What does Warren want?
She has a spot in Democratic leadership, a swelling alliance of liberals in Congress and a rabid following in the Democratic Party.
The question is: What does Elizabeth Warren want to do with all that power?
Groups on the left are trying to draft the Massachusetts liberal into the presidential race, viewing her as the perfect populist counterweight to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Warren has steadfastly refused those overtures, and allies take her at her word that she isn’t planning to run.
Meanwhile, her influence in the Senate is on the rise, partly due to a new position in Democratic leadership that makes her a liaison to groups on the left who have grown frustrated with the party’s direction.
Warren has signaled she won’t be a shrinking violet in the post, last week defying Senate leaders and the White House to lead a revolt against government funding legislation that included a provision that rolled back part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
While the uprising ultimately failed, the fight showed Warren has real clout.
“When she gets involved in issues, she makes a real impact right away,” said one financial lobbyist. “When she gets involved in an issue, it spooks other members. … It’s just not worth it sometimes to be against her.”
Warren was already a rock star among liberals before she arrived in the Senate. She first gained recognition as an outspoken critic of the financial industry at Harvard, and rose to White House adviser when her brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, became reality in the Dodd-Frank law.
Associates and observers of Warren believe she will spend her new political capital on the issues that brought her to Washington in the first place — defending consumers and the middle class and fighting the power of Wall Street.
“Her commitment to these issues … is steadfast,” said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America. “Wherever she is, and whatever position she holds, that will be a priority and that will be the focus of her work.”
But many in the Democratic Party say Warren should set her ambitions higher.
What better place to fight for consumers, they say, than from the Oval Office?
“Sen. Warren was made for this moment, and this moment was made for her,” said Ben Wikler, Washington director for MoveOn.org, which recently launched a $1 million “Draft Warren” initiative for 2016. “A senator’s ability to make a difference … is a tiny fraction of the president’s.”
A group founded by former presidential candidate Howard Dean, Democracy for America, announced shortly after MoveOn’s announcement it would be pursuing the same goal.
The two groups join the likes of “Ready for Warren” in pushing for the senator to jump in the race. On Friday, a group of 300 former Obama campaign workers threw their support behind the Warren movement.
The initiative marks the second time there has been a grassroots effort to pull Warren into a race. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee launched a “Draft Warren for Senate” campaign after reports she was being eyed by Democrats as a candidate in Massachusetts in 2012.
“In many ways, Elizabeth Warren’s economic populist message is the North Star for the Democratic Party,” said Adam Green, PCCC’s founder. “It’s entirely possible that Democrats lose the presidency if our standard-bearer is not actively campaigning on an Elizabeth Warren-style populist message.”
Warren has rejected the 2016 overtures, which is creating political baggage for her even as it raises her profile.
The senator has been careful about picking her battles, hewing closely to the bank bashing and populist economics that got her elected. But a presidential run would require her to develop a platform that spans the policy spectrum, including on foreign policy and defense issues that are not her forte.
Should Warren seek to rise through the ranks in the Senate, she faces the practical limitation of only being in her first term.
Warren, 63, trails in seniority behind several colleagues on the Banking Committee as well as the Democratic caucus, making a rapid ascent unlikely.
But supporters say she already has the influence she needs, regardless of what title she holds.
“There’s no one in the Congress today who has half the national following of Elizabeth Warren, and that is political muscle,” said Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets, a financial reform group. “She doesn’t need to be around for 20 years slogging her way through the leadership ladder to have power and influence. She’s already there.”
There are signs that Warren is beginning to flex a bit more of that muscle.
In addition to the battle over the funding bill, Warren has clashed with the White House over President Obama’s nominee to fill the top domestic policy post within the Treasury Department. The administration and its backers have called Antonio Weiss, a longtime investment banker at Lazard, the perfect expert for the critical job.
But Warren has been on the warpath against the nominee, arguing he is the perfect example of how the “revolving door” corrupts government.
“No one likes to ignore phone calls from former colleagues, and no one likes to advance policies that could hurt future employers,” she said.
As she did with the “cromnibus,” Warren has drawn Democrats to her cause, as six fellow senators now oppose Weiss’s nomination.
“She is able to pressure people in lots of important ways that are more subtle than just going to the floor and railing,” the lobbyist said.
— This story was corrected at 10:23 a.m. to reflect that the Progressive Change Campaign Committee launched a campaign to draft Sen. Warren into the 2012 Senate race. A previous version contained incorrect information.