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Democrats need Elizabeth Warren’s voice in 2016 presidential race

Senator Elizabeth Warren listened to testimony during a Senate committee hearing in 2013.

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Senator Elizabeth Warren listened to testimony during a Senate committee hearing in 2013.

Democrats would be making a big mistake if they let Hillary Clinton coast to the presidential nomination without real opposition, and, as a national leader, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren can make sure that doesn’t happen. While Warren has repeatedly vowed that she won’t run for president herself, she ought to reconsider. And if Warren sticks to her refusal, she should make it her responsibility to help recruit candidates to provide voters with a vigorous debate on her signature cause, reducing income inequality, over the next year.

The clock is ticking: Presidential candidates need to hire staff, raise money, and build a campaign operation. Although Clinton hasn’t officially declared her candidacy, she’s scooping up support from key party bigwigs and donors, who are working to impose a sense of inevitability about her nomination. Unfortunately, the strategy’s working: Few candidates are coming off the Democrats’ depleted bench to challenge Clinton. Neither declared candidate Jim Webb, a former Virginia senator, nor rumored candidate Martin O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland, represent top-tier opponents; independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has also hinted he might enter the Democratic primaries, but it’s difficult to imagine him thriving on the trail.

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Clinton’s deep reservoir of support, from her stints as first lady, New York senator, 2008 presidential candidate, and secretary of state, no doubt poses a formidable obstacle. But Barack Obama overcame Clinton’s advantages in 2008, and Warren or another candidate still could in 2016. Even if they don’t, Clinton herself would benefit from a challenger. As former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick put it recently, “My view of the electorate is, we react badly to inevitability, because we experience it as entitlement, and that is risky, it seems to me, here in America.” Fairly or not, many Americans already view Clinton skeptically, and waltzing to the nomination may actually hurt her in the November election against the Republican nominee.

More important, though, the Democratic Party finds itself with some serious divides that ought to be settled by the electorate. Some are clear-cut policy differences, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an enormous free-trade agreement with Pacific Rim nations that Warren opposes and Clinton backs. Even in areas where the candidates agree, there are bound to be different priorities: It’s hard to imagine a President Clinton defending and enforcing the Dodd-Frank legislation with as much vigor as a President Warren, for instance.

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Indeed, the big-picture debate on financial regulation and income inequality is what’s most at peril if the Democratic primaries come and go without top-notch opponents for Clinton. While she has a great many strengths, Clinton seems far more likely to hew to a cautious approach on economics. Her financial backing from Wall Street, her vote in the Senate to reduce bankruptcy protections, and her past reluctance to raise capital-gains taxes are no secret. Nothing about her record suggests much gumption for financial reform or tackling the deeply entrenched economic problems that increasingly threaten the American dream.

Seven years after the financial collapse, those challenges remain serious. To name just a few of the financial problems facing Americans: stagnant wages; ballooning student loan debt; exploitative payday lenders; shady subprime car loans; the proliferation of dubious for-profit colleges; inadequate retirement savings.

Unlike Clinton, or any of the prospective Republican candidates, Warren has made closing the economic gaps in America her main political priority, in a career that has included standing up for homeowners facing illegal foreclosures and calling for more bankruptcy protections. If she runs, it’ll ensure that those issues take their rightful place at the center of the national political debate.

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Some of Warren’s admirers feel she’d be better off fighting for those causes in the Senate — but her opportunities to enact reforms there are shrinking, which should make a presidential run more attractive. As a member of the minority party in the Senate, her effectiveness is now much more limited than when she first won election, since Republicans control the legislative agenda. Democrats face an uphill challenge to reclaim the Senate in 2016 and face even slimmer prospects in the House. For the foreseeable future, the best pathway Warren and other Democrats have for implementing their agenda runs through the White House.

A presidential campaign would test Warren as never before. Her views on foreign policy are not fully formed. And on many other important issues — climate change, gun control, civil rights — Warren could struggle to articulate clear differences between herself and Clinton. That’s a risk she should be willing to take.

If Warren runs, some Massachusetts voters are bound to see it as abandoning the state that sent her to the Senate — but that shouldn’t discourage her either. Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry pursued their presidential ambitions without suffering much of a backlash at home. If Warren runs with conviction, and can clearly articulate voter unease with the widening divide between the 1 percent and the struggles of middle-class Americans, her candidacy will be welcomed.

Warren’s dedication is obvious to anyone who watched her raise funds by rallying thousands of grass-roots supporters in her 2012 Senate campaign. She should not shrink from the chance to set the course for the Democratic Party or cede that task to Hillary Clinton without a fight. The gap between the Facebooks and Googles of America and the rest of the economy has grown too large, and it deserves the kind of public debate and scrutiny that a national political campaign can spark. If she puts her causes and goals front and center, as Democrats gather their forces for the crucial 2016 campaign, Warren could enrich the political process for years to come.

This reflects the opinion of the Boston Globe editorial board.

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