Progressive Democrats need to thank Elizabeth Warren: By staying out of the race, she opened the door for Bernie's rise and a new political movement

Progressive Dems owe Sanders a debt of gratitude. Win or lose, his presence in this race has changed everything

By Sean Illing
February 17, 2016 3:57PM (UTC)
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Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren (AP/Rich Pedroncelli/Jacquelyn Martin/Photo montage by Salon)

A new USA Today piece suggests what many progressives already suspected: If Elizabeth Warren were running for president, Bernie Sanders wouldn't be. According to Bill Press, the liberal author and radio host who met privately with Sanders two years ago, the Vermont senator thought long and hard about his decision to enter the fray.

“You can be a senator and you can yap and yap and give speeches, and, you know it's just another senator,” Press said. “If you're a presidential candidate, there's some aura about that that people listen.” Press says Sanders was concerned that fundamental problems like income inequality and campaign finance would be overlooked if someone like Warren didn't run: “Somebody had to do it, and if somebody else did it, fine. If Elizabeth Warren had run, I'm pretty confident in saying Bernie Sanders never would have run.”


Sanders was acutely aware of the odds. “Everybody was sort of saying this is ... worth pursuing,” Press added. “It's obviously a real uphill battle – you're going up against the biggest political machine in the country and one of the best and most experienced people in the country, Hillary Clinton ... it's a way, way, way long shot, but it's not crazy.”

It's not surprising that Sanders' decision to run was influenced by Warren's absence. The two senators are perfectly aligned on the core issues – certainly more aligned than Warren and Clinton. When it became apparent that Warren wasn't running, Sanders surmised (correctly) that the progressive agenda he represents would not be “taken seriously,” as Press put it.

While Warren has declined to officially endorse a candidate, she's made it clear where she stands. In a recent address on the Senate floor, for example, Warren gave what is essentially Sanders' stump speech, decrying the “rigged political game” and “the complete capture of our government by the rich and powerful.” Even if this is as close as Warren comes to an endorsement, it's evident which of the two candidates shares her political worldview.


Given what's happened in this race, two things now seem obvious. The first is that Elizabeth Warren could have easily won this nomination. That Sanders, a 74-year-old Democratic socialist from Vermont, has challenged the Clinton machine speaks to the anti-establishment fervor on the left. Democratic primary voters want an authentic populist, and Clinton, whatever you think of her, isn't that. Warren is credible and wildly popular, and she's younger and potentially a much better national candidate than Sanders – although that remains to be seen. In any case, her platform would've mirrored Sanders' and it stands to reason she would be just as competitive against Clinton – if not more so.

It's also clear that progressive Democrats owe Sanders a debt of gratitude. Win or lose, his presence in this race changed everything. He has dictated the terms of the debate, in a way no one thought possible a year or two ago. Clinton would prefer not to talk about campaign finance or corporatist trade agreements or Wall Street greed as much as she has, but Bernie has forced her hand. Her leftward drift in this campaign is a direct consequence of the pressure from Sanders – she'll be accountable for this in a general election. Without Warren in the race, it's hard to imagine that happening without Sanders.

And even if Sanders loses, he's already put his stamp on the Democratic Party – the progressive movement he's created will persist. If nothing else, this creates the space for someone like Warren to play a larger role in the party moving forward. For liberal Democrats, that's a tremendous victory.


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Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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2016 Elections Aol_on Bernie Sanders Democratic Party Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton