Adventures in Warrenland

The movement to elect Elizabeth Warren president is make believe. 

Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, not running for president. 

Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters

DETROIT—Every time she’s asked, Sen. Elizabeth Warren gives the same frustrated answer. No. Nope. She is not running for president. She has literally rolled her eyes at the question. She’s offered to “add an exclamation point.” She’s even signed a letter calling on Hillary Clinton, who leads polls of Democrats by up to 50 points, to run for president.

And yet there they were on Friday morning, the people who wanted Warren to reconsider. Days before this year’s Netroots Nation conference, the annual gathering of the online left, an Obama campaign veteran launched a draft campaign called Ready for Warren. (The name is a wink at the pro-Clinton PAC Ready for Hillary, which claims to have 2.5 million supporters in its database.) The new group printed “Warren for President” signs and plastered “Warren for President” stickers on free skimmer hats. As activists entered the Cobo Center, which resembles a pile of faded Rubik’s Cubes that have tumbled from a closet, volunteers handed out the goods. There was even a folk song soundtrack, by Jessie Murphy:

Americans want our next president to be a woman
Hey babe, here’s lookin’ at you, Senator Elizabeth Warren
The planet is warming and the power is shifting
We will need a leader who won’t stand for all the Wall Street bullshit, the lobbyist grifting

The reluctant hero never stood a chance. When her applause lines hit, up went the signs.

“The game is rigged,” said Warren toward the end of her remarks. “We can whine about it, we can whimper about it, or we can fight back. I’m ready to fight back. Are you ready to fight back on this?”

Up went the signs, up went the chant: “Run, Liz, Run.”

“Si’down,” Warren chuckled. “Si’down.”

But the story was already being told. The signs made it into write-ups by Politico, Huffington Post, McClatchy, and a Washington Post story about how “cracks are beginning to emerge” in the Clinton restoration’s coalition.

The evidence for a left-wing challenge to Clinton that could defeat her is thin to nonexistent. Defeating Clinton wasn’t even a theme at Netroots Nation, where in 2007 both Sens. Barack Obama and John Edwards clearly outpaced her in support. Anyone who could force Clinton to the left—on Wall Street, on bank reform, on student loans, on inequality—was worth talking about. Not far from where Warren was speaking, a D.C. activist named Edrie Irvine was sporting a Bernie Sanders for President 2016 shirt, and getting into conversations that assumed the Vermont senator could never win.

“I love my Bernie,” said Irvine. “I want him to run not because I expect that he would ever win, but because he would force the conversation in a direction it might not otherwise go.”

That’s just it. Progressives want to change the party, which means more than choosing a president. (Several Netroots panels featured activists who had moved the Obama administration when it was acting too slowly on issues like immigration.) The institutions that created the online left were birthed by no-chance campaigns. MoveOn was founded in 1998 by Silicon Valley liberals who wanted Congress to stop short of impeaching Bill Clinton. “Censure,” it said, “and move on.” Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign brought in a young generation of activists and techies, spawning some of the data and campaign companies that would elect Barack Obama.

Yet MoveOn lost its first fight. The Dean campaign lost every major primary. The lesson activists took away: Try something. The media, at least, is going to cover a primary threat more than it covers a sui generis student loan bill.

Thus the Warren “presidential campaign,” a masterful branding and messaging exercise. In September 2013, the New York Times wrote an attention-getting profile of Warren’s appeal to progressives, proven by the growing crowds for organizers wise enough to book her. “Bumper stickers and T-shirts surfacing in liberal enclaves proclaim, ‘I’m from the Elizabeth Warren Wing of the Democratic Party.’ ” Jonathan Martin reported that those stickers were mass-produced by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which was founded in 2009 by Adam Green (a veteran of MoveOn and Democratic campaigns) and Stephanie Taylor (a veteran of the SEIU, AFL-CIO, and yes, MoveOn).  

In its early years, the PCCC confounded Democrats, losing a run of primaries and buying ads to pressure red state Senate Democrats who were slow-walking the Affordable Care Act. The Warren brand—earned after the group signed up activists and donors for her nascent Senate bid—is self-evidently a way to move the conversation, whether or not anyone challenges Clinton. “We’re going to make sure that every Democrat who runs for president is forced to say whether they agree with Elizabeth Warren on key issues,” Green told the Boston Globe last year, “like expanding Social Security benefits and more Wall Street reform.”

Green repeated that point at the Netroots conference, though he hardly needed to. Rep. Dan Kildee, a freshman Democrat from one of the new safe Michigan districts, said it was “clear” that any 2016 candidate had to cop from Warren.

“The basic premise, that we need to restore some balance in the equation between corporate interests and consumers—that’s what she’s done for a long time,” he said, recalling how he’d cited her when he worked at a think tank. “More people should embrace it. It cuts across partisan lines. “

But he wasn’t calling for a primary. The point was getting the next candidate to move where the Netroots crowd wanted her to move.

“Hillary Clinton is going to say these things,” said former Rep. Brad Miller, a North Carolina Democrat who left his seat after a 2011 gerrymander. “Whoever our Democratic nominee is will run as an economic populist. When the pollsters and consultants come back with the numbers, they’ll tell her: Holy crap, you may not have been a populist before, but you are one now! The problem will be credibility, and whether it’s believable coming from someone who has close ties to the financial sector.”

At the conference, for most attendees, Clinton was credible enough. A Ready for Hillary organizer pointed out that some of the people who applauded when they saw Warren at a nearby hotel were sporting Hillary gear. There was no mass boycott of the main Friday night party, sponsored by Ready for Hillary, held at a downtown music venue called St. Andrews, with the PAC’s bus parked right outside. As guests arrived, they ran into a table loaded with PAC stickers (“I’m ready for Hillary”) and the room-filling pop of KGB, a Motown cover band.

Activists born in the 1980s; music from the 1960s. Not the ideal metaphor for a Clinton campaign, but it got a PCCC leader tweeting that after “one more margarita” even he, too, would be ready for the Clintons.

I didn’t find a true Clinton critic, actually, until the next night’s after-party. It was hosted by the Alliance for American Manufacturing. (In a Saturday speech, the labor group’s president, Scott Paul, had told activists to nominate “a woman who not only says the right thing but does the right thing.”) At the party, I ran into the last guy who challenged Clinton from the left and lost. Jonathan Tasini, a writer and activist who ran against Clinton in the 2006 New York U.S. Senate race, was at least willing to muse about one of the progressive branding campaigns turning into an actual primary.

“Warren would have the best chance,” he said. “Whenever [Hillary] opens her mouth, there’s enough people who say: ‘I just don’t believe her.’ ”

But how many Democrats? In 2006, Tasini asked progressives to hold Clinton accountable for backing the Iraq War. She won the primary with 83 percent of the vote. And on this particular Saturday night, the Clinton agita was not too serious. On the way out of the party, Scott Paul spotted me and corrected the record on his quote—the one absolutely everyone interpreted as a call for Warren to run.

“I saw the tweet about that,” he said. “I wasn’t talking about Warren!”