I take Elizabeth Warren at her word that she doesn’t want to run for president in 2016 and is unlikely to become a candidate any time soon. But circumstances could propel her into the race. Hillary Clinton’s commanding lead in the polls conceals multiple vulnerabilities. If Clinton seriously stumbles, the pressure on Warren to run will grow intense.
Rather than generating the excitement of an epic breakthrough — the first woman president! — Clinton frequently comes across as yesterday’s news rather than tomorrow’s. She was off her game in her defense of a somewhat overblown scandal involving her e-mail accounts, and there will be more such slings and arrows.
Then there are the cross-promotions of the Clinton Foundation — which embody what novelist Tom Wolfe termed The Great Favor Bank — connect good works to the self-interest of sponsors to eventual campaign contributions. Even if no laws are broken, the contraption signals conflict-of-interest and will cause trouble. Not to mention the minefield that is Bill.
Also, Hillary Clinton is to the right of the Democratic Party base. Perhaps her hawkish stance on national security makes sense in this parlous era; but on pocketbook issues, the Clintons’ longstanding Wall Street connection alienates Democratic primary voters and denies her the populist role the times demand.
Even without such unique vulnerabilities, early front-runners generally tend to get pummeled. Since 1968, every early front-runner — save Al Gore in 2000 — was either denied the nomination or badly bruised.
Walter Mondale in 1984 was nearly taken out by Gary Hart. Jimmy Carter was a complete unknown before 1976. Bill Clinton was not the front-runner in 1992, nor was Michael Dukakis in 1988. Though the Democratic bench often seems bare, some improbable novelty such as Howard Dean often captures the hearts of the Democratic base and either wins nomination or gives better known candidates heartburn.
A more youthful and energetic Hillary Clinton was denied nomination as front-runner in 2008.
So far, two likely competitors are former Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, running as a cultural moderate and economic populist, and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, known for a steady hand and a progressive brand of economics.
Neither is well-known nationally. Then again, you could have said the same of Howard Dean and Jimmy Carter.
I’d be surprised if either Webb or O’Malley wins the nomination. But one or the other, or someone else, will likely cause Clinton to under-perform expectations. She could end up losing the Iowa precinct caucuses or the New Hampshire primary, or both.
With a battered Clinton as nominee, 2016 could be a low-turnout election. Voters will be turned off by the sea of billionaire money on both sides. A rerun of a Clinton-Bush Nineties Show would lead to an even lower turnout. Republicans typically win such elections because their base is galvanized, while the Democrats’ base is discouraged.
If Clinton looks increasingly damaged, the analogy is to 1968, when Gene McCarthy demonstrated how vulnerable Lyndon Johnson was, prompting Bobby Kennedy to make a late entry.
If Warren did join the race, she would take the party rank-and-file by storm. There is a hunger for a candidate who can articulate all the frustrations felt by middle- and working-class people, and especially by the young. The Republican Tea Party types get to play that role only because of the vacuum on the Democratic side.
Warren eloquently puts into words what regular people feel — that the rules are rigged. And a lot of the rule-riggers, unfortunately, are the people who finance both the Republicans and the Clintons.
Forget the Harvard professor story. Warren is a lower middle-class kid from Oklahoma who lived the dream the hard way. She plays better than you would think in the heartland. And the fact that she did it on her own, not as a former First Spouse, adds to her credibility as a potential first woman president.
Warren is a rookie senator, but far from a political novice. As chair of the Congressional Oversight panel for the bank bailouts from 2008 to 2012, she bootstrapped an obscure agency into a first-rank player, and managed to lacerate Obama officials Larry Summers and Tim Geithner while staying on cordial terms with the President.
Yes, there is the challenge of foreign policy, but not one of the Republicans has any foreign policy experience either. (Jeb Bush’s family connections don’t count.)
Warren may not run. But if she does, she will do a lot better than the skeptics imagine.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor of social policy at Brandeis University’s Heller School.