Progressives Want to Draft Liz Warren for 2016, But Does She Have a Chance at the Nomination?

In recent weeks, two influential progressive groups, MoveOn.org and Democracy for America, have launched major campaigns to urge Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, to run for president in 2016, committing $1.25 million to the cause.


“We're already laying the groundwork to fundamentally change the debate within the Democratic Party with our campaign to draft Elizabeth Warren," DFA's e-mail blast said Monday. "Together, we're proving to the nation that there is a real constituency for leaders who take income inequality seriously."

“In recent days, we’ve released a video from our energizing grassroots kick-off in Iowa, saw continued strong national coverage, and opened job postings for key roles on the campaign,” reported MoveOn’s “Run Warren Run News” webpage.

As hoped, these efforts are generating a buzz inside and outside of progressive circles.

“I don’t think it would be helpful or healthy for our Democratic candidate to not have to go through the sharpening process of a primary, where she [Hillary Clinton] could just sort of walk into the general election without having committed to some important, real, real economic populism,” Rep. Keith Ellison, D-MN and House Progressive Caucus chair, said in a teleconference touting the effort.

A possible Warren candidacy is an unknown variable in what’s shaping up to be a very unusual presidential landscape for Democrats. A non-incumbent, Hillary R. Clinton, has unrivaled support among elected Democrats, major donors and party insiders. Yet Warren’s economic populism triggers progressive’s heartstrings and rallies people in ways not recently seen by most other Democrats.

“What we’ve heard loud and clear is that Iowans want a contested caucus, Iowans want candidates and issues to be debated and tested and discussed and Iowans want the strongest possible candidate,” Ilya Sheyman, MoveOn.org Political Action executive director, told like-minded Warren supporters in Iowa.

There’s no doubt that Warren is a different kind of politician with a clear moral compass. However, when it comes to presidential year politics, the question is how different can a Warren campaign be from an handful of similarly inspired grassroots efforts that stirred progressives into action in recent decades—Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown, Howard Dean—but did not become the party’s nominee. 

Right now, political junkie columnists are salivating over the notion that Hillary Clinton might face a fight from the left as she seeks the nomination. Whether a Warren run might be the latest incarnation of this longstanding pattern of ultimately symbolic campaigns by progressives has not been raised. Here’s a take from the Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza:

“At the moment, there is no story bigger in politics what what Warren will do. She can use that attention to push her pet issues – restricting corporate America and addressing income inequality,” he wrote, saying her allure will grow if she plays coy. “Warren’s power is at its height nationally at the moment. It makes zero sense for her to pop that balloon herself.” 

Warren, for the record, has been typically forthright. She said that she is not running—for example repeatedly telling National Public Radio when a host persistently asked, “I am not running for president. You want me to put an exclamation point at the end?”

Suppose Circumstances Change?  

As anyone who has watched presidential campaigns knows, lines in the political sand can change. Suppose there is an unlikely exit by Hillary Clinton, perhaps for an undisclosed personal reason. But before progressives get all worked up and enthused for a draft-Liz campaign, it’s worth taking a hard look at what decades of progressive presidential candidacies have yielded—and ask, “What does it take to win?”

Some analysts have said that candidacies that don’t emerge with the nomination still can influence the party’s agenda and nominee. FiveThirtyEight.com argued that in 2008, Sen. John Edwards, D-NC, helped make the party more pro-labor and anti-corporate.

As a reporter who covered Edwards in 2008 (until his campaign ended in a sex scandal), I didn't see Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama follow Edwards' lead on those issues. Edwards talked about “two Americas,” called for economic stimulus, higher minimum wages and blasted trade deals. Before the sex scandal, attendance at his rallies was thinning. The most prescient thing that Edwards said was you cannot negotiate with the thugs running the Republican Party, a lesson Obama only recently seems to be learning.

Did Jerry Brown’s 1992 campaign—which brought 600 rambunctious delegates to the New York City convention that nominated Bill Clinton—have a lasting impact, or even influence that year’s Democratic Party platform?

I can tell you as a Brown campaign staffer who stuck it out through the convention—that his delegation was barely tolerated before New York and were quickly forgotten the moment Clinton was nominated. There wasn't even a symbolic victory to be had. Unlike GOP right-wingers who altered their party platform that year, the only amendment that Brown secured was one that Clinton loyalists mistakenly voted for. They thought it was proposed by another Democratic candidate, Paul Tsongas.

There are similar lessons to be taken from the 1986 Rainbow Coalition effort led by Rev. Jesse Jackson, and even Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 candidacy. Both had moral compasses, prescient messages, high hopes and great grassroots energy—and ran into resistance from the institutional powers inside the Democratic Party and in mainstream media dismissing their substance.

There is nothing like a presidential race to get a political junkie’s heart racing. There also is nothing as deflating in campaigns as seeing good candidates sidelined and high hopes and hard work dashed. Perhaps Warren is shrewdly biding her time to see what happens with Hillary. But before progressives get too excited, it would be wise to see if her champions can lay out a path to the presidency that doesn’t follow this historic pattern.

What’s unfolding now doesn’t quite look like that path. It's fairly conventional—travel to early caucus and primary states; generate a media buzz. It certainly is possible that an unforeseen exit by Clinton would create a Democratic Party free-for-all, where Warren could be a leading contender in a field that would quickly fill with rivals. However, the 2016 race would be the fourth presidential campaign by a Clinton since 1992. It’s clear that Hillary Clinton is very methodically preparing for her next campaign, including maintaining the media-affirmed illusion that she's not an official candidate as she lines up backers and donors.

For now, progressives who want to see Warren’s influence grow in national politics, or help pave a progressive path to the presidency, might was well join MoveOn and DFA’s bandwagon. But they should be clear-eyed about what it will take to mount a winning strategy, which is not just a petition drive 23 months ahead of the election—or a culminating rally inside a Des Moines coffee shop. 

Progressives should pay attention for telling signs that the public’s mood is changing and what that means for a national candidacy. For example, it is unclear how the most recent major victory by a progressive, the election of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, will play out as he grapples with the use of excessive force by New York City cops and a rebellion by NYPD union leaders.

Similarly, it’s unclear how Warren’s profile will fare as the GOP takes control of the Senate in 2015. This month, with the Senate still in Democratic hands, she could not convince the majority to amend the 2015 federal budget bill to delete a section that restored federal insurance—taxpayer backing—for some of riskiest Wall St. investments.

Symbolic campaigns are one thing but winning is another. Perhaps that is why Howard Dean—brother of DFA Chair Jim Dean—is supporting Hillary Clinton, as Jim Dean explained in an earlier draft-Warren e-mail sent in mid-December.

“Some of you support other candidates,” he wrote. “In fact, my brother Howard Dean is supporting Hillary Clinton, should she decide to run for president. And that’s okay, of course. Democrats and progressives are smart, passionate people who don’t have to agree on who should become the next president. But we do agree that we need a Democratic candidate who will focus on fighting income inequality.”

While the progressive hunger for a candidate like Warren is more than understandable, we should also ask what could be done differently so a progressive candidacy does not become latest version of a valiant and disappointing history repeating itself.

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