent all those years in the pews of a pastor who hated America and b) what exactly he meant when he said red-state people cling to guns and religion.
And anyway, Obama did not win the 2008 general election because a long primary season toughened him up. He won for three reasons: America was psychically ready to elect a black man, this particular black man, as its president; the financial meltdown happened on GOP watch; and John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. It had very little, or indeed arguably nothing whatsoever, to do with the primary process.
One could well argue that a long primary fight between her and Clinton would mainly work to the Republicans’ benefit. Especially with the media acting as they inevitably would with two women running against each other—that is, playing up the catfight angle as much as possible, running deep into the ground every cliché from the kingdom of nature about emasculating females.
I have speculated in the past that maybe Warren doesn’t even really want to be president (for foreign policy-related reasons). I also suspect there’s a part of her that doesn’t want to risk doing anything that might end up helping the GOP and allowing the media to indulge its Bette Davis vs. Joan Crawford fantasies at the expense of the party.
Finally I suspect Warren knows that she has a tremendous amount of power and leverage as things stand right now. She can sway Clinton’s course plenty as a non-candidate. She doesn’t even have to say or do much. She just needs, every so often, to remind Clinton that she exists, and that her army exists.
So, presidential candidate? She doesn’t need to bother. The things people say she would gain from such a candidacy she in fact has already. However...vice presidential candidate...think about it. Clinton-Warren. I’ve been chewing on this one for months. Mold-shattering. Exactly like what Clinton’s husband did in choosing Al Gore. Precisely the kind of bold play she needs to make to shed her image of caution. Two-thirds of women voters, easy. They’d be a great team on the trail. And imagine that closing-night convention visual. And in office, they could be a great governing team, too.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, my contention is that Warren is at a point of very high leverage as it is, and no one from anywhere inside the Democratic tent wants to lay a glove on her. That would change if she ran. I can understand why her most ardent partisans want her to run—there’s only one gold ring in American politics, and that’s the presidency. But she has been absolutely insistent that she does not want to run. At some point, people ought to accept that she means it. Besides, she’s actually in the catbird’s seat now. She has the power without having to endure the scrutiny. I don’t know many politicians who wouldn’t take that.