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Why Elizabeth Warren Is Winning Even Though She Isn't Running

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has been out on the hustings over the last few weeks, appearing with Democratic Senate candidates and electrifying crowds with her singular brand of economic populism.

Despite her disavowal of any plans to run for president in 2016, her campaign appearances have heightened speculation that she is, indeed, dipping a toe in the water to test audience responses to her favorite themes: evil Wall Street bankers, oppressive student loan debt, the greedy billionaire plutocrats, and crazy Republicans.

But Warren appears to be sincere about sidelining herself for 2016. A group calling itself “Ready for Warren” launched a website recently to promote her candidacy. Warren spokeswoman Lacey Rose said in an email to Politico that the senator “does not support this effort.” Of course, no politician would completely rule out a run. But conditions would have to change dramatically for that to happen.

That’s because despite urban myths to the contrary, recent polling data shows that Hillary Clinton is extremely popular with the far left of her party — more so than with Democratic Party moderates, according to Aaron Blake:

* A Washington Post/ABC News poll this month showed Clinton taking a bigger share of the vote in the 2016 primary among self-described liberals (72 percent) than among moderate and conservative Democrats (60 percent).

* The same poll shows 18 percent of moderate Democrats don’t want Clinton to run. Just 6 percent of liberal Democrats agree.

This is not to say that the prospect of a Warren candidacy wouldn’t siphon off some of those liberals who now support Clinton. It just isn’t likely there would be enough of them to seriously challenge the frontrunner.

So what is Elizabeth Warren doing campaigning in red states? Democrats believe they can exploit the anger that many middle and working class people feel toward Wall Street and the rich and that there is simply no better messenger in their party to gin up the outrage than Elizabeth Warren.

In West Virginia, Warren lit into GOP Senate candidate Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, accusing her of being a tool of Wall Street bankers.

“When [Wall Street] needs her, [Capito’s] been there,” Warren said in a packed hotel ballroom. “She’s out there for Wall Street, she’s leading the charge. … We need some more people who are willing to work on the side of America’s families.”

Herein lies the divide in the Democratic Party and is the main reason Warren is so popular. The left may be supporting Hillary Clinton as a practical matter. But they are still skeptical of her allegiance to their issues and their worldview. Nor does Clinton help her case with the Democratic base when she acts like one of the 1%. Noam Scheiber of The New Republic:

On her own time, Clinton has enjoyed several six-figure paydays speaking to corporate executives, including two at Goldman Sachs that netted her an estimated $400,000. And, of course, she has repeatedly struggled to justify all the buckraking, telling Diane Sawyer that she and her husband were “dead broke” when they left the White House. “There’s a lot of vulnerability in the Clinton record going back to Glass-Steagall [the landmark banking regulation her husband mothballed],” says a longtime Democratic presidential operative. “It’s obviously reinforced by this silliness about being broke.”

Scheiber also delineates the real fault line in the Democratic Party. With the news filled with reports from the front line of the GOP civil war, not much is said about the Democrats’ own struggles to define their party for 2016 and beyond.

The kind of Democrat that Hillary Clinton appeals to most is a more traditional, bread-and-butter Democrat who wants more social spending for the poor and middle class to presumably help them overcome the high unemployment and stagnant wages of the last few decades. “Fairness,” entitlements, “female empowerment,” racial justice,  pro-union legislation — these are the issues that Hillary Clinton would like to run on if she takes the plunge and enters the race.

But the issue that most galvanizes the Warren supporter is economic inequality — specifically, the huge gap between the super rich and the rest of us. Where the Warren and Clinton factions cleave is on the notion that something can be done about income inequality. Clinton gives lip service to the issue while Warren has made it a centerpiece of her political personae. Hillary really has no standing on the matter since she is widely viewed as too cozy with the “too big to fail” crowd. But she has the rhetoric down pat and can sound just as radical as Warren on the subject.

More than anything else, what excites the Democratic base about Warren is her insistence that income inequality is the number one issue facing America. And while Hillary Clinton cozies up to plutocrats who give hundreds of millions of dollars to her and her husband’s foundation, the far-left liberals who believed so passionately in the now defunct Occupy Wall Street movement pine for a Warren candidacy.

They may not get it. But, as John Dickerson of Slate points out, if she decides to run, Warren’s high profile will mean it is her issues that will dominate the debate inside the Democratic Party in 2016:

If Warren joined the race, she would not win, but she would till the ground, putting grit and the smell of earth in the contest. She would energize the Democratic Party’s liberal base, which would then stir up other Democrats who seek to moderate or contain that group. Warren would challenge the Democratic Party on issues like corporate power, income inequality, and entitlements. She would be a long shot and she would have nothing to lose—which means she could keep talking about those ideas out loud.  Because Clinton is close to Wall Street and finance executives and Warren is gunning for them, she has the potential to put campaign pressure on Clinton that other candidates can’t. Clinton and other candidates would be forced to explain where they stood more than if Warren weren’t in the race.

The drawback for Democrats is once you get passed the turgid rhetoric of Warren and the wealth-inequality warriors, they are left with the question — “So? What are you going to do about it?”

Warren says raising the minimum wage would be a good first step. This is sort of like President Obama saying that passing immigration reform would have stopped the current border crisis — not quite a lie, but beyond fantasy. They can’t talk about how to solve the problem because their solutions would reveal their true nature: their desire to destroy free market capitalism. It’s no accident that the Democrats have turned to a Frenchman, Thomas Piketty, as their new economic guru. Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has been wildly popular with the hard left because of its near religious arguments against capitalism. It’s the rhetoric of Elizabeth Warren told in graphs and charts.

If Hillary Clinton runs, she’s going to have to sound an awful lot like Elizabeth Warren. In that sense, Warren is already a winner in 2016. The hard left has given up on denying Clinton the nomination and is now concentrating on holding her feet to the fire on economic populist issues.

In this, their success will form the basis for the debate with the Republican nominee, who better have a good answer when the question of wealth inequality comes up.

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