Monday, November 18, 2013

Elizabeth Warren: Hillary Clinton’s nightmare, or not

WE’RE 1,086 DAYS — just under three years — until the next presidential election, and already the speculation machine is well stoked as to who’ll get into the race to come. For the most part, the guesswork has centered on which Republican will take a shot at the White House. Much of the early parlor-game debate is focused on the viability of what you could charitably call the usual suspects — Christie, Cruz, Rubio, yet another Bush.

There hasn’t been as much attention paid to possible Democratic hopefuls for the presidency, largely because it’s been generally assumed that Hillary Clinton, the walking résumé of achievement in high places, is thought to command the inside track for a derby that won’t start in earnest for another two years. So strong is her hypothetical position that, so says the conventional wisdom, any possible Democratic contender would be faced with monstrous blowback from Hillary loyalists who argue that it’s “her turn,” and would be guilty of rank apostasy, or maybe even outright party disloyalty.

Noam Scheiber’s having none of that. In an exhaustive and compelling Nov. 10 essay in The New Republic, Scheiber, a TNR senior editor, contends that Clinton’s most formidable nemesis could be Elizabeth Warren, the new senator from Massachusetts, someone whose bona fides dovetail with the rise of an angrier, more populist and more vocal American electorate, one whose demographics speak as powerfully of the national future as Clinton’s qualifications speak of the national past.

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Scheiber writes of the groundswell of support for Hillary Clinton in the context of a gathering inevitability, and the problems built into that: “There is a feature-length Hillary biopic in the works, and a well-funded super PAC—“Ready for Hillary”— bent on easing her way into the race. And then there is Clinton herself, who sounds increasingly candidential. Since leaving the State Department, Clinton has already delivered meaty, headline-grabbing orations on voting rights and Syria.

“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.”

A Clinton campaign (if there ever is one) is tasked with addressing nightmares that Warren has nothing to do with.

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ONE OF THE bigger problems for Clinton right outta the gate is countering the very sense of inevitability that appears to give her a singular advantage. It’s something that goes against the idea of fair play and a level playing field:

For any Democrats of a mind to run for the presidency, and for Democratic voters more loyal to the party and its principles than to any beneficiary of a cult of personality,  there’s every good reason to push back against the idea of Hillary Clinton gaining the nomination by some national acclimation, winning it as a cakewalk or a coronation, whether Warren runs or not.

Those voters remember the last time Hillary Clinton’s nomination was a forgone conclusion, in 2008, when the stars seemed to align until some skinny biracial senator from Illinois got in the race and changed everything. They’re not eager for history repeating.

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Another issue for Clinton, and one she won’t be able to fully push back on, is her implicit reliance on recent American history, and people’s recall of that history, to help propel her to the White House. This dependence on her own biography as a vehicle to the presidency confronts the same demographic shifts that are likely to plague the Republicans, and for some of the same reasons.

Simply put, if Hillary Clinton chooses to run, she’ll depend to one degree or another on Americans’ memory of the relative quiet in America during the Clinton administration. Her bona fides to some extent count on Americans remembering the Good Old Days® of the Clinton years — not necessarily a good idea considering the ways the national demographic has changed since 1992.

The harbingers of that change are collectively known as the millennials, Americans born in the years between 1983 and 1992. Some monitors of U.S. demography, like the Pew Research Center, place that emerging cohort as being born between 1981 and 2000.

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WHICHEVER ONE you go with, they’re the Americans for whom the facts of the Clinton biography aren’t really even a memory — because they either weren’t alive when Bill Clinton was president and Hillary Clinton was first lady, or they were too young for the Billary years to have mattered.

In March 2012, Time magazine estimated there were about 80 million millennials in the United States. All of them won’t be able to vote in 2016, but most of them will. And few of them have the existential allegiance that Hillary can count on from voters who lived through the Clinton years, those loyalists more favorably disposed to support a Hillary Clinton campaign. That will make it hard to exploit her public record across the board.

Those millennials — ignorant of or indifferent to the Clinton story, skeptical of legacy politics in general, technologically savvy, more populist by inclination than their baby-boomer parents — could be a huge force in 2016 for an outlier candidate with a proven appeal, a shown willingness to take on the hidebound orthodoxies of Washington and Wall Street.

Someone just like Elizabeth Warren.

Scheiber alludes to this new philosophical positioning: “Increasingly, Democratic donors are 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.”

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Warren has her problems too. Two reasons emerge for why she may not be the right person to challenge Clinton. The first: It just may not be her time. She’ll need to raise millions of dollars, and crank up a fundraising and ground-game apparatus that would probably have to call on the Obama campaign machine for help — help they wouldn’t necessarily get if Clinton decides to run, and maybe even if she doesn’t.

Warren has fundraising chops, for sure; Scheiber reports that Warren raised $42 million in her successful Senate bid; she did it despite her status as a blood foe of Wall Street, and by extension the serious fundraising capabilities of Wall Streeters eager to hitch their moneyed wagons to a winner in 2016. But $42 million, a nice chunk of change, is couch-cushion money compared to what Warren would need for a credible White House campaign.

Also, some in the media and the country in general will say Warren hasn’t been in the national spotlight for long enough to have fully articulated a rationale for a presidential run. Her focus has been largely on domestic economic issues; she’s been less up to speed in crafting meaningful solutions to the most complicated geopolitical issues — those beyond the United States’ water’s edge. Those are viable matters on the campaign trail and the debate stage.

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THE SECOND reason is that it may never be her time. Since winning election to the United States Senate last year, Warren has solidified her reputation as a principled and tireless hellraiser and challenger of the status quo. As such, she may be in a position to follow in the footsteps of her predecessor, the beloved Ted Kennedy, who made his peace with life in the Senate after more than one unsuccessful presidential campaign — and from that position introduced and influenced more legislation within that august body than he probably could have hoped to as president.

In her current post on the Senate Banking Committee, Warren has staked out an identity as a champion of the middle class, embarrassing bank regulators in Capitol Hill hearings with nothing more than straightforward questions, and pushing back hard against the Obama White House’s nomination of Lawrence Summers to head the Federal Reserve.

That kind of public stance as a defender of everyday people would seem to be hard to walk away from to undertake a quest for the presidency that’s likely to be quixotic under ideal circumstances, at least right now.

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There’s a possible third way beyond pitting one against the other. Just for grins, let’s consider the possibility of ... a Clinton-Warren ticket. Calm down. Breathe. This could make sense in many ways.

Consider: Thanks to the Tea Party and its proxies and enablers on Capitol Hill, the Republicans are saddled with navigating a recent history of legislative obstruction, ruthless identity politics, cultural isolationism and character assassination that’s gone a long way to alienate the GOP from the American people. As a result, the Republicans in 2013 are faced with the dismal prospect of another defeat for the White House in 2016.

Their strongest option is to find and field a candidate with the ability to sway not only the primary-season voters already inclined to vote for a Republican because he or she is a Republican, but also the multimillions of voters that candidate would need to win a general election. Indeed, the only hope of a Republican victory in 2016 is in finding and supporting a candidate who can do just that.

Assuming the Republicans exploit that strike zone and nominate a candidate that can successfully represent the GOP to the broad cross-section of the American public, that candidate would be a formidable opponent indeed. Under such a scenario of Republicans finally tacking toward the center — imagine that — a Hillary Clinton campaign would need to find a way to bottle its own lightning with a ticket that can similarly straddle seemingly disparate worlds: Clinton’s inside-game politics and Warren’s aggressive outlier populism. On that basis, a Clinton-Warren ticket could make more sense than you might think.

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SOME OF THIS may well come down to the politics of personality. For all her impressive credentials, Hillary Clinton has a history of being a cue-card campaigner. In 2008, her personal delivery in the stump could be juiceless and professorial; her ripostes and asides sometimes sounded canned and perfunctory. She takes herself so seriously that her gravitas often reveals a deficit of a sense of humor.

Warren proved last year that she has a way to connect with people in a very personal way. It’s not always smoothly delivered. Scheiber notes that Warren “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.”

She may still be rough as a cob and not quite ready for prime time. But Elizabeth Warren radiates being accessible, being real in a way that Hillary Clinton does not. In the crucible of retail politics, that counts. A lot.

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It’s way early still; a lot of reality will intervene between now and 2016 — and since neither Clinton nor Warren has come anywhere close to announcing, the sound and fury of all this speculation may signify nothing in the end. But even now it’s hard to resist exploring the tantalizing distinctions between these two possible hopefuls.

Scheiber (or the editor who wrote the headline for his TNR essay) advances the idea that Warren represents the “soul” of the Democratic Party — a linguistic construction that, by default, positions Clinton as representing something more cerebral and less emotional.

As the next 1,086 days unfold, and as a Republican Party eager for the White House sorts out its own identity, the challenge for voters will be to consider how or whether the emerging Democratic Party can prevail in an angry and uncertain future without either one.

Image credits: The New Republic cover: © 2013 The New Republic. Clinton: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images. Clinton II: Bbsrock. Warren lower image: Tim Pierce, original at Flickr. Kennedy: via The Huffington Post.

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