Imagine there were a political movement that was against pablum in the public square, that promoted tough debates on pressing issues, that was suspicious of coronations, and cared about a presidential candidate’s qualities as much as the ideas she would bring to office? This proud movement would engage all the right-thinking members of the citizenry, liberal and conservative. It would enliven the daily discourse and it would push Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for president.
At the moment, the Democratic contest looks like it will be a foggy, repetitive march toward Hillary Clinton. It will have all the safety, risk aversion, and lack of impact of Clinton’s recent book, Hard Choices.
The latest polling from NBC and Marist shows just how dominant Clinton appears. She beats Vice President Biden among Democratic voters in Iowa 70 percent to 20 percent and in New Hampshire 74 percent to 18 percent. Eighty-nine percent of Iowa Democrats view Clinton positively. In New Hampshire, she is more popular than flannel: Ninety-four percent view her warmly, which may set some kind of record for humankind.
If Warren joined the race, she would not win, but she would till the ground, putting grit and the smell of earth in the contest. She would energize the Democratic Party’s liberal base, which would then stir up other Democrats who seek to moderate or contain that group. Warren would challenge the Democratic Party on issues like corporate power, income inequality, and entitlements. She would be a long shot and she would have nothing to lose—which means she could keep talking about those ideas out loud. Because Clinton is close to Wall Street and finance executives and Warren is gunning for them, she has the potential to put campaign pressure on Clinton that other candidates can’t. Clinton and other candidates would be forced to explain where they stood more than if Warren weren’t in the race.
Whether you agree with Warren’s ideas or whether she would even make a good president is immaterial to the benefits of her candidacy. She would keep the campaign lively and focused on ideas. That is the role Newt Gingrich occasionally played in 2012. It’s the role that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would play in 2016 on issues like Common Core education standards and immigration.
If you are a liberal, you’d hope Warren would win, of course, but since she almost certainly wouldn't, you’d hope that she would pull Clinton to the left or at least push her to make some left-leaning commitments.
If you are a Clinton Democrat—which based on that polling is a redundancy—it’s hard to see how a tough competitor who might weaken your candidate would be a welcome thing. But without a get-in-shape primary, would Clinton be ready for the close punches of the general election? Her book tour suggests she’s rusty. A Democratic coronation would start the general election attacks early, without the benefit of a clear GOP opponent she could counterattack.
A primary fight would force Clinton to draw clear lines about what she believes, why she’s running, and why her message is something more than “It’s my turn.” These are all things smart Democratic strategists say she needs to do. The Democratic primary race would be covered by a fevered media obsessing over a battle between two female candidates, which would mean Clinton’s sharpened message would be broadcast to the general election audience, helping her in the fall.
Warren would help Clinton put her best foot forward in another way. Warren has never run anything. Clinton would exploit her opponent’s lack of experience by discussing her relatively vast résumé. That would lead to a conversation about presidential qualities, a worthy conversation some of our best Americans have been trying to promote for years. How important is it to have the temperament, experience, and toughness that come from being in the Washington battle for so many years? What are the downsides of Hillary Clinton’s veteran status?
The reason a Warren candidacy should have broad ideological appeal is that if you’re a conservative there’s something in her campaign for you, too. It will either expose Democrats for the socialist one-worlders that they are or bruise Clinton for the coming general election fight. But there’s also a more high-minded reason. If Rick Santorum is right and the Republican Party will only flourish at the presidential level if it promotes conservative solutions for middle-class voters, then this cause will be helped along by a Democratic contest that keeps the battle of ideas for the middle class at the center of the debate. While Democrats are debating their offerings to that constituency, it will give conservatives a chance to offer their alternatives.
Presidential campaigns are not a trifle. They grind people up. That is why Warren is probably wise to continue saying that she won’t run. But if she believes in the ideas she says she does, one of which is that the system is rigged in favor of those with money and power, a place to demonstrate her commitment to changing such arrangements would be to announce her candidacy for the highest office in the land.