Hillary Clinton delays, Elizabeth Warren demurs, Jeb Bush explores, and Mitt Romney fades. The Democrats’ newly resurgent left pines for a Warren run. So too do Republicans. As Democrats seem more inclined to move left, the GOP may be moving to the center, and it’s there that presidential elections are won and lost.
Clinton appears to have a lock on the Democratic nomination. A McClatchy-Marist poll from earlier this week, for example, found her support at 62 percent with others trailing far behind: vice president Joe Biden at 11 percent, Warren at 9 percent. That’s in line with surveys from the likes of CNN and Quinnipiac University, all of which show the former First Lady and Secretary of State with what looks like an insurmountable lead.
But is she really running? Ever since Obama was reelected, people have been asking, and Clinton hasn’t been answering. Her reticence is sensible. The election is still two years away, after all; attention focused on her before the midterms would have been a distraction. In all likelihood, Clinton will announce her intentions come the new year.
Still the delays have prompted speculation. Maybe she’s ill. Maybe she really doesn’t want it. Maybe she’s too tired or old for the fight.
Or maybe — polls notwithstanding — she’s not what Democrats want.
She’s out of step with the times, goes the argument. The Democratic Party is shifting left, there’s Clinton Fatigue, and her brand of safe, middle-of-the-road politics doesn’t enthuse the young adults, minorities, and disaffected that the party relies upon.
Enter Elizabeth Warren. Like Clinton’s delays, Warren’s demurrals madden some. “I’m not running for president,” she told NPR’s Steve Inskeep in a recent interview. He pushed back: “You’re putting that in the present tense, though. Are you never going to run?” She gave the same answer, “I am not running for president.”
“You’re not putting a ‘never’ on that,” Inskeep observed. Warren repeated herself again: “I am not running for president.”
Shermanesque, Warren is not.
And for good reason: She’s got a serious shot.
Democrats seem decidedly dispirited and enervated. Warren, on the other hand, is electric, feeding off of rising worries over bank bailouts, campaign finance, income inequality, and anger at police treatment of minorities. Primary contests tend to be dominated by true believers, exactly the kind of folks that Warren could energize. As Barack Obama was able to use his star power to overcome Clinton’s seeming inevitability in 2008, Warren’s newfound celebrity could do the same in 2016. And even if she didn’t win, she could — as de facto head of what seems an emerging left-wing, Tea Party-like faction — force the party to accommodate to her politics.
Meanwhile, yet another Bush looks set to run, thrilling establishment Republicans. The name, the connections, and the money could make Bush so formidable in the primaries that he wouldn’t need to pander to his party’s right wing. There would be no repeat of the shenanigans of 2012, with its anybody-but-Romney refrains and cast of crazy characters at each other’s’ throats, each at some point at the top of the polls.
Those hopes may be overstated. Yes, with Bush in, Romney’s out. (Romney’s been denying an interest in running anyway; the flame of his candidacy has been kept alive by those who are also cheering for Bush.) But the likes of senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and governors Rick Perry and Chris Christie won’t roll over easily. Bush will face a fight. Still it’s realistic to think he can consolidate the field early.
And then, of course, would come the general election. The true-reds and true-blues will vote as expected. But those in the middle — more pragmatic and less ideological — will look for someone with whom they can feel comfortable. At this juncture, the moderate former Florida governor seems to fit the bill.
Democrats should be worried. Even though Clinton now polls ahead of Bush in general election matchups, a different nominee — Warren or perhaps Clinton pushed to the extreme — would not have the same appeal to centrists. Liberal stalwarts may not care, thinking ideological purity should trump crass concerns about winning. But the upshot might be a third Bush in the White House.
This column was first published in The Boston Sunday Globe on December 21, 2014.