But really: What kind of a role does a junior senator from the minority party actually play? Yes, she just stopped a third-tier Treasury nomination. Congratulations. She can’t stop two. She certainly can’t enact laws. She cannot (as she painfully discovered during the December cromnibus debate) stop Republicans from unraveling Dodd-Frank stitch by stitch. Once the presidential contest begins in earnest, she’ll be pressured to join the cheering squad for the achievements of the Larry Summers-Bob Rubin years—and to keep silent as Hillary Clinton raises hundreds of millions of dollars from Wall Street Democrats.
And if Hillary Clinton wins in 2016, what role for Warren then? President Clinton will face Republican majorities in both House and Senate. Like her husband in the 1990s, she’ll have to do business with them—and squash any Democrat who objects. If Hillary Clinton loses in 2016, Warren’s role in the Senate will quickly be eclipsed by the next generation of Democrats competing for their chance in 2020. By then, Warren will be nearly 70, older than most presidential candidates, even in our geriatric political era.
On the other hand, you know who plays a truly significant role in the national conversation? First-tier candidates for president, that’s who. Hillary Clinton understood that truth when she ran for president as a not very senior senator in 2008. Yet when Hillary ran that first time, she didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation. She ran, as the saying goes, because she wanted to be something, not because she wanted to do something. Warren plainly does want to do things—and is denying herself her best chance to get them done.
If Elizabeth Warren did seek the Democratic presidential nomination, she’d seize the party and the national agenda. Rank-and-file Democrats seethe with concern about stagnant wages, income inequality, and the malefactions of great wealth.
Left to her own devices, Hillary Clinton will talk about none of that. Hillary Clinton is a candidate so cautious that, compared to her, Michael Dukakis seems the second coming of William Jennings Bryan. Everything about her is polled, focus-grouped, and second-guessed. Her policy positions are measured in millimeters to the left of center. Her speeches are written first and foremost to ensure they can never be quoted against her. How many people remember what Hillary Clinton accomplished as a U.S. Senator? As a secretary of state? Since the fiasco of her 1993 healthcare initiative, Hillary Clinton has so feared doing the wrong thing that she has almost always opted to do nothing.
Lead a fight for America’s working people? Hillary Clinton wouldn’t lead a fight for motherhood and apple pie if motherhood and apple pie were polling below 70 percent.
Nor would it likely assuage Elizabeth Warren if Hillary Clinton ever did speak or act boldly on behalf of Clinton’s core convictions. Few presidential candidates since William McKinley have had more personal, financial, and political connections to America’s wealthiest people than Hillary Clinton. She and her husband have gained a fortune estimated at $100 million that was, to put it bluntly, more or less donated to them by their friends and supporters. Hillary Clinton may gravitate to the less reactionary and more public-spirited billionaires. Yet it’s still billionaires, billionaires, billionaires all around her.