Spoiler Alert: Elizabeth Warren for President

Warren swears she’s not running for president. That may be true, but she’s sure doing a terrible job of it. The war for the soul of the Democratic Party is about to begin—right in our backyard.

Photograph by Brennan Linsley/AP

Photograph by Brennan Linsley/AP

In late October, with her ill-fated gubernatorial campaign going down to the wire and a Boston Globe poll showing her 7 points in the hole to Charlie Baker, Martha Coakley called in the two biggest names in Democratic politics other than “Barack” and “Obama.”

One of them had been in the national spotlight for half a century. She had spent a decade in the Arkansas governor’s mansion, eight years in the White House, another eight years in the United States Senate, and four years as Obama’s secretary of state. With the 2016 presidential election two years away, she had cultivated a stronger aura of inevitability than had any potential contender in memory, perhaps since FDR.

The other first tried her hand at electoral politics just two years earlier—and only as a Plan B, when her dream job as a bureaucrat was snatched from her. She had neglected to spend the past few decades building a global network of loyalists at summits, state dinners, and jam-packed rallies like this one, and had instead risen through the ranks of academia while making the occasional appearance on Dr. Phil. Mostly, she was known for viciously alienating the country’s most powerful interests.

The imbalance of power should have been clear, but when the two politicians converged on the Imperial Ballroom at the Park Plaza Hotel, it was Hillary Clinton, resplendent in a turquoise-and-gray pinstriped jacket, who kowtowed to Elizabeth Warren, and not the other way around.

For a moment backstage, Clinton and Warren, both proud grandparents, found themselves face to face and politely traded stories about their grandkids. Then it was go-time in front of 1,500 rabid Democratic supporters. “I am so pleased to be here with your senior senator, the passionate champion for working-class people and middle-class families, Elizabeth Warren,” Clinton said, after she and Coakley had enthusiastically embraced onstage. “I love watching Elizabeth, you know, give it to those who deserve to get it. Standing up not only for you, but people with the same needs and the same wants across the country.”

For her part, Warren barely mentioned Clinton’s name, and the two never appeared together onstage.

It may have been an omen of things to come. The dynamic in the ballroom was a testament to Warren’s crusading, take-no-prisoners style of politics—and to her sudden death grip on the progressive wing of the party. Not a day goes by without a major media outlet speculating on the possibility of a Warren presidential run, parsing her repeated denials for signs of any subtle shift toward the affirmative. Her speeches—whether to special-interest groups or on the floor of the Senate—rack up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, as if she were releasing hit singles. And, more troubling for establishment Democrats, Warren has begun to attack the commander in chief: first with mere rhetoric, and now with real venom. In January, under unrelenting pressure from Warren, the White House was forced to abandon its pick for a high-ranking Treasury appointee named Antonio Weiss, the publisher of the Paris Review and a senior investment banker at Lazard. Warren said he was too close to Wall Street. That fight has become a bare-knuckled preview of what could erupt, this spring, into a bloody war for the soul of the party.

How big a thorn in the White House’s side has Warren become? “I just hope she doesn’t end up stuffed in somebody’s trunk,” says Joyce Linehan, Mayor Marty Walsh’s chief of policy and a close Warren confidante. Linehan said this a few days after Warren had taken to the Senate floor to excoriate the far-reaching influence of Citigroup—that is, the bank’s influence within the Democratic administration—and to inform its executives she wished financial reform had broken the conglomerate “into pieces.” When the Huffington Post published a video of the harangue under the headline “The Speech That Could Make Elizabeth Warren the Next President of the United States,” it garnered more than 240,000 Facebook likes and was viewed more than 600,000 times.

As crazy as it sounds, many progressives now see a Warren run for president—or at the very least the continued threat of one—as a prerequisite for Democrats to retain the White House in 2016. “Most people voting Democrat don’t know what they’re voting for right now,” Jim Dean, the chairman of his brother Howard Dean’s political action committee, Democracy for America, recently told Talking Points Memo. “They don’t know who we are or what we’re for. If we don’t have [Warren’s] kind of leadership in the presidential debates, the Democrats will not be in the White House in January 2017.”

For her part, Warren has said she’s not running for president in 2016 so many times it would require an MIT engineer to do the math. Democrats, however, don’t seem to believe her: MoveOn.org has offered to spend the Dr. Evil–ish sum of one million dollars to build her campaign infrastructure if she changes her mind, while Democracy for America has offered to chip in another $250,000. And now the Republicans don’t believe her, either. In fact, the continued progressive enthusiasm for a Warren candidacy seems to have helped draw at least one familiar GOP candidate into a race he’d sworn he’d never join. In recent weeks, our old pal Mitt Romney—former Massachusetts governor, healthcare reformer, two-time presidential failure—has been telling advisers he’s back in the game. Perhaps you remember Romney’s answer, in the New York Times, when he was asked if he’d ever run for president again: “Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no.”

Now that Romney’s ready to say yes, his surrogates are mentioning not one potential Democratic opponent but two: “I believe Mitt Romney is too much of a patriot,” his former finance chairman Spencer Zwick told the Washington Post, “to sit on the sidelines and concede the presidency to Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren when he knows that he can fix the country.”

So what’s Warren’s endgame? To paraphrase Baron Rothschild, a member of the British banking family in the 18th century: When there’s blood on the streets, buy land. Since the crippling defeat of Congressional Democrats in the November election, Warren’s prominence has only swelled: She’s seized the opportunity of a bruised and disoriented party to pull Democrats to the left as hard as she can, and staked her claim as the progressive conscience of the party. For Clinton, this must seem like a rerun of 2008: Back then, Obama attacked her from the left by focusing on her vote on the Iraq war. This year, Warren has captivated the party’s liberal base with her attacks on Wall Street and income inequality. The tactic seems to be working, again: Even before Warren claimed Antonio Weiss’s scalp, she began to define the terms of the 2016 elections by leading a failed revolt against a $1.1 trillion funding bill that had been endorsed by the Democratic -leadership. She said it would lead to more mega-bank bailouts, and called out supporters on both sides of the aisle.

The response was swift and overwhelming, as presidential speculation reached a fever pitch. More than 300 former Obama staffers signed a letter begging Warren to run. By mid-December, the Daily Beast declared Warren the “most powerful Democrat in America.”