On Wednesday night, about 80 people gathered at a coffee shop in Des Moines, Iowa, to collectively tilt at one very stubborn windmill: drafting Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for president. The Iowans in attendance were there to help the progressive group MoveOn.org herald the new Iowa field office it opened as part of its Run Warren Run campaign.
Iowa Senate President Pam Jochum was one of those in attendance. But does she support Warren over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? "Not yet," she told The Des Moines Register. "If she jumps in, I think we're a better nation for it, and a better party."
There's a subtle distinction between calling for Warren to run in the Democratic primary, and wanting her to be president. No matter how much progressives may want to see Elizabeth Warren be a presidential contender, they cannot escape the gravitational pull that is Hillary 2016. What they can do, however, is alter the atmosphere the Clinton campaign inhabits.
Having someone like Warren (or even Sen. Bernie Sanders) in the primary is good for liberals, because it puts pressure on Clinton to answer some uncomfortable questions—about her ties to Wall Street, for example. And even if Warren doesn't run, keeping her (and her priorities) in the headlines by floating her candidacy is another way to exert that pressure on Clinton.
Ben Wikler, MoveOn's Washington director, said MoveOn's members have expressed an "overwhelming desire" for a contested primary in 2016. Coincidentally, Warren is the perfect progressive foil that could force Clinton's hand on some issues.
"We think that she'd make an extraordinary candidate, and we also think that she could win," Wikler told National Journal. "But whether or not someone would vote for her in the primary, there's still an overwhelming sense that she should be there, and that it's the biggest way that she can make a difference, the biggest way that she can make sure that her agenda—which is also our members' agenda—is at the center of the conversation for the next two years."
This is not to say the entire Draft Warren movement is a cynical ploy by progressive groups to push Clinton to the left, or that it's not being run aggressively. MoveOn has pledged $1 million to the cause. Another group, Democracy For America, pledged another $250,000 on Wednesday. Since MoveOn launched Run Warren Run a week ago, the group has tracked down pro-Warren volunteers in 95 of Iowa's 99 counties.
But there's no denying it has beneficial side effects for progressives, even if Warren doesn't join in.
"If Elizabeth Warren considering getting into the race or getting into the race can inspire other progressives to run for office or to stand stronger, then that's a victory," Victoria Kaplan, Run Warren Run's national field director, told National Journal. "It's a helpful byproduct."
While the Run Warren Run campaign is intent on promoting Warren's progressive values, its leaders are hesitant to directly contrast that with Clinton's relative lack of liberal fire.
"This is 100 percent a positive campaign about drafting Elizabeth Warren into the race," Kaplan said. "At the same time, what great campaigns do is they build power in communities for long-lasting progressive change."
MoveOn.org may be the first political advocacy group to fully embrace the power of the Internet. The lefty organization derives its name from its very first online campaign: a 1998 petition in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal opposing Bill Clinton's impeachment and calling on Congress to censure Clinton "and move on" instead. The petitions, which were circulated via email, ultimately collected half a million signatures.
"That petition went viral before going viral was a thing," Wikler said.
Sixteen years later, MoveOn's tactics have changed, but its mission has largely stayed the same: to kindle support for progressive policies through its 8 million-strong membership. In a poll, 81.3 percent of MoveOn members said the group should launch a campaign to encourage Warren to run. The group boasts of having more than 55,000 members in Iowa alone, and Run Warren Run is also staffing up in New Hampshire, another early primary state.
Nonetheless, it's a quixotic campaign: Should Warren be persuaded to run, she would face perhaps the strongest presumptive front-runner in the modern history of the Democratic Party. If Warren wants to run a credible campaign, she'd have to announce very soon.
While liberal voters may be holding out hope for Warren to be the Barack Obama of the 2016 Democratic primaries, progressive leaders are starting to band together behind Clinton. Last week, former New Hampshire Gov. Howard Dean—who founded Democracy For America, one of the groups trying to draft Warren—wrote a column in Politico endorsing Clinton.
On Tuesday, Sen. Al Franken—another liberal stalwart—threw his support behind Clinton. "People have asked me about Elizabeth Warren. She is great, but she's not running. She says she's not running," Franken said. "I think Hillary would be great."
Warren herself has said that she would support Clinton's presidential campaign. She's called Clinton "terrific," but recently vaguely criticized Clinton's close ties with Wall Street. And as TNR's Danny Vinik points out, Warren's very image as an anti-Wall-Street crusader would make it harder for her to attract donors from the financial sector.
And then there's the fact that Warren has repeated, ad nauseam, that she is not running for president. In an interview with National Public Radio on Monday, Warren said "I'm not running for president" four separate times.
Still, organizers are extremely optimistic about persuading Warren to run. Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy For America, pointed out that throughout her denials, Warren has been careful to use the present tense.
"That's not a Shermanesque statement," Chamberlain told National Journal. "We're seeing her say, 'Look, I'm not running for president right now,' and I think she means it. She's not. But will she? Maybe. And that's what we're trying to do, is make that happen."
Warren supporters are quick to point out that this is exactly what happened in 2012: She was reluctant to run for the Senate, but eventually relented to a tidal wave of support from Massachusetts Democrats.
"There was a successful Draft Warren campaign that helped her get into the Senate race in Massachusetts," Kaplan said. "So we've seen that happen before, and we think it can happen again."
The sheer chutzpah behind Run Warren Run and other Draft Warren efforts shows just what a galvanizing figure she is to the liberal base—each time she insists she isn't running, she inspires another group to form its own Draft Warren campaign.
It's fair to say that the Draft Warren movement writ large isn't necessarily about Warren at all, but the idea of her. We've seen this play out before. In 2004, liberal angst about the Bush administration was at a fever pitch. The progressive movement needed someone—anyone—to act as a talisman through which its legions could express their frustration with the Iraq War. That talisman turned out to be then-Sen. John Kerry.
Today, liberals are channeling their angst toward economic issues like income inequality and Wall Street malfeasance. Guess who's a good talisman for that?
"I think it's less about the individual personalities or people involved," Wikler said. "With John Kerry, for MoveOn members, that was really about ending the Bush presidency that we felt was pulling the country radically in the wrong direction. And I think the promise of a Warren presidency is that she is championing a positive vision for what the right direction would look like."