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Senator Elizabeth Warren, wearing a purple blazer, gestures with her hand to emphasize a point. Photo: Joshua Roberts
Image: Reuters

Warren against Clinton?

Conor Dillon
December 6, 2013

Gone is the presumption that Hillary Clinton would glide through a 2016 Democratic primary election. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is widely considered Hillary's greatest threat - if she decides to run.


She's opposed to large corporate donations in US politics. She supports the "Buffet Rule," which would make it illegal for high earners to pay income taxes of less than 30 percent. If it hadn't been for a threat by Republican senators to block her nomination in 2011, she likely would have become the director of a newly-created institution overseeing banks, credit unions, mortgage-servicing operations and just about every other type of financial transaction involving US consumers. Today, she sits on the Senate Banking and Finance Committee.

For financial institutions, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has been something of a regulatory nuisance over the last half-decade. Now, she could become a problem. A recent article in The New Republic magazine (TNR), an American political and cultural publication known for its Democratic political orientation, ignited a debate in the US about whether Warren can potentially upend Hillary Clinton in Democratic primary elections in 2016 - or whether she'll run at all.

Wearing a green shirt, Jonathan Chait smiles at the camera in a professional photograph.
Jonathan Chait spent more than a decade at TNRImage: NY Magazine

"She's issued noncommittal statements that are fairly common for politicians denying that they're running, while leaving open that they're going to run," says Jonathan Chait, who worked as a senior editor at TNR together with the article's author, Noam Scheiber, and is now a current US domestic policy and political writer at New York Magazine.

"She would certainly be a strong underdog. But I think it's realistic, certainly, that she could win," he told DW.

YouTube star

Warren is widely considered a Democrat's Democrat, one who falls further left in the political spectrum than her Democratic colleague, Hillary Clinton.

As a member of the Senate Banking and Finance Committee, her restrained yet palpable exasperation with US bureaucrats who in her view fail to effectively regulate banks and protect consumers has earned her legions of fans far beyond the borders of Massachusetts. On YouTube, those diatribes regularly garner upwards of one million views; Very public bank-bashing, however, comes with a real political cost for Warren, particularly under US campaign finance laws.

Dave Levinthal, wearing a business suit, smiles at the camera in a professional photograph.
Levinthal also worked at the Center for Responsive Politics and PoliticoImage: privat

"Wall Street is no friend of Elizabeth Warren," said David Levinthal at the Center for Public Integrity, a non-partisan investigative journalist organization in Washington, D.C.

In a theoretical Democratic primary involving Warren and Clinton, Levinthal says, Wall Street would likely hedge its bets with Clinton. That's especially true given that Clinton is a former US senator from New York State - "where, of course Wall Street is." Whether through direct donations to Clinton or contributions to independent political action committees known as super PACs, "we could be talking about millions of dollars that [Warren's] not getting," he said.

Grassroots funding

Both Levinthal and Chait agree, however, that Warren might be uniquely suited to overcome that gap in financing.

"She raised an astonishing total for her [2012] senate campaign based on her ability to inspire liberals," Chait said. "If she does run for president, she becomes the focus of a lot of liberal attention, and is able to raise a lot of money."

For Levinthal, whose work at the Center for Public Integrity often exposes links between private or corporate financing and public US policy, Warren's campaign finance record stands out. "This is money coming from individual people making donations out of their own personal funds and giving it to her," he said. Also unusual, he noted, was that, in her first-ever election, she defeated an incumbent senator. In the vast majority of elections involving an incumbent, the incumbent wins, he says. "As a challenger, you have to raise that much more money."

As the brutal 2012 Republican primary made clear, primaries are an expensive affair. And in spite of recent public calls by influential Democratic Senator Charles Schumer that Warren resist running - "primaries are really a killer," the senator argued - it should be emphasized that Schumer served with Clinton as a New York senator between 2001 and 2009 and continues to represent New York state.

There are also two schools of thought, Levinthal says, when it comes to primaries.

"One is that it's a destructive period, where the candidates within one party are fighting against each other, spending precious resources," he said. "But the other is that it actually girds the nominee for the battle ahead in the general election against another party."

A Clinton co-opt?

From Clinton's point of view, then, Warren is a current US senator with a populist message who has the grassroots potential to prove a difficult challenger in primary elections. For political observers, the constellation harkens back to 2007, when pundits first began to take seriously the thought of a successful Democratic primary run by then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

Hillary Clinton smiles off-camera while speaking into a small black microphone. Photo: Matt Rourke
Clinton has yet to confirm that she will actually runImage: picture alliance/AP

But even if the Massachusetts senator ultimately decides not to challenge Clinton, the threat of her candidacy might be effective in pushing Warren's two pet issues - consumer protection and campaign finance reform - further into the US mainstream, Chait says.

First, a Warren candidacy would force Clinton to come close to Warren's position, so that she wouldn't be viewed as the "candidate of Wall Street" during the Democratic primary. Second - and in spite of the fact that Warren's rhetoric might drive Wall Street's financiers further away from the Democratic Party - financial firms typically donate more to Democratic political candidates but didn't in 2012 - it could also "open the door for a Republican to commit himself to some form of populism on this issue," Chait said.

Until she denies a presidential run in a way that convinces both US and international media, Senator Warren can, at the very least, expect a far larger media platform for her issues.

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