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Juan Williams: Warren towers above

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The 2014 winner of my annual award for “Member of Congress of the Year” goes to the politician who had such a good year she now defines her party’s future — Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWATCH LIVE: Warren campaigns for Clinton in NH Fifteen years since pivotal executive order, STORM Act could help fight terror finance Wells Fargo scandal should be major campaign issue MORE (D-Mass.).

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Warren faced some serious competition. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had a very good year, easily winning what once looked like a tough reelection race. He is now set to become Senate majority leader. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) had a good year, too, arguably rising to be the GOP’s top contender for the party’s presidential nomination. But Warren is a different, bigger story.

The Massachusetts senator could become the Barack Obama of 2016, able to grab the Democrats’ presidential nomination from the favorite, Hillary Clinton, by coming at her from the left. The defining issue for Democrats in 2008 was Iraq. In 2016 it will be the economy. Warren is much more in step with the party on this issue than is Clinton.

Warren’s economic populism also defines the party’s present. After losses in the midterms, the Democrats have concluded that it is time for them to go on offense, utilizing Warren’s issues — raising the minimum wage, cutting better deals on student loans and supporting equal pay for women.

The new political direction set by Warren led Senate Democrats to add the first-term senator to their leadership team. They created a position just for her: “Strategic Policy Adviser to the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.”

That means Warren will be at the table shaping the identity of Democrats in the Senate, as they become a loud, defiant minority beginning in January.

But Warren looms largest over the 2016 race.

Democratic strategists are openly worried that with President Obama leaving the stage, the base of their party — women, unions, young people and racial minorities — will lose interest in politics and splinter. That could allow a unified GOP to retake the White House. Warren’s focus on economic inequality is proving to be the glue holding the Democrats together.

Warren’s surprising power is evident in her ability to force Clinton, the former senator from Wall Street’s home state and a well-paid speaker for top brokerages, to go on the attack against income inequality.

“I love watching Elizabeth give it to those who deserve to get it,” she said at a late October rally in Boston. Clinton was referring to Warren’s calls for increased regulation of big banks and Wall Street brokers who have “tried to trick and trap and cheat our families.” Clinton also echoed Warren’s rhetoric when she said at the same rally: “Don’t let anybody tell you that, you know, it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) struck a Warren-like note last week, when he said the Democrats lost the midterms because they spent too much time on the healthcare law when they should have been working on improving the economy for the middle class.

The resonance of Warren’s economic populist agenda was evident in a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll. It found 56 percent of Americans agree with the statement: “The economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me.” Twelve years ago, only 34 percent of Americans agreed with that statement.

In the current Real Clear Politics average of polls asking Democrats to select their top choice as the party’s 2016 presidential nominee, Warren is running second. And she trails Clinton by a huge margin, 51 percentage points.

But a poll taken this month by the progressive group Democracy for America found Warren to be the most popular choice for party activists asked whom they wanted to see run. Warren drew 42 percent support, overshadowing Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 24 percent and Clinton’s 23 percent.

Warren also gave the political speech of the year. At the liberal Netroots Convention, she defined the values and specific issues that electrify and unite Democrats and that draw swing voters.

“These are American values,” she said, “and these are the values we are willing to fight for. … Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement. … We believe in science and that means that we have a responsibility to protect the earth. … We believe no one should work full time and still live in poverty. That means raising the minimum wage. And we will fight for it …

“We believe that students are entitled to get an education without being crushed by debt. And we are willing to fight for it,” Warren continued as the cheering grew and grew. “We believe that, after a lifetime of work, people are entitled to retire with dignity, and that means protecting Social Security, Medicare and pensions. … We believe – only I can’t believe I have to say this in 2014 – we believe in equal pay for equal work, and we are willing to fight for it.”

Warren also backed immigration reform.

People whom this column has previously chosen as the Member of Congress of the Year have wrought big changes: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) on immigration, and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D- Ore .) on Senate rules.

Warren fits the mold as a game changer.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.