Spoiler Alert: Elizabeth Warren for President
The speed with which Warren has risen to become one of the nation’s most prominent -politicians—and its most in-demand presidential contender—is a testament to the extra-ordinary pace at which she learns, how she finds ways around obstacles to her all-consuming drive for economic reform. But how many bridges can she burn before she gets singed?
Here in Boston, where loyalty to the Clintons runs deep, Warren’s closest supporters express ambivalence about a long-shot presidential bid—even as they hope Warren’s growing influence will give the state more sway in Washington. Warren may succeed in dragging the party to the left—but if she does so at the expense of the Democratic frontrunners, will there be hell to pay in 2016? Whichever way it goes, there is one constituent all but guaranteed to benefit from the senator’s shrewd 2015 maneuvering: Warren herself.
After the disaster of the November elections, many Democrats blamed their shellacking on a failure to articulate a strong progressive message. When they opened the Washington Post on November 7, they were greeted by an op-ed from Warren: not backing down in surrender, but ratcheting up the rhetoric. “It’s not the size of government that worries people,” she wrote, “rather it’s deep-down concern over who government works for. People are ready to work, ready to do their part, ready to fight for their futures and their kids’ futures, but they see a government that bows and scrapes for big corporations, big banks, big oil companies and big political -donors—and they know this government does not work for them.”
Clearly, Warren had the messaging figured out. Majority Leader Harry Reid created a fancy new Senate leadership position for Warren: strategic policy adviser to the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, a title she reportedly chose herself. But Reid and his deputy—Chuck Schumer of New York, a Wall Street ally—also hedged their bets, appointing the more-conservative Jon Tester of Montana to head the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for 2016. And they created yet another new -leadership position for Mark Warner of Virginia, a former venture capitalist worth a quarter of a billion dollars. “In the immortal words of Lyndon Johnson,” says DC- and Boston-based Democratic consultant Scott Ferson, “It’s better to have you inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”
Top Democrats may have thought they could harness Warren by bringing her inside the tent, but no sooner had she accepted the leadership position than she began making noise about the Weiss appointment. If the Democratic leadership believed they could throw Warren a bone and get her off their back, they hadn’t done their research. Time and again, when dealt a throwaway hand, Warren has done everything possible to play the hell out of it.
Back in the early 1990s, Warren’s cutting-edge research on the causes of family bankruptcies helped her become a star in policy circles as a sharp-tongued critic of the cozy relationship between the financial sector and government. She also had a way with words, and a rare ability to distill financial complexities into media-friendly sound bites. In the mid-1990s, she championed the fight against rules—favored by Wall Street and credit card companies—that made it harder for individuals to file for bankruptcy. She eventually lost that fight. Bankruptcy reform was finally signed into law by President George W. Bush a decade later. But Warren caught the eye of Harry Reid, who in 2008 tapped the professor to chair a Congressional panel overseeing the distribution of bailout funds. Warren had made it to the nation’s largest stage, and, true to form, was not going to squander the opportunity.
As chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, Warren walked a fine line—criticizing Obama’s top financial wizards, such as Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, while staying on the president’s good side. Quickly, she was able to increase the scope and influence of her appointment, emerging as the de facto head of the loyal opposition. The previous year, Warren had proposed the creation of a consumer financial safety commission, a suggestion that ultimately became the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. At the time, many in Washington assumed that the CFPB would be a squirt gun. Warren, however, turned it into a bazooka with real regulatory muscle. “Elizabeth is fine with a nudge,” Georgetown University law professor and former Warren student Adam Levitin told New York magazine, “but she also knows that sometimes you need a sharp elbow, and she’s not afraid of that.”
Warren’s zeal so alarmed the financial services industry and its Republican allies in Congress that they mounted a vigorous opposition to her appointment as the bureau’s first head. In January 2012, Obama passed her over in favor of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray. Rather than fold her cards and walk away from the table, Warren doubled down on her economic crusade by launching a bid for the U.S. Senate. If she couldn’t beat the bitterly divided Congressional body, hell, she’d join the damn thing.
As the 2016 campaign begins to take shape, the dynamic between Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, the two most powerful women in the Democratic Party, is already one of the most fragile in American politics. Their current relationship status? It’s complicated. And the tension between them isn’t just political—it’s personal.
The two first met in May 1998 at a Democratic fundraiser in Boston at the request of the then–first lady, who had read an op-ed Warren had penned in the Times titled, “Bankrupt? Pay Your Child Support First,” in opposition to a bankruptcy bill before Congress at the time. Over a burger, fries, a Diet Coke (for Clinton), and iced tea (for Warren), the professor -explained to the first lady the intricacies of the law and her objections, which had backing from the financial industry. In Warren’s 2003 book, The Two-Income Trap, she described Clinton as brilliant and decisive in that first encounter. “I have taught bankruptcy law to thousands of students — some of them among the brightest in the country,” she writes, “but I never saw one like Mrs. Clinton.” Within days, though, the administration did an about-face on the law, moving from quiet support to opposition. At Clinton’s urging, her husband eventually vetoed it.
It could have been the start of a beautiful friendship, if Clinton hadn’t done what New Democrats do: She adjusted her principles to fit changing circumstances. Years later, when Clinton became a senator—and one of Congress’s top beneficiaries of campaign contributions from financial executives—she voted in favor of a bill nearly identical to the one Warren had convinced her to oppose. Warren took care to call Clinton out for this in her book, and she hasn’t publicly backed off that criticism.
Since then, the two have become rivals. In 2012, Clinton’s husband declined to campaign on Warren’s behalf. The following year, Warren signed a letter, along with the other 15 women Democrats in the Senate, urging Clinton to run for president—though the letter was meant to be private (it leaked), and Warren may have succumbed to peer pressure. It’s easy to imagine the awkward whispers inside the Congressional cafeteria if the letter had been signed by every female Senate Democrat save one.
While the rivalry has its roots in substance, it has occasionally felt extraordinarily petty. Like on April 17, 2014, when a bizarre non-exchange took place on social media. Clinton tweeted about becoming a grandmother—setting off a paroxysm of right-wing angst that Clinton was somehow using her daughter’s pregnancy to make her more likable in the upcoming election. Then, hours later, Warren reminded her legion of Facebook followers that she’s a grandma, too. (Clinton’s message received more than 4,600 retweets and 11,000 likes; Warren’s post got 42,000 likes and was shared more than 500 times.)
The awkward moments didn’t stop there. This past June, when a Washington Post reporter asked Warren what she made of Clinton’s claim that she and her husband had been “dead broke” upon leaving the White House, the senator paused for 19 seconds, then -responded, “Um, I was surprised.”
And in September, Katie Couric asked Warren if Clinton is “too cozy” with Wall Street.
“You know,” Warren responded, “I worry a lot about the relationship between all of them: regulators, government, and Wall Street.”
“But what about Hillary Clinton in particular?” Couric pressed.
“Well, I worry across the board.”
Message received: Don’t expect Warren to endorse Clinton any time soon. Pressed by People magazine, in October, to describe their overall relationship, Warren said, tellingly, “We have talked. It’s not much more than that. Not much more.”
Things took on a more-aggressive tone in January, when Warren addressed the AFL-CIO and served up what the Wall Street Journal called a series of “not-terribly-veiled” jabs at the Clintons. She criticized the working conditions for employees of Walmart, where Hillary served on the board for six years; -alluded negatively to Bill’s anti–“big government” rhetoric and deregulation agenda; and trashed NAFTA, the Clinton administration’s signature free trade deal.
With all these widely reported barbs against Hillary and her husband, it’s hard not to ask the question: If a high-profile senator wanted to make sure Clinton gets elected as president, would that person be on Rachel Maddow demanding scalps and painting the centrist wing of her party as a gaggle of Wall Street puppets? Clinton’s success in a general election may rest, in part, on not being driven too far left during the primary. And how far left will she ultimately have to go to capture the progressive base and the nomination? Well, that’s almost entirely up to Elizabeth Warren. Or as Erica Sagrans, a former Obama campaign staffer, puts it, “There is really a fight for the soul and future of the Democratic Party.”
Boston is one of the most important Democratic centers in the country, and it will be a major battleground in any fight over the party’s future—especially since Warren is involved. But whether this is really Warren’s turf or Clinton Country is unclear.
What is certain is that in 2008, the Clintons put tremendous pressure on party leaders to declare for Hillary. Deval Patrick and Ted Kennedy broke ranks and endorsed Obama—in Kennedy’s case, after weeks of heavy lobbying from Bill Clinton—but Tom Menino put his machine into overdrive for the Clinton cause. In the end, Obama eked out Boston, but Hillary handily carried the state.
In 2015, with Hillary’s inevitability looming even larger this time around, there’s pressure on Democrats in Boston to line up behind her even before she’s announced. “I think there’s a sense that the train is leaving the station,” says veteran Boston journalist Dan Kennedy, “and nobody who wants to have power and influence is going to want to be left behind.”