Elizabeth Warren’s Summer of Surrogacy Helps Keep 2016 Talk Alive

Warren is traveling far and wide, sparking speculation about her national ambitions. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Warren is traveling far and wide, sparking speculation about her national ambitions. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 22, 2014 at 5:00am

If Rand Paul is taking this summer’s most prominent turn in the Republican spotlight, then the same must be said for his Senate colleague Elizabeth Warren among the new generation of national Democratic players.  

The two first-term senators are generating their surges in attention in different ways, probably because they have different timetables in mind for their presidential aspirations.  

While Paul is overtly laying the groundwork for a virtually certain 2016 campaign with a series of bold fundraising, staffing and legislative moves totally disconnected from his home base in Kentucky, Warren has been taking another tack with a seemingly alternate objective. She, too, has been spending most of her not-in-session time politicking far from her home base of Massachusetts, but almost all her campaigning and cash collecting has been on behalf of others. Since March, Warren has traveled to seven states for Democratic senators or candidates in competitive contests. At every stop, she’s urged by her passionate liberal fan base to seek the presidency. And each time she’s demurred, saying she’s all about helping the party in the midterms and isn’t going to make a bid in 2016 — but never quite slamming shut and locking the door.  

Her implied message seems easy to deduce: Warren, who turned 65 in June after just 18 months in the Senate, is willing to bide her time for at least one more presidential cycle. While positioning herself as the de facto leader of her party’s progressive wing, she’s not raring to bet her ambition on an uphill civil war against the more centrist, pro-business establishment Democrats massing behind Hillary Rodham Clinton.  

But if Clinton, whose candidacy Warren has publicly encouraged, for some reason decides not to run or stumbles dramatically in the very early going, Warren would be in position to fill the void with her feisty message of economic populism.  

That’s probably why she smiled broadly, made a half-hearted shushing gesture but then waited patiently last week until the “Elizabeth Warren for president” signs were lowered and the “Run, Liz, run!” chants died down at the annual Netroots Nation gathering of progressive activists in Detroit. After a 17-minute stump speech railing against income inequality and touting all the other current causes of the left, she stuck around signing copies of her liberal-manifesto-in-the-guise-of-a-memoir, “A Fighting Chance.”  

The placards were provided by a grass-roots group called Ready 4 Warren, which had just launched its website featuring a petition to draft the senator for the White House; it crested 15,000 Facebook “likes” on Monday afternoon.  

(If she does go for the brass ring in two years, step one would be confronting her campaign promise to complete her first Senate term, which ends in four years.)  

While in Detroit, Warren headlined a fundraiser for Rep. Gary Peters, who is in a tightening Senate contest against Republican Terri Lynn Land, a former Michigan secretary of State. Earlier in the week, Warren went to West Virginia to raise money for a much more decided underdog seeking an open Senate seat, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. The $100,000 haul was notable because the Democrat’s fundraising has lagged far behind that of Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, and because Tennant has positioned herself in the conservative state as much more of a centrist than Warren.  

There was similar ideological disconnect at the end of June, when Warren appeared at a fundraiser and University of Louisville rally beside Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who’s distancing herself plenty from mainstream Democratic positions in her challenge to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Both Tennant and Grimes have spoken out, for example, against President Barack Obama’s efforts to limit coal emissions, which Warren is fully behind.)  

In the spring, Warren went on the road to raise money for two liberal incumbents who face viable long shot GOP challenges this fall, Sens. Al Franken of Minnesota and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and two liberal colleagues who aren’t on the ballot this year, Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Patty Murray of Washington. (She’s also got her own leadership political action committee, PAC for a Level Playing Field, raising money to support Senate candidates and party committees.)  

Warren’s effort to transform herself in just three years from Harvard law professor to topflight Democratic surrogate may amount to less than her ambitious itinerary suggests. A Politico poll out Monday found that having Warren’s public help sways only 16 percent of voters toward the chosen candidate — the most meager showing among a handful of nationally prominent Democrats.  

Coincidentally, the Warren presidential boomlet comes on the fourth anniversary of what may stand as her most important policymaking achievement, especially if she confines her political career to life in a Senate that could remain defined by deadlock indefinitely.  

Few people can say they had such a big hand in landmark legislation without the benefits of congressional membership. But a central provision of the Wall Street regulatory overhaul Obama signed July 21, 2010, was the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was Warren’s brainchild. Her advocacy for the agency made her a national figure several years before she was first a candidate for Congress — hailed by liberals as a worthy new champion of the little guy and despised by conservatives as an off-putting avatar of government overreach.  

That’s the same dichotomy she manifests now, and after less than two years in office the perceptions of Warren on both the left and right seem only to be hardening.  

Other polarizing Senate newcomers have concluded a relatively quick up-or-out move is the only viable course for leveraging super nova celebrity. Whether Obama made the right call is for history to judge. Whether the same call is right for Warren is still for her to decide.