On Monday evening, a crowd of about 200 Elizabeth Warren fans packed into a small auditorium near the Flatiron Building in Manhattan. There's only so many times, and so many different ways, that a politician can say she's not running for president before people begin to take her at her word. Elizabeth Warren has tried just about all of them by now, and yet for her most die-hard supporters, the message still hasn't gotten through.
With Hillary Clinton's official entrance into the 2016 race, many progressives have turned their attention to ensuring she adopts their priorities. But the leaders of the two groups formally trying to draft Warren as a candidate haven't given up on Plan A and instead are redoubling their efforts to persuade the first-term Massachusetts senator to run. "We're more encouraged than ever," Gary Ritterstein, an adviser to the Ready for Warren campaign, proclaimed on Tuesday.
Forgive the skepticism, but how can that be? Warren hasn't budged in her longstanding disavowals of interest, no matter how deeply they are parsed for the possibility of a hedge. If anything, her denials have become more firm in 2015, as she has wandered from the present tense ("I am not running," she said in December) to the future ("I'm not going to run," she told Savannah Guthrie on the Today Show just three weeks ago). Warren had long ago written a letter of "formal disavowal" to the FEC regarding the Ready for Warren effort, but her supporters shook that off just as they have dismissed her more recent statements. Groups backing her responded to Clinton's announcement last week by releasing videos made by dozens of Warren fans (including the actor Mark Ruffalo) imploring her to run.
The crowd that gathered in Manhattan on Monday was there to hear a trio of progressive activists—Zephyr Teachout, the 2014 challenger to Governor Andrew Cuomo; Van Jones, an environmental activist; and Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard professor and former Warren colleague—make the case for Warren's candidacy at an event held by Run Warren Run, another draft effort backed by MoveOn.org. This was a Warren choir if ever there was one, but the event was designed, at a moment of possible despair, to persuade the persuaders to keep up the fight.
"Do you know how loooooooong nine months is?" Jones, a former Obama adviser, asked rhetorically, referring to the length of time until the Iowa caucuses. "We have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone in the weeks and months to come." Yet at times the gathering felt like an off-Broadway production of Waiting for Godot. Warren's absence, not just from the room but from the campaign, was never far from mind. "I hope that Elizabeth Warren is patched in or is watching," Jones said. There wasn't much hope that she was. (And just for good measure, a Warren spokeswoman reiterated to me on Tuesday that she was not, in fact, reconsidering.)
When Lessig took the podium to deliver the evening's main address, he made the argument that the core problem facing America in the next election is broader than the individual progressive priorities of campaign-finance reform, Wall Street accountability, and reducing the income gap. Fundamentally, he said, the corrupting influence of money in politics had allowed wealthy donors to pick the nominees, if not the winners, in almost the same way that Boss Tweed did nearly 150 years ago. "America has an equality problem," Lessig said, and the person with the most credibility to tackle it is Warren. He made clear that he bore no animus toward Clinton. "In an ordinary time, I think she is the obvious choice for everything she has done and is and could be as president," he said. "But this is not an ordinary time."
Just two years younger than Clinton, Warren is not a next-generation leader, and after just a few years in the national spotlight, she is probably no less polarizing, either. But she is seen as the fresh face nonetheless, and her fans love her both for her uncompromising battles against big banks and her lucid explanations of the social compact. At times, her most devoted followers speak about her in terms that border on the Messianic. Warren, according to Teachout, is "someone who understands the present so well she can see the future." Warren is the candidate "who could pierce the veil of cynicism that defines who we've become," Lessig told the audience on Monday. "If anyone can convince us, it is she."
It hardly bears mentioning that the last politician who inspired this kind of talk among progressives was Barack Obama, who took on Hillary Clinton in a Democratic primary after earlier pledging not to run. But Obama was already several months into his presidential candidacy at this point eight years ago, while Warren continues to say no at every opportunity. The gap between her lack of interest and the desperation of her backers is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. "I have no doubt she doesn’t want to run," Lessig told me after his speech. "The question isn’t what she wants to do. It’s a question of what she comes around to recognizing she wants to do." Others noted that it took a draft effort to persuade Warren to run for the Senate in 2012. "Sometimes at moments like this, reluctant leaders can be the most forceful leaders," Teachout said, without providing an example.
Beyond persuading Warren to change her mind, the goal of Ready for Warren and its allies is to put in place a campaign infrastructure and a network of grassroots supporters in the event that she does. And Ben Wikler, MoveOn.org's Washington director, said that with so much time before the primaries, it would be a mistake to "dismantle the runway" now. Bill Clinton didn't enter the 1992 campaign until November of 1991, as Warren supporters are quick to recall.
Among the New York artists, writers, and activists who attended Monday's event, however, the goal of the movement seemed to have shifted in a way that it hasn't yet for its leaders. "I don't think it's about making her change her mind. That's not really the point," said Marcia Annenberg, a Manhattan-based artist who said she was a big fan of both Warren and Clinton. Others who spoke highly of both women—Clinton did represent New York in the Senate for eight years—said they hoped the Warren draft movement would push Hillary to the left, or perhaps lead her to tap Warren as her running mate. Corinne Jones, another local artist, said there's still time for Warren to get in the race, and that she'd support her over Clinton—if she had the chance. "She's much more exciting. She's the real deal," Jones said of Warren. But then she added: "And Hillary I'm going to vote for."
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