When I profiled Elizabeth Warren last fall, I argued that the political press had largely misunderstood her thinking about a possible presidential campaign. The conventional wisdom held that Warren almost certainly wouldn’t run for president if Hillary Clinton did, but that she very well might if Clinton took a pass on the race. My view was that this was mostly backward: Warren wasn’t likely to run either way, because unlike most politicians, she doesn’t harbor a lifelong ambition to be president. But if Hillary were to run basically unopposed, this would make Warren far more likely to get in the race. That’s because a Hillary Clinton coronation would mean a Democratic nominee with close ties to Wall Street and the neoliberal wing of the party—two forces Warren has been battling for decades. And while Warren isn’t obsessed with being president, she is monomaniacally, even messianically, obsessed with winning this fight. “She has an immense—I can’t put it in words—a sense of destiny,” a former aide told me. “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.”
Since the piece came out, there have been a variety of data points suggesting that, whatever the virtues of this logic, Warren wasn’t getting in the race. Not least of them was Warren’s own pronouncements and those of her top fundraiser. I have to say I’ve never found these data points especially compelling. They’re what a high profile-politician has to say more than a year before decision-time, just so they’ll be able to function from day to day. Even leaving the door slightly open at this point would create a deluge of “Oh-my-god-Elizabeth-Warren-is-challenging-Hillary-Clinton” coverage that would make life crippling for both Warren and Clinton.
More to the point, as Henrik Hertzberg pointed out at the time, Warren could say she wasn’t running, and even mean it. But she couldn’t possibly know it. A year or two is a ton of time in politics, and these decisions are often influenced by events that a potential candidate can neither anticipate nor control. Recall that Barack Obama emphatically told Tim Russert that he “will not” run for president or vice president in 2008 at about the same point in the presidential cycle.
Having said all that, today is the first time I’m actually starting to doubt my own logic. The occasion is Warren’s forthcoming book, A Fighting Chance, a copy of which I just received. The key passage describes the events that unfolded in Congress after Warren served on a commission that opposed the stricter bankruptcy laws the banking industry had aggressively pushed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Here’s how Warren describes them in her new book:
The commission report had been delivered in October 1997, and for the next three years we fought off the industry as best we could. But in 2000, we were running out of ways to counter the relentless campaign. The industry-supported bankruptcy bill passed the House and Senate by sizable margins. Fortunately, one last warrior held out against the banks and the credit card companies: President Clinton. In 1998, I had met with First Lady Hillary Clinton to discuss the proposed bankruptcy legislation, and after our meeting she had declared that she would fight on behalf of working families, against “that awful bill.” Now the president was under enormous pressure from the banks to sign the bill, but in the last days of his presidency, urged on by his wife, President Clinton stood strong with struggling families. With no public fanfare, he vetoed the industry’s bill.
Suffice it to say, this account casts both Clintons in a very flattering light. It’s heartening to any progressive who might have mixed feelings about supporting Hillary in 2016.
Unfortunately, it’s only half the story. Warren told the fuller version in her previous book, The Two Income Trap. Here’s the relevant passage:
In the spring of 2001, the bankruptcy bill was reintroduced in the Senate, essentially unchanged from the version President Clinton had vetoed the previous year. This time freshman Senator Hillary Clinton voted in favor of the bill. Had the bill been transformed to get rid of all those awful provisions that had so concerned First Lady Hillary Clinton? The bill was essentially the same, but Hillary Rodham Clinton was not. As First Lady, Mrs. Clinton had been persuaded that the bill was bad for families, and she was willing to fight for her beliefs. Her husband was a lame duck at the time he vetoed the bill; he could afford to forgo future campaign contributions. As New York’s newest senator, however, it seems that Hillary Clinton could not afford such a principled position. Campaigns cost money, and that money wasn’t coming from families in financial trouble. Senator Clinton received $140,000 in campaign contributions from banking industry executives in a single year, making her one of the top two recipients in the Senate. Big banks were now part of Senator Clinton’s constituency. She wanted their support, and they wanted hers—including a vote in favor of “that awful bill.”
Not quite so flattering, is it? (Hillary later backed off her support of the 2001 bill under pressure from Obama during the 2008 primary campaign.)
But setting aside the question of what it means for a possible Clinton candidacy and presidency, I think it tells us a lot about Warren’s state of mind. Namely, that she’s more interested these days in downplaying (even erasing) differences between herself and Clinton than highlighting them. And if Warren is vouching for Clinton as a defender of working families and slayer of banks, it’s going to go along way toward defusing populist suspicion of Hillary, the very place from which the energy for a Warren campaign is most likely to come.
Bottom line: Until today, I thought there was a small but significant chance Warren would challenge Clinton in 2016. I now think it’s pretty damn close to insignificant (though not all the way—what can I say, I'm incorrigible!).
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber