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Not Ready for Hillary: The Rationale for Elizabeth Warren

Not Ready for Hillary: The Rationale for Elizabeth Warren

By Scott Conroy - July 21, 2014

“Run, Liz, run! Run, Liz, run!” 

From the moment that Elizabeth Warren stepped on the stage to deliver her Friday morning speech at the Netroots Nation conference in Detroit, the chants echoed around the room.  

It was of no concern to the progressive activists on hand that Warren has insisted she is “not running for president” (though the denial is always phrased -- perhaps notably -- in the present tense). 

And it took more than a little urging from Warren, who repeatedly implored everyone to “sit down,” before the chant eventually subsided.  

For many in this crowd, it could not be clearer that this is Warren’s time to run for the Oval Office.  

And for anyone who might wonder what unique traits the Massachusetts senator would bring to a presidential run, her stemwinder of a speech served to answer that question.  

Waving her finger in the air like a sword, Warren delivered her populist harangue in a characteristically mad-as-hell tone that largely has been missing from national Democratic politics during the 6½ years of President Obama’s relatively staid and cerebral approach to speechifying.  

“The game is rigged,” Warren shouted into the microphone. “And the rich and the powerful have lobbyists, lawyers and plenty of friends in Congress. Everybody else, not so much. So the way I see this is we can whine about it, we can whimper about it, or we can fight back. I’m fighting back!” 

The crowd ate it up.  

For them, it was precisely the kind of take-no-prisoners approach to pocketbook issues such as income inequality, student loan debt, and equal pay that fueled Warren’s rapid rise from the world of academia to consumer protection champion to the U.S. Senate.  

Just a year-in-a-half into her term, Warren has already become one of the most highly sought campaign surrogates for Democrats running in the 2014 midterms. 

Though conservatives have tagged her with the “Massachusetts liberal” label that has sunk previous White House aspirants from the Bay State, Warren’s particular brand of fiery populism has made her a hot commodity in some of the deep-red states where Democratic candidates are loath to be seen with President Obama.

Warren recently traveled to Kentucky and West Virginia to appear on behalf of Senate candidates Alison Lundergan Grimes and Natalie Tennant and was greeted warmly by supporters who live hundreds of miles from the nearest Ivy League faculty lounge.  

Indeed, not since Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign has the grassroots left been so enamored of a national politician.   

While Vice President Biden -- another potential 2016 contender -- also spoke at Netroots, there was no doubt as to who was the event’s real star.  

“It’s kind of shocking just how much buzz is around Elizabeth Warren,” said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee -- a group that bills itself as being centered in “the Elizabeth Warren wing” of the Democratic Party. “There’s a rising economic populist tide in America, and due to her lifetime of work fighting for the little guy against Wall Street and big corporations, Elizabeth Warren is the personification of that.” 

Just last week, a group of progressive activists launched Ready for Warren -- a presidential draft movement designed to stand against the already well-established pro-Clinton group Ready for Hillary.

If she were to run, Warren would enter the race with an even lighter resume as an elected official than Obama had when he battled accusations of inexperience during his 2008 bid for the White House. 

But Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at UMass-Boston, said that Warren’s background as a consumer advocate is a core element of her attractiveness to many progressives.  

 “Those quick YouTube hits of her taking it to the banking industry have a feel-good appeal,” O’Brien said. “It’s important to remember that progressives abandoned Hillary for Obama, so I think there’s a certain distrust -- that [Clinton] is just a mainline Democrat, no more, no less. So finally they have a mouthpiece who’s articulate and who’s been able to have real policy influence in Washington. And she hasn’t gone center; she’s gone left and stuck with it.”

Despite her currently unmatched connection with the activist left, Warren’s appeal among the Democratic electorate at large remains miniscule compared with Clinton’s. In the latest RealClearPolitics average of national polls for the 2016 Democratic nomination, Warren sits at 7 percent -- almost 60 points behind Clinton (65 percent), and the Massachusetts senator doesn’t fare much better in Iowa or New Hampshire.  

By just about every measure, Clinton is in an even stronger position to become the nominee than she was at this time eight years ago. A Des Moines Register poll in June of 2006, for instance, not only showed Clinton to be vulnerable -- it had her trailing John Edwards in a hypothetical 2008 Iowa caucuses matchup.  

But Warren has little reason at the moment to concern herself with poll numbers.   

As Boston-based Democratic strategist Scott Ferson put it, the former Harvard professor is in the “perfect situation,” in that there appears to be little downside in spreading her message on the national stage.  

“She’s in a seat where we expect our senators to run for president, so it’s not as if back here she’ll have a problem with people in Massachusetts saying she’s going too fast,” Ferson said. “I think usually for people looking at [running for president], they’re in until they’re out, but I think she’s out until she might wake up one day and say, ‘Wait a minute. I need to do this.’” 

The institutional and financial advantages that Clinton would enjoy in a primary battle against Warren are difficult to overestimate. But while Democratic voters seem almost uniformly positive about the idea of a Clinton presidential bid, Warren could bring some sizzle to a race in which the frontrunner’s message might otherwise stagnate on the way to a coronation.  

In fact, a viable primary challenge on her left might be just what Clinton needs to hone her rusty political skills before the general election, as John Dickerson argues in Slate.  

Until it comes time to make that decision, however, expect Warren to continue to take advantage of the way the stars have aligned for her politically.   

“Sometimes folks are just at the right place at the right time,” said Massachusetts political analyst Peter Ubertaccio. “She’s got to have folks around her who are considering it because lightning doesn’t often strike in the same place.”

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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