Five months after her most zealous backers moved on to other candidates, the Democratic Party’s issues in 2016 are largely Elizabeth Warren’s issues: college affordability, Wall Street accountability, Social Security without compromise, skepticism about a Pacific trade deal.
WASHINGTON — When her fans sold Elizabeth Warren baby onesies and donned “Warren for President” hats this year and last, the Massachusetts senator insisted she would not run. But with those demurrals came a promise to use her clout to push Democrats to the left as the de facto leader of her party’s populist wing.
Five months after her most zealous backers officially moved on to other candidates, the Democratic Party’s issues in 2016 are largely Warren’s issues: college affordability, Wall Street accountability, Social Security without compromise, skepticism about a Pacific trade deal.
“The goal we’ve had all year is to make sure that 2016 is fought over Warren-wing ideas,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group that has tried to align itself with her brand. “And that’s absolutely come true.”
Even Warren’s allies acknowledge she can’t take full credit for the party’s shift. Rising anger at institutional elites and the emergence of Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose focus on a financial system “rigged” for the wealthy overlaps with Warren’s rhetoric, have played major roles in pushing the Democratic campaign debate and the party’s front-runner, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, leftward.
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Yet, Warren has clearly had a major impact. The question now is whether she can maintain her cudgel as Clinton solidifies her strength and the party appears to be coalescing around her.
One by one, some of Warren’s strongest allies have come aboard the Clinton bandwagon. Last month, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and then New York Mayor Bill de Blasio endorsed Clinton.
Warren has kept her own counsel, maintaining the leverage that her endorsement could represent.
“Look, everybody’s out there getting their issues out,” is all she would say when asked whether it was time to line up behind Clinton.
As she bides her time, centrists within Democratic ranks are warning Clinton to resist pressure to move still further to the left. If she goes too far, they say, she could become unelectable in the same way some Republican analysts believe the pressure to move right in GOP primaries in 2012 helped doom former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Much of the rhetoric of economic populism involves an effort “to blame, make somebody a victim, blame somebody who’s been successful, blame business or blame the government,” said William Daley, a financial-industry veteran and former chief of staff to President Obama.
“Those who believe this is the opportunity to pull her way, way (toward) their ideas,” Daley said, are proposing “a bad model for a general election.” Daley made his comments during a recent event hosted by Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington.
Warren has a history with Clinton that goes back longer than her involvement with elective politics. In a 2003 book Warren co-wrote with her daughter that helped make her a nationally known consumer advocate, she highlighted what she described as waffling by Clinton, then a senator from New York, on a bankruptcy bill that Warren opposed. Clinton’s positions were an example of the way financial-industry donations exerted a baleful influence on the Democratic Party, Warren wrote.
The two have since met and appear to have at least a working political relationship. But as leader of the party’s left, Warren has made clear her willingness to rally opposition to her party’s leaders, as she did in fighting Obama over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and helping to derail nominations of people she deemed too close to the financial industry, most notably Lawrence Summers, the former Treasury secretary whom Obama wanted to nominate to head the Federal Reserve Board.
On the same day last month that Vice President Joe Biden took himself out of the presidential race, Warren was at work on a speech urging regulators to require corporations to reveal their political contributions. Though she did not mention Clinton, the topic is a reminder that many on the left want Warren to keep pushing Clinton to resist being co-opted by big donors, particularly those on Wall Street.
Serving as the leader of a party faction rather than a candidate for president appears to suit Warren.
Unlike many of her counterparts who have spent a career in politics and enjoy campaigning, Warren entered the Senate in her 60s after a bitter race in 2012 that she did not seem to enjoy.
Had she run for president, her campaign would almost certainly have raised huge amounts of money from grass-roots donors and built a passionate base — perhaps larger than Sanders’. But it would have been difficult for her to wrest front-runner status from Clinton. The Democratic primary has not shaped up like the GOP’s, with a wide spectrum of candidates dividing niches of support.
“Why do you think she didn’t run for president?” said Barney Frank, a former Massachusetts congressman and Clinton supporter who worked with Warren when he crafted the 2010 overhaul of the nation’s financial rules that bears his name. “Because she understood that her chances of winning would be very, very slight.”
Instead, Frank said, she has maximized her influence as a minority senator by narrowly targeting her issues, refusing to dilute her message.
When she decides to launch a shot, she can stir the hearts of core Democrats in a way that Clinton may never achieve. A recent defense of Planned Parenthood delivered on the Senate floor was typical, with versions of the speech attracting more than 18 million online views, according to her office.
Clinton has not adopted Warren’s manner of speech, which, with its relentless attacks on banks and the revolving door between government and the financial industry, can sound overly combative to Wall Street donors and other moderate elements of the party. Clinton also has not signed on to Warren’s call to break up big banks by renewing the Glass-Steagall Act, which was undone during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
But on many other issues, including a newfound skepticism of trade deals and a Wall Street plan that includes more criminal prosecutions for rule-breakers in the financial industry, Clinton has courted Warren’s followers.
“If you look at the normal tension between political figures,” Frank said, “the striking story today is how little specific disagreement there is between Clinton and Warren.”