Could Elizabeth Warren Really Run Against Hillary Clinton?

Some are holding out for a progressive alternative to a Clinton coronation.

Jessica Stites

Elizabeth Warren’s populist message is summed up in her now-famous quote, ‘There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody.’ (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFB/Getty Images/)

The prospect of Hillary Clinton as the anointed 2016 Democratic presidential nominee troubles some progressives, who worry about both the hawkish senator herself and a pro forma primary. Now the Clinton email scandal has convinced even some centrist Democrats that it might be helpful to have a Plan B, just in case Republicans finally get their pitchforks into Clinton.

'People are frustrated with the way the system is rigged in favor of those at the top, and Warren really speaks to how we can fight back.'

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has all but declared, but even his most ardent supporters acknowledge the socialist would face an uphill battle. A vocal crowd, meanwhile, is holding out hope that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) will run. The bankruptcy expert-turned-Massachusetts senator’s blunt and tenacious attacks on big banks have won fans across the political spectrum. Her skeptics, however, worry that Warren is too new to politics, too one-issue, too far left — or simply too reluctant to run: She’s repeatedly said that she won’t.

To debate a Warren run, In These Times brought together Erica Sagrans of Ready for Warren, a campaign to draft Warren for president; Elizabeth Sanders, a professor in Cornell University’s department of government; and Allen Clifton, cofounder of the political website Forward Progressives.

Let’s get right to it. Should Warren run? 

ERICA: This is really Elizabeth Warren’s moment. She has spent her life fighting for the underdog, against rising income inequality, against student debt. All of these issues are at the forefront going into 2016. People are frustrated with the way the system is rigged in favor of those at the top, and Warren really speaks to how we can fight back.

ELIZABETH: The timeliness is certainly there. On the other hand, Clinton is trying to foster a now is her time,” ready-for-Hillary feeling. But it seems to me that a lot of what that means is ready for a woman.” And so one could ask, which woman — Warren or Clinton— better represents the underrepresented women in American political life? And I would say Elizabeth Warren. She’s more likely to champion the interests of the poor. Hillary is warlike, and very much in the mold of conservative Democrats, in favor of a strong and active military, free trade, energy development. From the actual record of Hillary Clinton, I can’t see much overlap with the interests of women or progressives or the working class. I would like to find those things, but I don’t see them.

ALLEN: Nobody dislikes Elizabeth Warren. But she is a fighter, and a fighter is best suited for Congress. As we’ve seen with Obama, a president is only as progressive — or as conservative — as the Congress we give them. Obama could have been much more progressive if liberals had turned out in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Hillary is going to be as progressive as the Congress we give her. It’s unlikely that Democrats will take back the House in 2016, but they could take back the Senate. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders— they can whip up that Senate to give the president the kind of legislation we need.

ELIZABETH: She can run like John McCain did and keep her Senate seat. That may really strengthen her position.

ALLEN: But the cost of losing could be high. What if you get a very aggressive, high-animosity campaign and Hillary wins? That creates a divide. Also, the loser can come away looking weakened. The Right can say: She ran and that’s not what liberals wanted.

Do you think Warren will actually run?

ALLEN: She’s been emphatic that she’s not. She’s said no multiple times.

ERICA: Warren has always been a reluctant politician. She didn’t want to run for Senate until she was drafted and encouraged by people in Massachusetts. I believe she is seeing what will happen with this movement that’s building behind her.

Could Warren win? 

ELIZABETH: I’ve read that when Warren makes speeches in pretty conservative places, a lot of working-class white men cheer. That’s a demographic that the Democrats lost a long time ago.

ERICA: Wherever I’ve talked to voters — in Iowa, New Hampshire, across the country — people have been really inspired by her. Particularly by her fearlessness in taking on powerful interests like Wall Street.

ALLEN: Society changes slowly. You push people on something too much, they reject it. For people who are more in the middle but resist change, some of the great stuff Warren says can also push them to the right.

ELIZABETH: What I see in Warren, potentially, is the ability to rouse the masses. To motivate people to get involved, similar to what we saw with Obama in 2008. To get enough turnout in 2016 that the Democrats could make real gains in Congress. I don’t think Hillary would have any coattails at all. A lot of Democrats would sit out that election, because they wouldn’t see much difference between her and Jeb Bush.

ALLEN: Liberals need to get over this idea that we need to be energized to vote. Conservatives don’t need to be energized to vote. They vote.

What do you think of a Bernie Sanders run? Is there value to progressive challengers even if they don’t win?

ELIZABETH: Let Warren run, let Bernie Sanders run, let Jim Webb run, Martin O’Malley. Bring them all out, and it’s rather like 1968 — an implausible poet, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, running for the nomination, Bobby Kennedy sees how well he does in the early primaries because people are really tired of the Vietnam War, then Kennedy jumps in, Mc- Govern jumps in, other people jump in. Progressivism has to rear its head, and it’s not going to do that unless people see that progressives can draw enthusiastic crowds and get votes.

ERICA: We need progressive challengers in order to create a debate within the Democratic Party — about where the party should be headed and what we want to fight for. If Hillary Clinton runs unopposed in the primary, she won’t have to answer questions. Warren’s already influential in the party: Clinton has met with her, and other people have talked with her about how they can embrace her populist progressive values.

ELIZABETH: Hillary can’t be a persuasive progressive — that is not the life she’s lived. The Clinton administration deregulated everything in sight, passed a free trade bill most Democrats opposed, presided over the abolition of welfare, and so on. Bill Clinton was a moderate Republican. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is another thing that Warren and Clinton would disagree on, and the Democratic base is much more with Warren. Hillary can try to tag along, but she is not going to seem very genuine.

ALLEN: Maybe a challenger can pull Hillary to the left a little bit during a debate or the campaign, but that doesn’t mean that’s how she’ll act as president. The reality you face in the White House is different. Elizabeth Warren, as president, couldn’t say the things she’s saying now. Look at Obama.

Is it worth gambling on Warren if it means risking a Republican victory? 

ALLEN: The Supreme Court is a huge issue to me. There are four justices potentially retiring in the next two to 10 years. Two of them are liberal. The last thing I want is a Republican nominating four justices. You’re talking about undoing civil rights laws, money in politics just getting worse, religious oppression of gays, all sorts of things, and I’m not willing to risk all that just on idealism.

ELIZABETH: But are you discounting the fact that Hillary may immediately initiate another military intervention? If things go badly for her because she has a Republican Congress, she will probably be tempted to go to war — with Russia, with Iran, somewhere else — this is what most presidents do. And this is the image she cultivates, the stance that makes her the neoconservatives’ favorite Democrat.

ALLEN: I always say I would rather a candidate give me 70 percent of what I want than 10 percent. The people that tell me Obama’s no different from Bush I just laugh off because that’s absurd. Would you rather have Hillary Clinton, or a Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz?

ELIZABETH: In some ways, Jeb Bush, if he harkens back to his father, not his brother, could be a more progressive president than Hillary Clinton. I just don’t think the way to mobilize people is to say it could be worse. That’s not the way to strengthen progressivism. As a political historian, I know you can have energetic party-based movements based on the interests of the working class and the middle class. And they can win. 

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Jessica Stites is Editorial Director of In These Times, where she runs the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and edits stories on labor, neoliberalism, Wall Street, immigration, mass incarceration and racial justice, among other topics. Before joining ITT, she worked at Ms. magazine and George Lakoff’s Rockridge Institute. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Ms., Bitch, Jezebel, The Advocate and AlterNet. She is board secretary of the Chicago Reader and a former Chicago Sun-Times board member.

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