NOVEMBER 10, 2013
Hillary’s Nightmare? A Democratic Party That Realizes Its Soul Lies With Elizabeth Warren
Yet for all the astrophysical force of these developments, anyone who lived through 2008 knows that inevitable candidates have a way of becoming distinctly evitable. With the Clintons’ penchant for melodrama and their checkered cast of hangers-on—one shudders to consider the embarrassments that will attend the Terry McAuliffe administration in Virginia—Clinton-era nostalgia is always a news cycle away from curdling into Clinton fatigue. Sometimes, all it takes is a single issue and a fresh face to bring the bad memories flooding back.
Christopher Gregory/The New York Times/Redux
On one side is a majority of Democratic voters, who are angrier, more disaffected, and altogether more populist than they’ve been in years. They are more attuned to income inequality than before the Obama presidency and more supportive of Social Security and Medicare.1 They’ve grown fonder of regulation and more skeptical of big business.2 A recent Pew poll showed that voters under 30—who skew overwhelmingly Democratic—view socialism more favorably than capitalism. Above all, Democrats areincreasingly hostile to Wall Street and believe the government should rein it in.
But as central as this debate is to the identity of the party, Democrats won’t openly litigate it until they’re forced to ponder life after Obama. Partly out of deference to the president, partly out of a preoccupation with governing, and partly because there is no immediate political need, parties rarely conduct their internal soul-searching when they control the White House. It’s only when the president finally contemplates retirement that the feuding breaks out with real violence. Think of the Republican Party after George W. Bush. Or, you know, Yugoslavia.
All of this is deeply problematic for Hillary Clinton. As a student of public opinion, she clearly understands the direction her party is headed. As the head of an enterprise known as Clinton Inc. that requires vast sums of capital to function, she also realizes there are limits to how much she can alienate the lords of finance. For that matter, it’s not even clear Clinton would want to. “Many of her best friends, her intellectual brain trust [on economics], all come out of that world,” says a longtime Democratic operative who worked on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and then for Hillary in the White House. “She doesn’t have a problem on the fighting-for-working-class-folks side”—protecting Medicare and Social Security—“but it will be hard, really wrenching for her to be that populist on [finance] issues.”
Which brings us to the probable face of the insurgency. In addition to being strongly identified with the party’s populist wing, any candidate who challenged Clinton would need several key assets. The candidate would almost certainly have to be a woman, given Democrats’ desire to make history again. She would have to amass huge piles of money with relatively little effort. Above all, she would have to awaken in Democratic voters an almost evangelical passion. As it happens, there is precisely such a person. Her name is Elizabeth Warren.
A Harvard law professor and best-selling author who led the congressional task force overseeing the bank bailout, Warren was already a liberal icon before she set foot in the Senate last January. Her public floggings of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner helped make her a fixture on MSNBC, “The Daily Show,” and The Huffington Post.
As a result, Warren’s 2012 victory in Massachusetts set off a minor cottage industry of speculation about whether she would be a senator in the mold of other celebrities, like Hillary Clinton and Al Franken, who made collegiality and discretion the hallmarks of their early years in office—or whether she would follow the model of the body’s noisier gadflies, like former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint and his spiritual successor, Ted Cruz of Texas.
The short answer is: None of the above. Warren has always said she had no interest in holding her tongue and blending into the senatorial wallpaper. But neither has she been a Cruz-like self-promoter, horning in on issues that hold out the greatest chance at media glory. (It’s one reason she’s well liked, which isn’t the case with Cruz.) Warren was understated during the Syria debate. She loyally supported Majority Leader Harry Reid during the recent government shutdown.
Curiously, this posture has had the effect of putting other Democrats in a chronic state of mild unease. From the perspective of a fellow senator, both the Clinton approach and the Cruz approach offer the advantage of predictability. Practitioners of the first will always sublimate their ambitions to the greater good of the caucus. Adherents of the second can be relied on to seize every last target of opportunity. In both cases, the senator’s colleagues can adjust accordingly. With Warren, on the other hand, they never entirely know when she may unload.
During her Senate orientation in January, Warren, who serves on the banking committee, paid a courtesy call to the committee’s moderate chairman, Tim Johnson of South Dakota. “She was incredibly respectful, deferential,” says a committee aide who was in the room. “She really demonstrated to a lot of us that she would follow the model of . . . people like Franken, Barack Obama, Hillary.”
The following month, during her very first banking committee hearing, Warren again waited patiently for her turn to speak—then promptly set off a national furor. “Tell me a little bit about the last few times you’ve taken the biggest financial institutions on Wall Street all the way to a trial,” she asked a table full of bank regulators. The question, though eminently reasonable, violated an unstated rule of committee protocol, in which members of Congress are allowed to rant and rave at length but generally abstain from humiliating appointees, especially from their own party.
Alas, Warren’s colleagues have not always welcomed these clarifying moments. “The chairman is more of an introspective kind of guy, it’s not his style personally,” says the banking committee staffer, who stresses that he didn’t discuss it with Johnson. “It felt more like a Chuck Schumer move,” he continued, referencing the voluble New York senator. Warren’s fellow liberals on the committee might be more philosophically inclined toward such tactics, but even they seem to find them irksome. A handful of aides to these senators were willing to comment on their own bosses’ work, but ducked my follow-ups about Warren. “To the degree that [Sherrod] Brown and [Jeff] Merkley had this space to themselves, she’s taken a chunk of that,” says a former banking committee staffer, who notes that Brown may well become chairman if Democrats retain their majority next year. “They’re in agreement on a lot of stuff,” adds the former staffer. “But if he does become chair . . . I’m not sure how that dynamic is going to work. Is she going to be looking like she’s upstaging him?”
For its part, the Obama administration appears to regard Warren with its own special wariness. Take the successful campaign to block the would-be nomination of Larry Summers to be Federal Reserve chairman. Brown and Merkley played critical roles in halting Summers’s momentum and rounding up “no” votes among fellow Democrats. But Warren’s contribution is hard to overstate. “Elizabeth did something only she could do,” says a source close to the Fed chairman selection process, “which was engage with the administration on the subject and make clear that, if they insisted on moving ahead, the whole weight of her capacity could be brought to bear.” This “was a different order of magnitude,” says the source, alluding to Warren’s outsized fund-raising heft— $42 million raised for her Senate race, half of it online—and her media magnetism. A Warren aide doesn’t dispute this, saying only that “she passed along her concerns to the White House.”
Warren isn’t just better at picking her spots than Cruz, she is disciplined about following through. After the February hearing, Warren asked the OCC in writing whether it had analyzed the cost of settling complaints against banks without ever requiring admissions of guilt (which would expose banks to investor lawsuits). When the OCC said it had not, she wrote the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Department of Justice, and the Federal Reserve asking the same question. A few weeks later, Mary Jo White, the newly installed SEC chairwoman, sent Warren a letter saying she was “actively reviewing” the issue. A week after that, White announced that she was making a change: Some companies would now have to fess up as a condition for settling. In September, the SEC forced JP Morgan to admit that it violated securities laws as a condition for a $200 million settlement. Though Warren is far from the only Wall Street critic to have highlighted this issue, the line from her questioning to the change is exceedingly direct.
Even at her most Cruz-like, it’s almost always possible to discern Warren’s goals. This summer, Senate Democrats negotiated a compromise with their Republican counterparts to lower student interest rates, which had recently doubled. Warren thought the deal was shameful: She objects in principle to making money from student loans, and in any case the bill holds down rates for only a few years. She denounced the “so-called ‘compromise’ ” in e-mails to her extensive list of supporters and channeled her outrage during closed-door Senate meetings—“more loudly than anyone else,” recalls Chris Murphy, her colleague from Connecticut. “We can’t go out and tell ourselves we’ve done good if we haven’t,” Warren told me later, during a brief interview in her office.
The cause was always a bit hopeless, and the bill passed overwhelmingly. But a Warren staffer says the aim was to draw attention to the outrage of profiting from students and to impose a political cost on those who went along with this practice so as to tilt future debates. When the Senate revisits the issue in a few years, as is likely, it’s hard to believe the calculus will not have changed. A Democratic aide whose boss supported the compromise told me the Warren team’s logic was “one hundred percent” right.
The gripe that Warren is maniacally image-obsessed has dogged her for almost as long as she’s been in Washington. During her days running oversight on the bank bailout, Treasury aides became convinced that Warren’s questions served little purpose other than to raise her profile, and that they had the effect of inciting a populist mob against policies that were unavoidable. They observed that a voice mail message for Warren instructed callers to press one if they were calling about a media appearance and press 2 for other messages. In 2010, Obama appointed Warren to be a special Treasury adviser in charge of setting up the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Warren was particular about the title she received, wanting it to reflect her work on behalf of the middle class. Treasury officials joked that if she were “Ambassador to the Middle Class,” it would make them “Ambassadors to the Plutocrats.”
There is no doubt that Warren takes a special interest in her public profile. According to a former aide, one of Warren’s greatest frustrations after arriving at the consumer agency was that the White House insisted on vetting all her media appearances. During her Senate campaign, Warren traveled with at least three staffers: Her body man and press secretary, as is the case for most candidates, but also a digital director, whose job it was to capture Warren’s choicest words on video, then upload the clips to YouTube and circulate them via social media. “She’s engaged in videos, e-mails, everything,” says an aide. “She plays an integral role in the content we send out.”
Still, the story of Warren’s rise to prominence is much more complicated than one of unbridled narcissism. Warren has been preoccupied with the plight of the middle class since her childhood, when her father suffered a heart attack and her mother took a job in the catalog department of Sears to keep four kids clothed and fed. “I watched Obama get completely obsessed by health care reform . . . and realized it was all about his mother on her death bed,” says a longtime Warren friend. “For her, it was her father.” As a law professor in the 1980s, Warren conducted research demonstrating that most of the people who filed for bankruptcy weren’t deadbeats, contrary to the popular perception, but hardworking, often middle-class households who’d endured staggering economic hardship.
Ever since, Warren’s mindset has been utterly brass tacks. When I asked about her views toward Geithner, one progressive activist who has worked closely with Warren told me it can be tempting to try to understand how people in power might be acting in good faith, even if they’re wrong. “Elizabeth is neither sentimental nor vindictive,” the activist said. “She’s not that interested in why people carry water for Wall Street or what they think of her.” She spends her time trying to beat her adversaries, the activist explained, or at least hold them accountable. As Warren told The Huffington Postduring the fight over financial reform: “My first choice is a strong consumer agency. My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.”
The proper interpretation of Warren’s prodigious p.r. efforts, then, isn’t that she’s especially taken with the idea of media stardom. It’s that she is relentlessly, perhaps ruthlessly, maybe even a bit messianically, focused on advancing her policy agenda. Everything else is merely instrumental.
This is what the banking industry and its Republican allies (as well as internal opponents like Geithner) didn’t fully appreciate when they effectively killed Warren’s hopes of permanently heading the consumer agency in 2011. Anyone who knows Warren will tell you she had no particular ambition to be a senator. She decided that the Senate would suffice as a way to agitate for her issues only when Obama stiffed her for the CFPB job—an enormous disappointment after she spent months lining up support among banks. “It’s poetic justice. At end of the day, if the banking community hadn’t been so apoplectic, everyone could have decided it’s this little tiny agency, who really cares?” says Anita Dunn, Obama’s White House communications director in 2009. “Instead, she ends up as a senior senator from Massachusetts on the banking committee, blocking Larry at the Fed.”
It’s hard to look at the Democratic Party these days and not feel as if all the energy is behind Warren. Before she was even elected, her fund-raising e-mails would net the party more cash than any Democrat’s besides Obama or Hillary Clinton. According to the Times, Warren’s recent speech at the annual League of Conservation Voters banquet drew the largest crowd in 15 years. Or consider a website called Upworthy, which packages online videos with clever headlines and encourages users to share them. Obama barely registers on the site; Warren’s videos go viral. An appearance on cable this summer—“CNBC HOST DECIDES TO TEACH SENATOR WARREN HOW REGULATION WORKS. PROBABLY SHOULDN’T HAVE DONE THAT”—was viewed more than a million times. A Warren floor speech during the recent stalemate in Congress—“A SENATOR BLUNTLY SAYS WHAT WE’RE ALL THINKING ABOUT THE OBNOXIOUS GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN”—tallied more than two million views.
The poll numbers also suggest the Democratic Party is becoming Elizabeth Warren’s party. Gallup finds that the percentage of Democrats with “very negative” views of the banking industry increased more than fivefold since 2007, while the percentage who have positive views fell from 51 to 31. Between 2001 and 2011, the percentage of Democrats who were dissatisfied with the “size and influence of major corporations” rose from 51 to a remarkable 79.3
Of course, any prediction of a populist revolt against the party’s top brass must grapple with the tendency of such predictions to be wrong. From the Howard Dean campaign in 2004 to the Occupy Movement in 2011, the last decade in Democratic politics has been rife with heady declarations of grassroots rebellion, only to see the insiders assert control each time. Even the one insurgency that did succeed, the Obama campaign, was quickly absorbed into the party establishment, from which Obama was never so far removed in the first place.
But three developments suggest this time really could be different. The first is that, even at the elite level, the party has changed far more over the last few years than is widely understood. Chris Murphy, the Connecticut senator, estimates that not too long ago, congressional Democrats were split roughly evenly between Wall Street supporters and Wall Street skeptics. Today, he puts the skeptics’ strength at more like two-thirds. Warren told me she attributes this to the disillusionment surrounding Dodd-Frank, which ushered in a range of new regulations but left the details to regulators, who promptly caved.
There is also the fact that, unlike other liberal challenges, this one has broad national reach. The pollster Celinda Lake has found that support for “tougher rules” for Wall Street obliterates party lines, increasing in the last two years from more than 70 percent to more than 80. In South Dakota, a state Mitt Romney carried by 18 points, arecent poll showed Democrat Rick Weiland, an obscure ex-aide to Tom Daschle, a mere six points behind the state’s former Republican governor for a soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat. The animating principle of Weiland’s campaign is that government per se isn’t the problem; the problem is a government taken over by “big-money interests.” The same poll showed voters agreeing with this statement by a 68-to-26 margin.
And then there’s the way Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses so perfectly align with the passions of the moment. “There’s very much a wait-and-see approach to Hillary among progressives,” says Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “I think it’s mutually exclusive to be a real hero for reform and accountability and to have a [fund-raising] strategy that relies on Wall Street.” A financial reform activist is more blunt: “Unless there is some major public break by Hillary Clinton with this disreputable crowd, then everybody will have to think long and hard before they support her as president. We do not need yet another administration packed full of Wall Street–friendly politicians.”
When I recently asked a top Clinton campaign operative from 2008 if there’s any Democrat who Hillary should fear in 2016, he immediately named the Massachusetts senator. The typical Democratic insurgent, he explained, captivates the latte-liberal demographic but has trouble making additional gains. This is where Howard Dean ran aground in 2004 and where Bill Bradley stumbled in 2000. “I don’t think there’s anyone out there who can break out of just that left coalition like Warren could,” says the operative, who hopes to work for Hillary again. “She’s got a real message tailored to the middle-class and working-class people.”
Warren would also benefit from the resentments of party elders. Because the Clintons have always placed a premium on loyalty, there is a generation of donors, fund-raisers, and activists who supported other candidates in 1992, or who were simply late to support the Clintons, and were largely frozen out as a result. “If you weren’t on the Clinton train after ’92, then from ’92 almost to 2004, you weren’t on the team,” recalls one prominent Democratic donor. “You never quite made it to the major leagues.” Many of these exiles banded together to support John Kerry in 2004. And the Kerry fund-raising team, in turn, formed the nucleus of Obama’s operation four years later. “People have enormous admiration for what Hillary did as secretary of state, enormous gratitude for the important role she played,” says the donor, who was a major Obama backer. “But in Obamaworld, there is not deep loyalty to Hillary Clinton.”
Increasingly, Democratic donors are looking for more than just a person to support; they’re looking for a candidate who represents something larger than their own ambition. With Obama, it was all about hope and change. With Warren, it would be about a distinct worldview. But as different as their sources of appeal are, both allow donors to feel as if they’re part of a larger crusade. By contrast, the long-standing knock on the Clintons in these circles (unfair in many ways) is that they primarily represent the cause of themselves. “Warren has core convictions that would allow her to answer the question, ‘Why are you running?’ and not spend a lot of money on focus groups,” says Dunn.
On top of everything else, Warren would have some real mechanical advantages. New Hampshire, the first primary state, is fertile ground for a Warren-esque message—not many rich people, not many poor—and 80 percent of its residents live in the Boston media market. As much as any Massachusetts voter, they have watched her ads and heard her sound bites. And it’s hardly their only connection to Massachusetts politics. One traditional way Democrats have organized New Hampshire is to send in party hands from its southern neighbor. Officials from the North Shore of Massachusetts focus on the seacoast of New Hampshire; Worcester goes to Concord; greater Boston goes to Manchester. In 2004, this is how Kerry cased out New Hampshire en route to his primary victory there. In 2008, Hillary hired his deputy state director from Massachusetts, Roger Lau, to execute the same winning strategy. Lau, as it happens, is currently Warren’s state director.
Phase two would be to attack ruthlessly, casting Warren as an untested novice with little expertise outside financial issues. Unlike Obama, who at least had Iraq and a tour on the Foreign Relations Committee to neutralize charges of naïveté, Warren would be exceedingly vulnerable. One Democratic donor who is active on Israel policy and considers himself a liberal Zionist had long admired Warren when he finally spoke with her in 2011. He came away from the conversation thinking “she would have to be careful on her Middle East politics.” The donor doesn’t recall Warren saying anything he would disagree with substantively, but the phrasing seemed inartful. “You don’t want people to have an excuse to go after you,” says the donor. Clinton’s infamous “3 a.m.” ads would write themselves.
And those are only the aboveground assaults. As in 2008, Greater Hillaryland, if not the Clinton campaign itself, would quietly work to disqualify Warren as a crazed, countercultural liberal. A former Obama campaign aide recalls Clintonites planting stories in foreign newspapers, then watching them enter the domestic bloodstream through outlets like The Drudge Report. This appears to be how Obama’s dubious connection to former Weatherman terrorist Bill Ayers first gained widespread attention. “They were the kings of bank-shot press attention,” says the aide. “They were pitching stories domestic outlets would not cover . . . because the information they were peddling was so toxic.”
A Clinton-Warren matchup would have all sorts of consequences, none of them especially heartwarming. The most immediate is that Warren would probably lose. Though Warren has been boning up on a variety of policy areas in periodic dinners with experts—she told me there are several issues beyond Wall Street “we need to have frank conversations” about without naming specifics—she remains a work in progress as a politician. She is still pedestrian in front of a crowd despite her strengths as a questioner and debater, and her Senate campaign last year was bumpier than it should have been. At this stage in their careers, Clinton is simply easier to visualize as president. “Does Elizabeth Warren . . . cross some kind of experience threshold, a presidential threshold? I don’t think she crosses it yet,” says Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign manager. Then again, Trippi adds, “Neither did Obama till the campaign.” Sometimes you can’t overthink it.
The first time Elizabeth Warren met Hillary Clinton was in 1998, when the then–first lady requested a briefing on an industry-backed bankruptcy bill. Warren was impressed by Clinton’s smarts and steel, and credited her when Bill Clinton vetoed the bill in 2000. But the following year Hillary Clinton was a senator and she reversed her position. Warren’s reaction was scathing. “Her husband was a lame duck at the time he vetoed the bill; he could afford to forgo future campaign contributions,” Warren wrote in The Two-Income Trap. “As New York’s newest senator, however, it seems that Hillary Clinton could not afford such a principled position.” Warren never forgot the betrayal, invoking it as recently as her 2012 campaign.
Most of the pundits, operatives, and donors who populate the presidential-campaign industry assume Warren will not run for president in 2016 if Clinton does. They believe taking her on would be a suicide mission at best—harmless to Clinton but career-ending for the challenger. When I asked Swanee Hunt, an influential donor to both Warren and Clinton, about the possibility of Warren running, she told me: “I know three other women [besides Hillary] who would be very credible primary candidates. But none of them is going to challenge Hillary. . . . These women are not stupid.” If Clinton took a pass, on the other hand, many believe Warren would be difficult to beat, and the pressure to run could be irresistible.
This type of analysis is almost always correct: It assumes that a politician will maximize her chances of getting elected president. But it fundamentally misunderstands Warren. While her ambitions are considerable, they have always been focused on advancing her economic agenda. Everything from her public denunciations of Clinton to her lobbying to lead the CFBP to her eventual Senate run was motivated by a zealous attachment to the cause that has preoccupied her since childhood, not necessarily an interest in holding office. In October of 2010, Eliot Spitzer, the former New York governor, was launching a show on CNN and was thrilled to land Warren as his inaugural guest. But Spitzer planned to open the broadcast calling for Geithner’s head and worried that his monologue might violate some delicate protocol. Geithner was officially Warren’s boss at Treasury, after all. He held a key vote over whether she would run the consumer agency. But when Spitzer offered to skip the diatribe, Warren didn’t even pause to mull it over. “No, it’s fine with me,” she told him flatly.
All of which is to say, if Hillary Clinton runs and retains her ties to Wall Street, Warren will be more likely to join the race, not less. Warren is shrewd enough to understand that the future of the Democratic Party is at stake in 2016. At 64, she knows that if Hillary wins and populates yet another administration with heirs to Robert Rubin, it will be at least eight years before there’s another chance to reclaim the party. “She has an immense—I can’t put it in words—a sense of destiny,” says a former aide. “If Hillary or the man on the moon is not representing her stuff, and her people don’t have a seat at table, she’ll do what she can to make sure it’s represented.”
Warren refused to tell me what would happen if the likely 2016 nominee is wrong on her issues. “You’ve asked me about the politics. All I can do is take you back to the principle part of this,” she said. “I know what I am in Washington to do: I’m here to fight for hardworking families.”4
These words may be soothingly diplomatic, but her methods usually are not—and that should be terrifying for Hillary. An opponent who doesn’t heed political incentives is like a militant who doesn’t fear death. “Yeah, Hillary is running. And she’ll probably win,” says the former aide. “But Elizabeth doesn’t care about winning. She doesn’t care whose turn it is.”
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.