In 2004, Barack Obama stole my heart with his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. That speech, combined with Hillary Clinton’s vote on the Iraq War, sealed my support. Now, ten years later, I am wondering if there has been another speech that will have the same effect on the 2016 campaign. This time, the speaker was Elizabeth Warren, and the topic is a question that rank-in-file Democrats have been asking themselves for years: does their party stand for Main Street or only for Wall Street? Warren has made her view very clear: the Demos are bought and sold by Wall Street and Wall Street alone. Now, she has thrown down the gauntlet to all potential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, to prove her wrong. (Here’s a way to view the speech, if you haven’t yet done so: http://talkingpointsmemo.com/dc/elizabeth-warren-lindsey-graham-citigroup-funding-bill)
One possible response, of course, is that the Dems stand for BOTH Main Street and Wall Street. To be sure, you’d have to be quite the ideologue not to recognize that middle class people hold interests in the stock market and even those who didn’t would stand to lose money if Wall Street were to collapse. (See, e.g., the Great Depression.) But what we’ve seen in recent decades is clearly a sharp rise in the wealth of the richest Americans without a rise in the wealth of middle class Americans. And when you are a political party whose mascot is the donkey, you can’t keep ignoring this phenomenon and not expect to be called on the mat by one of your colleagues. In short, “the speech” was bound to happen. It just happened to be Elizabeth Warren who had the skill to deliver it.
Does this mean “game on” for the Democrats in 2016? Does this mean that, once again, Hillary Clinton’s inevitability has been overblown? Not so fast. I can think of at least two reasons why Clinton’s backers might not yet have to break a sweat. First, Warren hasn’t yet demonstrated that she has the stomach to campaign against the Clinton Machine. That is, after all, one heck of a machine. When Obama took it on, he needed to run an absolutely flawless and extremely creative campaign, and he still barely won. Warren may decide that she’s better off leading the progressive wing of the party from her perch in the Senate and leaving the campaign trail to folks like Bernie Sanders who will make the same kinds of arguments she would make but without the charisma that she would bring.
Second, I’m not convinced that Warren has a second act in her. Yes, she can summon her inner Cicero at will when the topic turns to banking reform, but does she have the same inspiration with respect to other topics? Hillary won’t be defeated based only on her views of Wall Street vs. Main Street. For someone to overtake her, they’d need to pull the kind of magic act that Obama did – to turn themselves into almost the ideal candidate, not merely a One-Hit Wonder.
In other words, to beat Hillary, you’d have to be the band that wrote “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” not the one that wrote “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The latter was a nice song, but it won’t get you in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. And Warren’s banking reform speeches by themselves won’t get her past Hillary.
But let’s assume for the sake of argument that Warren has the stomach for a race and finds her voice on topics other than Wall Street reform. There would remain one more question: does she and/or her people have the stones to take on Hillary – to bring Hillary down, as it were, at the same time that they are propping themselves up? Are they actually willing to argue that Hillary is the voice of the status quo, whereas they are the voice of progressive change?
It wasn’t that long ago when William Jefferson Clinton campaigned as a “New Democrat,” meaning a Southern Democrat who was essentially moderate, rather than an old-school liberal. Are the Warrenites willing to argue that they are campaigning as progressives who are trying to take the Democratic Party back to its FDR-type roots, whereas the Clintonians are mere triangulators who stand for the status quo? Without such an attack, I still say that Hillary has too many institutional advantages to lose this race.
An argument can be made that even if Elizabeth Warren isn’t really ready to rumble, she should still jump in the race as sort of a state-of-the-art sparring partner who will get Hillary in fighting trim for the general election. From Hillary’s standpoint, a half-motivated Warren might well be the perfect foil during primary season. But I don’t see Warren assuming that role. The woman who spoke in the Senate this week wasn’t a mere sparring partner. She was a title contender with one heck of a punch. And remember, in the “Fight of the Century” between “The Greatest of All Time” and a Philly boy named Joe Frazier, it was Frazier who came out the winner. (Ali won their next two bouts, but Frazier took the first one.) So I’m not counting Warren out. All I’m saying is that she still has a major uphill struggle, and in this uphill run, she’s going to have to cross some pretty big hurdles along the way. In her case, those hurdles won’t take leg strength – they’ll take intestinal fortitude. If Warren has that fortitude, Madame Inevitable could indeed have a fight on her hands.