The Delicate Art of Denying a Presidential Bid

"I am not running for president," Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said. Does that mean she won't? A linguistic journey

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

For big-name politicians, there is a certain technique to answering the question, "Will you run for president?" Tense, in particular, is important.

Elizabeth Warren, the rising liberal star of the Senate, has had quite a bit of practice in the last year, and she has been remarkably consistent. "I am not running for president," she will usually say. Sometimes she'll add a note of insistence, as she did on Monday when she asked an NPR reporter if she should "put an exclamation point at the end."

Seems pretty clear, right? She's not running.

Well, technically, nobody (of note) is running for president right now. Not Hillary Clinton. Not Jeb Bush. Not Rand Paul. And not even Jim Webb, who has formed an exploratory committee but is not formally running for president. So as NPR's Steve Inskeep correctly recognized, the operative question for a politician like Warren is not, "Are you running for president?" but "Will you run for president?" And that is a query the Massachusetts Democrat does not seem quite ready to answer, at least in the most definitive way.

Warren's answers are important, because as last week's fight over a $1 trillion spending bill showed, she remains as popular and influential among the Democratic Party's liberal base as she was when she burst onto the political stage more than five years ago. The Ready for Warren campaign has gained steam in its bid to draft her into the 2016 White House race as a progressive challenger to Clinton, and Democratic leaders in the Senate recently added her to their team in recognition of her status within their diminished caucus.

Should Warren be taken at her oft-repeated word that she's not preparing a presidential bid? Of course. But she has stopped well short of the magic words, famously uttered by the Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman 130 years ago, "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected." And recall another popular, liberal senator, who went even further than Warren in disavowing a presidential bid around this time nine years ago. That was Barack Obama, who when asked in January of 2006 by the late Tim Russert if he would run for president—or vice president—in 2008, replied: "I will not." A year later he was announcing his campaign.

Warren's wiggle room doesn't mean she'll be challenging Clinton in 2016. But it ensures she'll keep getting the question for another few months.