Today WaMo has a web exclusive from the veteran writer David Paul Kuhn making the best, and certainly the most thorough, case I’ve yet seen for why Elizabeth Warren might, if she’s willing, be able to pose a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
Some of the ground Kuhn covers is familiar, though he covers it with exceptional attention to detail: Warren’s celebrity status among progressive activists and her boffo 2014 campaign appearances; the overwhelming contemporary popularity among Democrats of her signature “economic populist” themes; and the relative lack of enthusiasm on the Left for HRC that lurks beneath the surface of her high favorability and candidate-preference ratings. But Kuhn also focuses on an obvious yet under-discussed issue: a Warren challenge would neutralize the source of Clinton’s one unquestioned emotional point of connection with progressives: the history-making accomplishment of a woman in the White House (much, he argues, as Obama’s history-making potential neutralized it in 2008).
Kuhn also deals, less convincingly in my opinion, with the question of whether Warren’s reach among rank-and-file Democrats could outflank Clinton’s. As he notes, since time immemorial, left-bent insurgent presidential campaigns have usually failed due to insufficient support from minority voters–a problem that has grown as minority voters have become a much larger proportion of the Democratic “base.” The single biggest reason Obama was able to overcome frontrunner HRC in 2008, at least after Iowa and NH, was that he combined the usual “wine-track” vote of progressive activists with overwhelming support among African-Americans (plus good, though not majority, support from Latinos). Kuhn suggests some of the racial tensions from 2008 along with an initial HRC misstep on the border crisis could make her vulnerable among minority voters in 2016. But let’s remember HRC had massive African-American support in 2008 before Obama’s Iowa breakthrough, and according to a Pew analysis, won Latino voters by a two-to-one margin. Until such time as Elizabeth Warren demonstrates some wellsprings of support among minority voters, I do think these voters are “Clinton’s to lose,” which Kuhn doubts.
One of the few topics Kuhn doesn’t directly address is whether Clinton’s famous “beer-track” popularity among white working class voters in 2008 is something Warren might be better positioned to undermine, as witnessed by the reception to her appearances this year in Kentucky and West Virginia.
In any event, Kuhn has written the gold standard of arguments for a Warren candidacy, one that I am sure will be brought to her (and to HRC’s) attention. But a phenomenon he notes near the very end of his piece could give Warren pause even if she’s inclined to run:
Should Warren sit 2016 out, the populists who support her will likely settle for pulling Hillary closer to them. That will be less possible, however, without Warren in the race.
The sense I get from many progressive activists is that they view a Warren candidacy as a way to “keep Hillary honest” (the term you hear over and over), not to beat her. That’s fine for them, but I doubt Elizabeth Warren will be very happy to go through the agony of a presidential campaign merely to serve as a counter-weight.