If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Vice President Joseph Biden must think the world of the senior senator from Massachusetts.
Appearing Friday at fundraiser in South Carolina (he was in the Palmetto State to deliver the commencement address at the University of South Carolina), Biden delivered what one attendee described as “an Elizabeth Warren-type speech” replete with observations about soul-sucking stockholders and a system rigged against working-class stiffs.
So why the sudden populist tone from the Vice President?
It’s the same reason why Biden bothered at all with a graduation speech in a part of the country that hasn’t gone Democratic presidentially since 1976:
1) South Carolina’s an early primary state;
2) Biden doesn’t want to miss out on the early rush to occupy the space to the left of Hillary Clinton.
It’s a tradition on the Democratic side of the primary process – the odds-on-favorite can expected a spirited challenge from an individual who sports up the liberal banner. Sometimes, it works out – i.e., Barack Obama in 2008. More often, it doesn’t (think Howard Dean in 2004, Edward Kennedy in 1980 and Eugene McCarthy in 1968).
So far, 2016 is no exception to the rule. And at present, the focus in on Warren, a first-term senator (elected in 2012), Harvard Law professor (bankruptcy law her forte) and longtime consumer advocate who takes credit for the Occupy Wall Street movement (the three words that most frighten the financial sector, the joke goes: President Elizabeth Warren).
Warren says she’s not running in 2016. But in the read-between-the-lines, feel-free-to-overanalyze world of politics, it hasn’t gone without notice that, when asked whether Mrs. Clinton would make a good president, Warren’s response has been a measured “I think she’s terrific.”
Given that opening, and the fact that Warren lately is doing what many a presidential candidate has done in between campaign cycles – touring the country, peddling a biography– it’s enough to send the media into a tizzy, such as this recent New Republic cover story: “Hillary’s Nightmare? A Democratic Party That Realizes its Soul Lies With Elizabeth Warren”.
The media hype notwithstanding, there are legitimate reasons for a Warren run, other than ambition or vanity. Washington Examiner columnist Byron York lists five arguments in favor:
1) Life’s unpredictable – Hillary Clinton may shock the world by taking a pass on 2016;
2) Parties need a competitive nominating process – Warren would make Clinton a sharper candidate;
3) The Clintons never did thrill the left – liberals want a hero;
4) Clinton made mistakes in 2008 – she could do so again;
5) It may be the challenger’s one shot – Warren, born 20 months after Mrs. Clinton, will be 67 come November 2016.
I’d add one more:
6) Media fun with the names – over the years, Warren has made misleading claims of American-Indian heritage, leading to all sorts of suggested tribal names courtesy of her critics in the online community (“She Will Sioux”, “Hunts at Whole Foods” . . . and the widely-used “Fauxcahontas”).
Warren could change her mind and mount a presidential run. And there’s historical precedent: Robert Kennedy, in 1968.
RFK stayed out of the race throughout 1967 (McCarthy entered at the end of November, galvanizing the anti-war movement on the left). He remained mum through the early weeks in 1968 until two events: the Tet Offensive in late January/February and the Kerner Report – formally, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in July 1967 – chronicling urban unrest in Newark and Detroit. Kennedy concluded the nation couldn’t afford four more years of Lyndon Johnson. After failing to find a way to force McCarthy out of the race, RFK threw his hat in the ring on March 16 (two weeks later, LBJ told the nation he wouldn’t seek re-election).
1968 was an exceptionally tumultuous year in American history – war, assassinations, riots. Still, some of the same ingredients will have to exist for Warren to mount a surprise challenge.
That would include:
1) A Dyspeptic Left. Democratic liberals have never cared for the Clintons (it goes back to 1992 and Bill “New Democrat” theme). But what if Obama also disheartens the left in his final two years in office (i.e., cutting a deal with Republicans on the Keystone XL pipeline)? Warren could be the rallying point for those unhappy true believers.
2) A Shaky Frontrunner. There’s one other reason why RFK ran in 1968, in addition to the ones already mentioned: LBJ “lost” that year’s New Hampshire primary by failing to win a majority and defeating McCarthy by just 8%. Thus race became wide open. The 2016 equivalent: if 2015 polls show Mrs. Clinton as being vulnerable to a primary challenge.
3) Inside Pressure. In 1968, Kennedy was encouraged to run in the most personal of ways: his brother’s legacy (journalist Pete Hamill sent a letter to RFK that included this passage: “I wanted to remind you that in Watts I didn't see pictures of Malcolm X or Ron Karenga on the walls. I saw pictures of JFK. That is your capital in the most cynical sense; it is your obligation in another, the obligation of staying true to whatever it was that put those pictures on those walls. I don't think we can afford five summers of blood. I do know this: if a 15-year-old kid is given a choice between Rap Brown and RFK, he might choose the way of sanity. It's only a possibility, but at least there is that chance. Give that same kid a choice between Rap Brown and LBJ, and he'll probably reach for his revolver.”). Time will tell if some self-appointed conscience of the left puts the same squeeze on Warren.
And if Hillary Clinton doesn’t run? All bets are off, save one: the Vice President talking like a populist, and dealing with his version of a McCarthy problem in the left.
Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen