The PJ Tatler

How Long Can Elizabeth Warren Resist the Siren Song of High Office?

You are probably familiar with the creatures from Greek mythology known as the Sirens. They lived on an island in the Aegean Sea and it was said that if sailors heard their seductive and beautiful song, they would go mad and crash their ship into the island’s rocky shores.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus very much wanted to hear the song of the Sirens, but he didn’t want to be shipwrecked. So he had his men tie him to the mast and plug their ears with beeswax. He ordered them not to release him under any circumstances, no matter how much be begged or threatened them.

Sure enough, as Odysseus’s ship sailed past the Sirens’ island, the singing drove the hero to near madness. He pleaded and begged his men to release him, to no avail. But Odysseus became known as the only human who resisted the siren song, albeit because he was restrained.

You have to wonder if Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose profile has been raised considerably this week because of her public break with President Obama and her opposition to Cromnibus, is lashed tight enough to the mast in order to resist the growing chorus from the left, urging her to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

For months, Warren has been almost Shermanesque in her denials that she’s running for president. But you have to wonder if the left’s Siren Song urging her to run might be giving her second thoughts.

The liberal magazine that used to be The New Republic features an article by Danny Vinik that highlights Warren’s anti-Wall Street cred with the liberal base of the Democratic Party, embodied in two issues: opposition to the Wall Street giveaway in Cromnibus, and the nomination of Antonio Weiss to be undersecretary of Treasury for Domestic Finance:

It’s rare for such a nominee to become a political issue, much less a political issue within a party. But that’s what has happened to Antonio Weiss, whom Obama nominated on November 12.

A week later, Warren came out vocally against Weiss, arguing that he was both unqualified for the job and another example of Democrats’ filling senior government positions with people from Wall Street. “The over-representation of Wall Street banks in senior government positions sends a bad message,” she wrote in the Huffington Post. “It tells people that one—and only one—point of view will dominate economic policymaking. It tells people that whatever goes wrong in this economy, the Wall Street banks will be protected first. That’s yet another advantage that Wall Street just doesn’t need.”

On Tuesday, Warren took her criticism of Weiss’s nomination up a notch. Speaking at a conference on the Federal Reserve, Warren tore into Weiss’s qualifications and ripped her party for cozying up to Wall Street.

This is red meat for the rabid anti-capitalist base of the Democratic Party, and the netnuts cheered her on.

But it is her threat to shut down the government over language in the spending bill that grants Wall Street some security in derivatives trading that has the base so excited:

But Warren’s biggest moment this week was her crusade against a must-pass spending bill over a little-known policy rider that would have eliminated a part in the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill. Section 716 prevents banks from using taxpayer-backed funds to trade in riskier financial products known as custom swaps. On Wednesday, Warren delivered a vicious speech on the Senate floor in which she implored House Democrats to kill the bill.

“Now, the House of Representatives is about to show us the worst of government for the rich and powerful,” she said. “The House is about to vote on a budget deal, a deal negotiated behind closed doors that slips in a provision that would let derivatives traders on Wall Street gamble with taxpayer money and get bailed out by the government when their risky bets threaten to blow up our financial system.… This provision is all about goosing the profits of the big banks.”

The provision has also garnered significant Democratic support in the past. In 2013, for instance, 70 Democrats voted for it in a bill that died in the Senate. Warren’s speech had made the issue toxic and persuaded other House Democrats to vote against not just the provision but a massive spending bill.

This position put her at direct odds with the White House. President Obama not only supported the bill, but he and Vice President Joe Biden made calls to individual Democratic congressman asking for their votes and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was dispatched to the Hill as well. In the end, Obama prevailed. Fifty-seven Democrats sided with 162 Republicans and the bill barely passed. But Warren had taken on the Democratic establishment and came within just a few votes of winning.

Warren is a populist whose appeal crosses party lines on issues like income inequality and Wall Street reform. It would be a mistake to underestimate her. Just because she’s a rabid leftist who wants to arrest bankers and punish the wealthy (she is the originator of the “you didn’t build that” theme) doesn’t mean that a decent Republican candidate could defeat her easily. She is very tough and would be a formidable opponent.

But could she beat Hillary for the Democratic nomination?

Hillary Clinton is far from invulnerable, and the more Warren rants about Wall Street, the more support she picks up in the party. At her urging, the Progressive Caucus came out opposing the spending bill, despite President Obama’s support. Unions and other liberal groups are also answering Warren’s call to oppose Cromnibus. The bill’s fate is uncertain in the Senate, given the fuss raised by Warren and the lobbying by the base who dearly want to see Warren succeed.

Hillary Clinton does not have this kind of clout. She has remained mute on the Cromnibus issue and is paying for it as Warren cleans up, garnering the love and support from the base that Hillary could only dream of getting.

But Warren is being very cautious. The increasing drumbeat for her to enter the race for president recalls other such efforts in presidential campaigns. The GOP pressure on Fred Thompson to run in 2008 and the Dems’ boomlet for General Wesley Clark in 2004 ended up disastrously for both candidates. No doubt Warren would like to avoid those scenarios at all costs.

Still, it’s heady stuff for a former Harvard professor and freshman senator to hear so many begging her to take the plunge. She still has a few months to decide, but the longer she waits, the more problematic it becomes for her. Hillary is locking up staff and donors who may support Warren in their hearts, but realize that Clinton is the heavy favorite.

Practical politics has a way of trumping ideology when it comes to the high-stakes game of running for high office.