POLITICS

Elizabeth Warren's Loved By Progressives. But They're Torn On Convincing Her To Run For President.

02/23/2015 07:33 am ET | Updated Feb 24, 2015
Alex Wong via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Four years ago, eyeing a defeat of Scott Brown, the liberal activist group Progressive Change Campaign Committee loudly encouraged Elizabeth Warren to return to Massachusetts and make a run for the Senate. The group raised $100,000 to draft the consumer advocate, which it gave to her the week after she announced her candidacy. From there, it raised more than $1.17 million and made nearly 575,000 get-out-the-vote calls on her behalf.

When she won, the PCCC praised the moment as the dawn of an era of unapologetic progressivism in the Senate.

With the progressive community now trying to convince Warren to run for higher office once more -- this time the White House in 2016 -- one would expect to find PCCC at the vanguard. Instead, it's stayed on the sidelines as two other groups, MoveOn and Democracy for America, have taken the lead of the Run Warren Run campaign.

"We have different strategies," explained Adam Green, PCCC's co-founder. "We do not oppose the Draft Warren campaign. But what we are doing is organizing in early states like New Hampshire and Iowa to incentive all presidential candidates on the Democratic side to endorse and campaign on Elizabeth Warren's agenda."

The prospect of Elizabeth Warren running for the White House has been a quixotic, sometimes confusing element of the pre-primary campaign. The school of thought that holds that such a run would be good for the Democratic Party -- if only to help presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton rid herself of rust -- is overwhelmed by Warren's dutiful insistence that she has no interest.

And yet, the talk persists.

Within the progressive universe, that persistent chatter has begun causing strain. All sides may share the objective of shaping a Democratic Party in Warren's populist, pugnacious image. But as PCCC's distance from the Draft Warren movement suggests, not everyone agrees on the means to get there.

For DFA and MoveOn -- and, more recently, New York’s Working Families Party -- the steps are clear. The groups have raised money, conducted polls, hosted launch events, opened offices, showed up at open house events, and hired staffers in key states with the express purpose of showing Warren that an infrastructure exists should she discover her presidential aspirations.

"We think the stakes are so high that we want to push to get her in this race," said T. Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America.

"The top objective of our campaign that we have been explicit about from the beginning is that this is an earnest effort to get her into the race," said Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org Civic Action, on a recent conference call.

This is a simple, direct goal. And were Warren showing signs of wavering about her next steps, it wouldn't be so controversial. But she's not. And because of that, other progressives look at the moves meant to lift her stature and wonder if they might end up sullying her image.

"What elevates her brand is that she is not a politician but a complete honest broker," said Ari Rabin-Havt, a prominent progressive strategist and Sirius XM host. "They are absolutely, 100 percent conflicting her core message. They are saying she is just a normal politician who will obfuscate when asked whether she would run for president. What makes Elizabeth Warren so great is she will not obfuscate."

At the heart of the dispute over Warren-for-president is a larger worry over the progressive movement's lot in politics in a post-Barack Obama era. Many progressive activists see a Hillary Clinton candidacy left unchallenged as a gateway to their own marginalization, similar to what they felt during her husband's presidency.

But there is also a less overtly stated concern that putting so much hope in Warren could backfire. The struggles to influence Obama during critical moments of his presidency showed the dangers in putting one's proverbial eggs in single basket.

"We have learned that while we can like politicians and support them wholeheartedly, we can not sublimate our brands to them," said Rabin-Havt. "We risk doing that again in this case."

Warren has spoken mostly in generalities about efforts to get her into the 2016 race. A progressive operative with knowledge of the relationship between her and the groups running the Draft Warren effort -- who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern of hurting professional relationships -- said they have had no communication since those efforts began out of an abundance of legal and political caution.

Among the Senator's allies, however, there are mixed emotions. Few doubt that talk of her running has raised her clout and, in turn, affected everything from budget negotiations, to executive branch nominations, to Clinton's own rhetoric and broader strategic messaging.

"I think our party needs a strong progressive wing," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y) recently told The Huffington Post. "And in general, not on every issue, the focus on middle-class incomes, people trying to be middle class, and the fact that the system is rigged against the average middle-class person by narrow special interests, emanates from the progressive wing of the party but is something I think the whole party accepts."

"You know," Schumer added, almost as an aside, "Elizabeth Warren and I get along really well."

But Warren allies also share concern about the end game, whenever it may come. Eventually the activists buying, literally, into the proposition that she might run will be told, convincingly, that the run won't happen. No one is entirely sure how that message will be delivered and received.

One progressive operative, who works with Democratic candidates, compared it to the Bush administration's vision for Iraq -- "liberators who don't have an exit strategy" -- while predicting only disheartenment for all involved: "The draft's existence almost assures that Warren will have to endorse Clinton immediately after she launches, squandering much of her ability to pressure Clinton from the left. The basic fundamentals of leverage are being ignored."

For those actually running the Run Warren Run campaign, these aren't just matters of differing strategic visions, they are personal broadsides. Their members, who were polled in advance to see if they supported the effort, aren't fragile flowers. "They are smart enough and savvy enough to know how to deal with the outcome regardless of what it is," said Sroka.

"Either she gets in and we have done exactly what our members wanted to do or she doesn’t and we have built a grassroots movement across the country among people who are committed to the issues that she stands for being front and center of the debate," he said. "It is frustrating some times, that 100 folks who work at progressive organizations and consulting firms don’t seem to get that."

As the sniping over the merits of Draft Warren continues, bits of news about the senator have begun taking on larger, deeper meaning. A private gathering that she had with Hillary Clinton deflates those cheering a presidential campaign. A question she recently took about a White House run rekindles hopes. The methodology of a recent poll about her hypothetical candidacy sparks sharp dispute.

Beyond the progressive activist community, however, many Democrats are moving on. One major donor who fundraised for Warren outside of Massachusetts in 2012 told The Huffington Post that he's lined up with Clinton. And why not? Warren has told everyone she isn't interested. Operatives, meanwhile, marvel that the party's base is more invested in propping up someone with no expressed interest in running than shuffling resources behind a progressive alternative who likely will.

"I don’t think the groups involved in the Draft Warren movement are necessarily thinking out all the consequences of everything they are doing today," said Tad Devine, a longtime strategist for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is poised to run for the White House but not necessarily as a Democrat.

"I’m not trying to be too harsh on them," he added. "I’m trying to be honest about it. They have their agenda. We probably share a lot of the agenda. But you have to recognize that they have their own imperatives as an organization. And organizing around a candidate who happens to be enormously popular brings more people to your cause."

Devine's comments are a more diplomatic version of a criticism that often bubbles below the surface of talk of the Draft Warren effort; mainly that DFA and MoveOn are doing it out of organizational self-interest -- a win-win ploy to promote progressive politics while fattening their email lists.

Were the groups not investing tangible resources into the effort, these charges would stick further. But MoveOn is spending real money ($1 million) and the DFA has pledged $250,000 in addition to hiring three organizers and a state director in New Hampshire. And though they scratch their heads about the methods, even critics don't question the motives.

"I legitimately believe that they are trying to convince Elizabeth Warren to enter the presidential race," said Rabin-Havt. "That said, I can take something at face value and believe it is strategically incoherent and wrong."

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