Noam Scheiber has a long piece in the latest issue of the New Republic about the possibility that Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren will take on Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Most of the article focuses on a laundry list of reasons that Warren might be a formidable contender: Democrats have become much more populist over the past few years, especially on Warren’s key issue of reining in the big banks; Warren has a lot of strength in the neighboring early primary state of New Hampshire; plenty of people who never made it onto the Clinton A-Team would be likely to side with her; and an anti-bank message could resonate well with conservatives as well as liberals. That’s all reasonable enough, even if Scheiber strains a bit to make these points sound more compelling than they probably are. But then there’s this, about Warren’s personal style:
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.
….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.
….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.”
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.”
There’s a name for this kind of person: Dennis Kucinich. Or maybe Ron Paul. Scheiber is basically describing a novelty candidate, the kind who enter the race mostly because they want the exposure it gives their cause, not because they have any chance of winning—or even of seriously affecting who does win. In other words, a non-factor.
Now, maybe Scheiber is being unfair to Warren. Maybe she’s not quite as messianic as all that, and maybe over the next few years she’ll start to develop considered views on non-banking subjects at the same time that she develops shrewder political skills. That would make her a more dangerous contender.1 But if Scheiber is right about her, I think he’s pretty much undermined his own case. The kind of person he describes above seems, unfortunately, pretty unlikely to make much of an impact if she decides to run.
1Although it raises a dilemma for Warren: if she becomes conventional enough to attract moderate voters, can she still retain her populist cred with the left wing of the party? That’s a delicate balancing act, one that might be difficult to pull off even for a very good politician.