The Elizabeth Warren Factor

ewIn November, Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in The New Yorker that, as far as the 2016 presidential race is concerned, “Hillary Clinton’s prominence points up the remarkable shallowness of the Democratic bench.” Hertzberg has a strong point. The Democratic Party is dominated by a woman who has been on the national stage for over two decades. The former FLOTUS, New York senator, and Secretary of State enjoys astronomically high poll numbers in her party, not because of her extensive experience in Washington, but in spite of it. The irony here is that the only viable challenger up to this point for the nomination of the Democratic Party, the same party that nominated the ultimate outsider in 2008, is Joe Biden, the insider’s insider. It would seem that there is a need for a progressive, populist candidate in the Democratic presidential primary in order to challenge the insiders; otherwise, the party may suffer from political buyer’s remorse. Enter Elizabeth Warren.

Vanity Fair‘s Suzanna Andrews wrote a piece in the magazine’s November 2011 edition called “The Woman Who Knew Too Much.” The engrossing article was about how Elizabeth Warren was denied a leadership position for her brain-child, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, reportedly due to opposition from various interest groups in Wall Street. Warren, from the moment she stepped onto the national stage a few years ago, has been a favorite with the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Her candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts benefited from this enthusiasm, which, according to the The New York Times‘ Rebecca Traister, “recalls the ardor once felt by many for Obama.”

Upon defeating Republican incumbent Scott Brown and taking her seat in the Senate, Elizabeth Warren has only become more popular with progressives in the Democratic Party. Joan Vennochi of The Boston Globe wrote the following about Elizabeth Warren and the cause of her support from so many Democrats:

“Warren’s rhetoric and record give her credibility and a passionate constituency. She doesn’t just talk about taking on Wall Street, she does it. And as she does it, she has the presence and the social media savvy to turn a speech into a YouTube sensation.”

The main source of enthusiasm for Elizabeth Warren is her anti-Wall Street posturing, a central component of her political image since before she was advocating for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The same cause of Warren’s strength among Democrats may also be a vulnerability for Hillary Clinton. This potentially critical flaw may become fatal, if combined with another Clinton weakness, which Bloomberg Businessweek‘s Joshua Green writes is the lack of “an overarching rationale for why she should be president.” Noam Scheiber of New Republic predicted that “if Hillary Clinton runs and retains her ties to Wall Street, Warren will be more likely to join the race, not less.” Scheiber also wrote a particularly powerful declaration: “It’s hard to look at the Democratic Party these days and not feel as if all the energy is behind Warren.”

Obviously, the polls say otherwise. An October 29-31 Public Policy Polling survey shows Elizabeth Warren with 4% support among Democrats in a field that included Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. However, when the same group of Democrats was asked to pick from a field of potential candidates, excluding Clinton, Warren’s support went from 4% to 19%. When both Clinton and Biden were removed from the list, Warren’s support went up further, to 23%. A poll like this means that Democrats will have to answer two important questions leading up to the 2016 convention. First, if Elizabeth Warren would enjoy such wide support in a Clinton-less race, what’s keeping her from having similar enthusiasm in a race with Clinton? Second, if Hillary Clinton was overcome from the left flank by a political outsider in 2008, who’s to say that the same thing couldn’t happen in 2016?

In conclusion, Elizabeth Warren poses a genuine obstacle on Hillary Clinton’s path to the Democratic nomination. Warren is younger, she’s more liberal, and she doesn’t have the reputation of being a Washington insider. Additionally, Warren may serve as an antidote to even deeper concerns within the party, which Hendrik Hertzberg summarized thus:

“Notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s outsize accomplishments, though, there is a lingering sense [in the Democratic Party] that the history would be grander if the first woman President were someone who reached the top entirely on her own.”

Enter Elizabeth Warren.


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