Elizabeth Warren insists she is not running for President, most recently this past Sunday on Channel 5’s On the Record program. This is a good thing. There’s been too much bandwagon buzz about a possible Warren presidential candidacy, with even estimable Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi quick to portray Warren as a contender.
Such effusiveness is getting ahead of things. Everything Warren has done – supporting Janet Yellen over Larry Summers for Fed head, criticizing the President on student loan rates, keeping the pressure on Wall Street to right its errant ways – is what she is needs to do. Her expertise, courage and foresight can make her an outstanding leader in the U.S. Senate. But while the Presidential buzz can enhance her visibility, it can limit her effectiveness in that ego-driven, august body. Warren needs to do what Hillary Clinton did as a freshman senator: be a work horse, not a show horse. Build relationships. Broaden the range of issue competencies. Warren’s disavowal of a presidential candidacy gives her breathing space to do just that.
There’s validity to the reaction that the country doesn’t need is another freshman Senator of marked ideology and legislative inexperience becoming President. Reactions to her possible candidacy, beyond her zealous base, confirm that, with Congress resistant to compromises, many people are wary of that very distinguishing ideological purity. Sure, with technically newbie Ed Markey, she is the senior Senator from Massachusetts. But two years as a freshman senator doesn’t prepare her to lead the free world.
Saying this doesn’t mean that, at some point, Warren couldn’t add to a primary debate, raising values and issues in a way that forces Hillary Clinton or other candidates to clarify their own positions. In a recent Wall Street Journal op ed, the think tank Third Way warned Democrats against following Elizabeth Warren off the cliff of economic populism. In turn, the left is fighting back. Warren called on large financial institutions to disclose their donations to think tanks. Liberal commentators joined in to undermine the credibility of Third Way, echoing charges of close ties to the investment banking sector. Liberal activists have come to feel disenfranchised by Barack Obama’s ineffectiveness as a leader. With Warren in the mix, we might have a vigorous debate: just what does economic fairness mean, and how can it be achieved? What would it cost? Who would pay?
Early on, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama disavowed any intention to run for President. No doesn’t always mean never. Bill Clinton was elected President from the center of the Democratic Party, the Democratic Leadership Council, created as an antidote to the McGovern wing of the party. His terms were comparatively more bipartisan, even while his deregulatory impulses sowed the seeds of the Great Recession. We take Hillary Clinton to be more centrist than Elizabeth Warren, but what do we really know about where Hillary stands today? Elizabeth Warren, either as a Senator staying put or a potential candidate, can clarify that.
Pre-election coronations rarely serve the political process. But is the only alternative a 2016 primary pitting “Robin Hood politicians” versus “sell-outs?” Let’s hope not.
Ultimately, what I’m looking for is a candidate with a caring heart and a pragmatically centrist mind, meaning progressive values, fiscal prudence, world wise savvy and a skillful willingness to compromise to get things done. The ability to work practically for what is achievable. In my world, the debate should be a thoughtful one, not an exercise in name calling and character assassination.
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