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.”
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.”
The pressure is so powerful that it has led to the occasional paradox. In December, Howard Dean endorsed Clinton in a Politico op-ed, despite the fact that the grassroots progressive group he founded was simultaneously drafting Warren to run. Even in Warren’s inner circle of Boston-based donors and confidants, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is ready to hand Warren the keys to the White House.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” says Doug Rubin, the Democratic strategist behind Warren’s Senate run, when asked whether the next Warren campaign he manages will be a presidential one. “I think Secretary Clinton has a tremendous amount of support in this state.”
And even Linehan—who speaks regularly with Warren both in her capacity as a Boston city official and as a private citizen, and worried that Warren would end up “in somebody’s trunk”—is on team Hillary. She believes the presidency is a role suited to centrist pragmatists. On her Democratic dream team, Clinton would take the Oval Office while Warren stayed in the Senate, where she could remain the standard-bearer of the left.
Oddly enough, the one major Massachusetts political figure who speaks positively about a Warren run for president is a man who hasn’t ruled out the possibility of running against her someday. Former Governor Deval Patrick, who may find himself locked out in the cold from the Clinton camp after his treasonous act of stumping for his friend Obama in 2008, maintains a warm relationship with Warren. Last summer, he and his wife, Diane, hosted Warren and her husband at their home in the Berkshires, where the couples “stayed out way later than people our age stay out,” Patrick says. While Patrick stops short of urging Warren to run, he does not want his party’s presidential primary to be a coronation. “[Warren is] a Democrat with a backbone who actually stands for something, with a set of core beliefs that she’s willing to lose an election for,” Patrick says, “and frankly, I think that’s a lesson for the whole party.”
Whatever hope remains that Warren will run in 2016 is for naught, because Elizabeth Warren is definitely not running for president. At least not right now, at this very moment, at noon, on December 15, in front of the Exchange Conference Center on the Boston Fish Pier.
That becomes clear as soon as she steps out of her black SUV into the winter sun above a giant banner strung up on the side of a shipping container that reads, “Dredge Boston 2014: Thank You.” As the sign suggests, she’s here to highlight federal funding for a project that will dredge Boston Harbor so it can accommodate the mega-ships that will soon start crossing an expanded Panama Canal on their way to the Eastern Seaboard. But the journalists in the press scrum around Warren aren’t here to ask about digging up harbor mud—they’re looking for dirt.
“Obviously the momentum is picking up for people to draft you to run in 2016,” one reporter tries. “Is it getting harder to ignore all the talk?”
“Nope. I am not running for president,” Warren replies.
“Are they wasting their time?” I chime in.
“I am not running for president. No means no.”
“There’s a headline that says that you haven’t said you’ve completely ruled it out…” ventures a third.
“Nothing has changed. I am not running for president.”
So there you have it: For the zillionth time, Elizabeth Warren is not running for president. She also consistently uses the present tense in her denials, semantics that the Draft Warren campaigners cling to. “I take her at her word that she is not currently running,” MoveOn.org executive director Anna Galland tells me. “I think there is still time to get into the race.”
There is some skepticism, even among her allies, that Warren would make a winning candidate, given her lack of experience on certain issues, including foreign policy. But as Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School and an anti-corruption crusader, points out, “It’s not that she’s ignorant of these issues. It’s just that she’s targeted on other issues. And I have no doubt that she would be outstanding on this, too, but I do have a question of whether the public can see that.”
In fact, many liberals—Warren likely among them—wonder whether a Warren run would be good for the public at all. If she ultimately did go all-in for the presidency, and managed to pull off a win, it would be all but impossible for her to continue to publicly eviscerate Wall Street and Republicans, as she did during her speech at the AFL-CIO last month when she railed, “it’s time to break up the Wall Street banks and remind politicians that they don’t work for the big banks, they work for us.” As things stand, Warren’s message resonates because she can let it rip without having to concern herself with the pesky realities and concessions of governing. Assuming the highest office in the land would likely water down Warren’s message to the point where everything progressives love about her would be washed away. As a potential candidate, however, Warren maintains her influence and place on the national stage regardless of who eventually moves into the West Wing. “I’ve never seen anyone in the position that Senator Warren is in that is just so mission-focused,” Rubin says. In the Senate, Warren can afford to nurse the single-minded drive of a muckraker in a way she couldn’t on the presidential stage.
Warren’s ultimate endgame is anyone’s guess, but 2016 sure could be a tough year for Democrats. Vice President Joe Biden can be counted on to crash and burn as soon as he opens his mouth, members of Congress will have a hell of a time getting anything done with the GOP finally in charge on Capitol Hill, and with progressives pulling her to the left, Clinton’s carefully calibrated centrism could come tumbling down, leaving the White House up for grabs, too. In some ways, though, it doesn’t really matter what happens: Elizabeth Warren is sure to come out a winner.
Is he running? Not yet.
Our recently departed governor has taken his talents to Cambridge as a visiting fellow at MIT. Will he follow his good buddy Barack and make a run at the Oval Office? “Maybe,” he told Channel 5 in the fall. But not, he claims, in 2016.
Is he running? Definitely maybe.
He’s the longest-serving independent in Congress. The Daily Beast calls him the “socialist senator from Vermont.” And this guy’s gonna run? CNN says he’s “actively” considering it and will decide by March.
Is he running? Yes.
Romney, January 2014, to the New York Times: “Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no.” Romney, January 2015, to a roomful of donors: “Go tell your friends that I’m considering a run.”
AP Photo/Steven Senne (patrick); AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin (romney); AP Photo/Toby Talbot (sanders)
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