The Democratic Dark Horse Candidate in 2016?

Posted: Nov 11, 2013 4:10 PM

It seems the Democratic Party has reached a New Frontier. Not unlike the inevitable Tea Party/Establishment schism which played out in 2010 (and indeed is still playing out today), Democrats find themselves at a similar crossroads. They need to decide who they are as a party, and ultimately, who will lead them in 2016.

The Democratic caucus is divided into two principal factions, according to the New Republic’s Noam Scheiber. On the one hand, we have the establishment -- with presumptive presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket. She’s far and away the candidate drawing the most presidential buzz these days, and has the connections, resources and experience to capture the nomination. On the other hand, we have the populist wing of the Democratic Party -- comprised mostly of younger and more idealistic progressives, many of whom have different priorities than Hillary Clinton, and therefore might be drawn to a different type of candidate. TNR explains:

Judging from recent events, the populists are likely to win. In September, New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, running on a platform of taming inequality, routed his Democratic mayoral rival, Christine Quinn, known for her ties to Michael Bloomberg’s finance-friendly administration. The following week, Larry Summers, Obama’s first choice to succeed Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve chairman, withdrew his name from consideration after months in which Senate Democrats signaled their annoyance with his previous support for deregulation. Not 48 hours later, Bill Daley, the former Obama chief of staff and JP Morgan executive, ended his primary campaign for governor of Illinois after internal polls showed him trailing his populist opponent.

All of this is deeply problematic for Hillary Clinton. As a student of public opinion, she clearly understands the direction her party is headed. As the head of an enterprise known as Clinton Inc. that requires vast sums of capital to function, she also realizes there are limits to how much she can alienate the lords of finance. For that matter, it’s not even clear Clinton would want to. “Many of her best friends, her intellectual brain trust [on economics], all come out of that world,” says a longtime Democratic operative who worked on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and then for Hillary in the White House. “She doesn’t have a problem on the fighting-for-working-class-folks side”—protecting Medicare and Social Security—“but it will be hard, really wrenching for her to be that populist on [finance] issues.”

Which brings us to the probable face of the insurgency. In addition to being strongly identified with the party’s populist wing, any candidate who challenged Clinton would need several key assets. The candidate would almost certainly have to be a woman, given Democrats’ desire to make history again. She would have to amass huge piles of money with relatively little effort. Above all, she would have to awaken in Democratic voters an almost evangelical passion. As it happens, there is precisely such a person. Her name is Elizabeth Warren.

Love her or hate her, it’s easy to see why Democrats are already floating her name. Ostensibly, she has all the qualities a candidate might need to launch a successful challenge to Hillary Clinton: the author describes Warren's popularity, fundraising capabilities, and “media magnetism” as the keys to her meteoric rise and star power. She's unpredictable, too, but not narcissistic -- unlike some Congressional lawmakers -- allowing her to take up causes dear to her and her base while not ostracizing her Senate colleagues in the process. But the most crucial question is this: would she even run if Hillary did too? Some strenuously argue that she wouldn't.

But maybe she would:

All of which is to say, if Hillary Clinton runs and retains her ties to Wall Street, Warren will be more likely to join the race, not less. Warren is shrewd enough to understand that the future of the Democratic Party is at stake in 2016. At 64, she knows that if Hillary wins and populates yet another administration with heirs to Robert Rubin, it will be at least eight years before there’s another chance to reclaim the party. “She has an immense—I can’t put it in words—a sense of destiny,” says a former aide. “If Hillary or the man on the moon is not representing her stuff, and her people don’t have a seat at table, she’ll do what she can to make sure it’s represented.” …

These words may be soothingly diplomatic, but her methods usually are not—and that should be terrifying for Hillary. An opponent who doesn’t heed political incentives is like a militant who doesn’t fear death. “Yeah, Hillary is running. And she’ll probably win,” says the former aide. “But Elizabeth doesn’t care about winning. She doesn’t care whose turn it is.”

Conventional wisdom tells us Senator Warren will sit this one out if and when Hillary goes all in. But from the looks of things Democrats are going to have one hell of a primary on their hands in 2016. Who knows? Hillary's path to the nomination might not be as clear and foreordained as people think.

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