The Elizabeth Warren primary: How Bernie & Hillary are fighting for the support of the Democratic Party's conscience

The Massachusetts senator is one of the highest-profile Democrats who hasn't formally endorsed. Whom will she pick?

Published January 27, 2016 10:57AM (EST)

Elizabeth Warren (Credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
Elizabeth Warren (Credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

If Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren ever had an itch to run for president, she must be kicking herself right now. The popularity of her ideological ally, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has exploded since his May entrance into the Democratic primary, but Hillary Clinton has nevertheless sewn up the support of most wings of the Democratic Party except for the far left. If it had been Warren running to the left of Clinton instead of Sanders, who knows what could have happened?

But as it is, Warren is one of the few high-profile Democratic politicians left who haven’t yet announced their support for either candidate in the Democratic primary. In a speech before the Senate last Thursday on the influence of money in politics, she gave the strongest indication yet that she’s leaning toward Sanders, saying,

“Anyone who shrugs and claims that change is just too hard has crawled into bed with the billionaires who run this country like some private club.”

The importance of this can’t be understated. In a primary where Sanders’s campaign doesn’t have much support among party leaders, a Warren endorsement might be the push that progressive Democrats, disillusioned with Clinton but skeptical of her democratic socialist challenger, to finally support Bernie Sanders.

All three of them, of course, know this. Clinton has made her own outreach to Warren, penning her Time 100 profile, and Warren has wielded her influence in ways such as publicly challenging candidates to take a position on the Financial Services Conflict of Interest Act.

(Sanders became a co-sponsor and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley endorsed the plan. Clinton was the only one who didn’t offer a vocal endorsement of it.)

Warren doesn’t consider herself a socialist, and a lot of her policy positions confirm that. Sanders supports a single-payer healthcare system, whereas Warren has repeatedly said that she would like to build on the Affordable Care Act. On the college tuition debate, maybe the one that most illuminates the ideological differences between the candidates, Warren sides with Clinton, favoring “debt-free college” over Sanders’ plan of free college tuition.

So why would Warren hold back on an endorsement of Clinton? For one, she’s made fighting Wall Street deregulation and general recklessness her main goal as senator, and Clinton — as she’s been so apt to remind us — was New York’s senator for eight years and has run for president twice, so she’s gotten quite a bit of fundraising from Wall Street.

She’s also against the huge influx of money in politics, laid out in that Thursday floor speech, and since Russ Feingold’s exit in 2010, Bernie Sanders has been the most visible advocate for campaign finance reform in the Senate. Clinton, as well as Sanders, has called for an overturning of Citizens United —in fact, a movie that attempted to discredit her was the subject in that Supreme Court case — but it’s hard to take her position on this completely seriously considering she’s one of the most successful fundraisers in American political history.

Warren’s relationship with Clinton has been complicated for nearly two decades. In a 2004 interview with Bill Moyers, Warren told a candid story about teaching Clinton about bankruptcy legislation coming through Congress in the '90s. Clinton took her side on the issue, and from inside the White House, pushed that legislation's defeat. Once Clinton became a U.S. senator, however, she flip-flopped. Warren tied Clinton’s donors to her decision.

On this issue, she has few bigger allies than Bernie Sanders. When Warren was mentioned as a potential candidate to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — an agency she came up with in 2007, three years before it became a reality — Sanders was among Warren’s most vocal supporters. “She has real world experience as to what corporate abuse in financial services has done to ordinary Americans,” Sanders said back in 2010. “If we want someone who is knowledgable about consumer protection and the needs of the middle class, if we want someone who has the courage to stand up to special corporate interests … the logical choice for this position is Elizabeth Warren.”

Since Warren became a senator, the ties between her and Sanders have grown even more. They’ve voted together 87 percent of the time in the current Congress, and when Warren decided against running for president, most of her would-be or potential supporters were similarly grabbed by the message of the independent senator from Vermont. Not surprisingly, Warren has had kind words for the independent senator.

Warren’s support for Sanders would also help him topple one of his biggest obstacles to the nomination: his relative unpopularity with Democratic activists.

Sanders, although he has caucused with the Democrats since he’s been in the Senate, has always prided himself on being an independent voice. This has helped him to pull in some independents and people frustrated with both major parties, but contrary to popular belief, some people like being Democrats. Those people have an inclination to support Hillary Clinton, because she’s been a major figure in the party for so long and has helped other Democrats get elected around the country. She has also consistently positioned herself as the spiritual successor to President Obama, who will be the Democrats’ most popular president for years and years to come.

Whatever the case, Sanders is severely trailing Clinton in terms of endorsements and the support of unpledged “superdelegates” — party leaders, major elected officials, etc. — that collectively make up one-sixth of the people who will vote to nominate the Democratic candidate in August. Clinton has already sealed up the support of roughly half of these party leaders, whereas Sanders has just 11. Thirty-eight out of the 46 members of the Democratic Senate caucus have already endorsed Clinton; the only sitting senator who has endorsed Bernie Sanders is Sen. Bernie Sanders. Out of the six remaining holdouts, Sanders only really has a shot at picking up the endorsements of Warren, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a leading voice against NSA surveillance, and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who cherishes being an independent.

Even progressive Democrats, like Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, have supported Clinton. One major reason is that this party support translates into a hope that she can turn out the base in 2018 and 2020 and win back the House, so her presidency doesn’t turn out to be a complete dud. Another might be that they subscribe to the idea that Clinton will be able to get more legislation passed in a Republican Congress. A third, more cynical theory is that these progressives don’t want to piss off someone who they think will be the likely nominee.

But despite the fact that Warren may never run for president, she’s both the conscience of the party and the future of it — one that isn’t scared of higher taxes, strong regulations on the financial sector, or government-run programs —and Sanders has shown that can still be popular in 2016. Getting Elizabeth Warren’s support is its own primary for Bernie Sanders, and if he’s able to pull it off, it might very well be as big for him as winning an entire state.

By Paul Blest

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Bernie Sanders Elections 2016 Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton The Democratic Primary