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Elizabeth Warren vs. Hillary Clinton in 2016: Great for Women, the Democratic Party, and America

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Okay, okay, out with it. You read this title and thought: 1) It's way too early to be talking about 2016. 2) Elizabeth Warren isn't running for president. 3) It's really way too early to be talking about 2016. Of course, it is certainly premature to speculate about the horse race of 2016, about who's in the lead, who's #2 with a bullet, and that sort of nonsense. You may remember that a Gallup poll showed Joe Lieberman (gulp) leading the Democratic field by six points on the eve of the first nationally televised presidential debates in late April 2003. That's not what this post is about.

There have been plenty of articles written in recent days about Sen. Warren's rising electoral prospects thanks to a new Quinnipiac poll showing her as the third "hottest" (based on popularity. What? You thought it was based on something else?) politician in the country, ahead of President Obama and just behind Hillary Clinton, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie placing first. If both Warren and Clinton were to run for president it would have a tremendously positive effect on gender equality, on our party, and the country by giving us a race unlike anything America has seen before.

I'm not throwing my support behind Sen. Warren for the nomination here. But I don't mind saying I'm impressed by her credentials, her policy positions, and her political abilities. In addition to her prior career as a law school professor and expert on bankruptcy, she has accomplished a great deal since coming to Washington in November 2008. First, she chaired the Congressional Oversight Panel set up to watchdog the bank bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, i.e., TARP. Then Warren served as the driving force behind the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And Sen. Warren has already shown herself to be an active force on the floor of the Senate since arriving there just this January. During her very first meeting of the Senate Banking Committee this February, her statement lamenting the fact that none of the big banks were taken to trial by the Securities and Exchange Commission after the malfeasance that led to the economic collapse of 2008 went viral: "I'm really concerned that 'too big to fail' has become 'too big for trial."


In May, Sen. Warren pushed hard for a strongly progressive alternative measure on student loans that would have enabled students to borrow money at the same rate of interest big banks receive from the government. In July she teamed up with Sen. John McCain to propose the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act. And there's this recent little dust-up over at CNBC. Sen. Warren is not a woman to be trifled with. Of course, neither is Hillary Clinton.

The prospect of electing a woman to the presidency is supremely exciting to me, as a citizen and as a father of two daughters. I do, however, remember one aspect of the 2008 race that left me less than excited. Gloria Steinem's January 2008 New York Times op-ed described Barack Obama's accomplishments up through 2004 and then asked readers to honestly consider, if Obama had been female, whether: "This is the biography of someone who could be elected to the United States Senate? After less than one term there, do you believe she could be a viable candidate to head the most powerful nation on earth? If you answered no to either question, you're not alone."

Steinem contrasted Obama's biography with the accomplishments of then-Sen. Clinton, and added that another plus for her candidate was that she had "no masculinity to prove." Thus, one key reason for supporting Clinton, according to Steinem, was her gender. Steinem added the observation that gender, not race or poverty, was "probably the most restricting force in American life." Finally, she argued that being a black male candidate offered an advantage over being a female candidate "because racism stereotyped black men as more 'masculine' for so long that some white men find their presence to be masculinity-affirming (as long as there aren't too many of them)."

The destructive and divisive effect of what Steinem did was not hard to predict. In fact, Steinem herself, only 11 months earlier, had rejected this kind of identity politics in another op-ed in the very same newspaper. She noted then that "most Americans are smart enough to figure out that a member of a group may or may not represent its interests," and added "forcing a choice between race and sex only conceals what's really going on." In the end, after a long and difficult race, candidates Obama and Clinton actively sought to heal the rifts that remained, and any reasonable assessment would acknowledge their strong success on that front.

On the other hand, a race that included both Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton, one that would in all likelihood end up with those two as the leading candidates, would avoid the whole matter of whether to "vote for the woman." Think about what it would do for young women -- and for women of any age -- to see not only one strong female candidate, but a race that came down to the two strongest candidates, both of them women. Think about what it would say that Hillary Clinton -- or Elizabeth Warren -- won the nomination despite not being the only woman in the race. Such a development would be tremendous for gender equality in this country.

How about for the Democratic Party? Equally tremendous. The biggest fight right now in our party is an ideological one, most easily summed up as left versus center-left. Without opening the question of accuracy or fairness, Hillary Clinton is generally seen as more of a center-left than a left-liberal Democrat, thanks to her association with the now defunct Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).

Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, has quickly become the standard bearer of more progressive Democrats, those who reject the DLC's "Third Way" approach. Although she has not asked for it, she has become the primary focus of attention among Democrats and liberals angry at Barack Obama for supposedly being not liberal enough on a host of matters, but mostly relating to economic/social spending policies.

This conflict is as substantive and serious as any around which a campaign for a major party's presidential nomination could center. It is, in fact, the core conflict within the Democratic Party, one that we have revisited in each presidential nominating campaign since at least 1976.

It would be terrific to have that debate without the two wings of the party being represented by candidates of a different gender. It would be especially terrific for more progressive Democrats to be free of the conflict over whether to vote for an obviously well-qualified woman in Hillary Clinton in order to break the ultimate glass ceiling, or for a male candidate with whom they agree more often on the issues. Democrats would benefit from avoiding that kind of gut-wrenching decision, especially if Clinton ultimately lost to a male progressive running to her left. Would it destroy the party? Of course not. But a race that included both Warren and Clinton would render such a conflict moot.

In 2008 Gloria Steinem said that if Barack Obama won the nomination, it would be due in part to his gender. To put it simply -- whether Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren were to win the nomination in 2016 -- wouldn't it be great if none of her detractors could say that about her?