Elizabeth Warren said it again, and again. She’s not running for president. This time, Warren was talking to NPR’s Steve Inskeep, who like many in Washington, pointed out that Warren keeps using the present tense when she describes her presidential aspirations–leaving open the possibility that she might run in the future, like in the first quarter of 2015.
INSKEEP: You’re putting that in the present tense, though. Are you never going to run?
WARREN: I am not running for president.
INSKEEP: You’re not putting a “never” on that.
WARREN: I am not running for president. You want me to put an exclamation point at the end?
The interview caught the attention of both the right and the far left—with the Republican National Committee blasting out the remarks in an email where they noted that “Democratic insiders aren’t buying” her denials. Within minutes, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee also focused on Warren’s words, shooting out an email that recounts the work that the group has done for her. “The way for Democrats to inspire the public is to give Americans the debate about big ideas that we deserve–and that means following Elizabeth Warren’s lead,” said Stephanie Taylor, the committee’s co-founder.
This debate about the senator’s choice of verb tense has been going on since at least last year, when the New Republic floated the notion that a Warren candidacy would amount to a “nightmare” for Hillary Clinton. Shortly after that piece hit the newsstands in late 2013, the Boston Globe‘s Noah Bierman questioned Warren at length during a news conference. Bierman honed in on her verb choice, got the now-standard rebuff, and then tried another angle of attack that Washington journalists might find more fruitful to copy: Will Warren promise to finish her six-year term in the Senate? (She’s up again in 2018.)
Warren’s answer in December 2013: “I pledge to serve out my full term.”
Since then a number of groups have been trying to change Warren’s mind, including the Ready for Warren super-PAC, MoveOn.org and a group of former staff to President Barack Obama. She also took center stage over the weekend arguing against the $1.1 trillion cromnibus legislation because of riders that water down regulations on financial institutions, which is partly what prompted Inskeep to revisit the verb conjugation question.
It’s a quandary for any politician, who generally are advised to never-say-never to the presidential question. After all, no one can predict with certainty the dynamics of a race.
Leaving that tiny amount of wiggle room keeps her relevant—and leaves the national media and her legions of supporters scrutinizing her words—without exposing her to the criticism she would attract during a national campaign. That national network gives her power, it’s useful for raising cash, for flooding the Senate phone lines when a key piece of legislation is being debated and filling auditoriums when she’s out campaigning. (We don’t see photos of half-empty Warren events, unlike another star Democrat.) Those legions of supporters allow her to be both an insider and an outsider at the same time, a space that few in Washington manage to occupy. (Ted Cruz too is doing it—another who is making the 2016 lists.)
In “A Fighting Chance,” Warren remembers a conversation with Harvard’s Larry Summers at the Bombay Club, a clubby Washington restaurant near the White House. “He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider, or I could be an outsider,” Warren wrote. Outsiders would have a voice that the masses might listen to, but the decision-makers behind closed doors would ignore her. Insiders keep their opinions to themselves and get access to important people. “Insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders,” Summers said, she wrote. “I had been warned.”
It’s a rule that just isn’t applying to Elizabeth Warren. She’s shown little restraint this year criticizing President Barack Obama. She also just got promoted to be in Senate Leadership.
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