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Senate Democrats’ new plan: Listen to Elizabeth Warren

Warren with Dick Durbin and Harry Reid, the top two Senate Democrats, in July 2014.
Warren with Dick Durbin and Harry Reid, the top two Senate Democrats, in July 2014.
Alex Wong / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Thursday morning, Senate Democrats named Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to a new position in the leadership of their caucus. Warren will help craft policy and messaging, and she'll be a liaison to liberal groups, reports Amanda Terkel of the Huffington Post.

The move gives Warren, a frequent critic of banks and Wall Street, an official role in setting the direction of the new Democratic minority — though she'll remain outranked by several more senior senators who've been in leadership for years. It's also an attempt to restore liberal enthusiasm for the beleaguered and unpopular Democratic Party, by elevating a figure who is popular with the party's base.

Yet the larger role in Senate leadership seems to make the chances Warren will challenge Hillary Clinton for president — already an unlikely prospect — even smaller.

Warren's background

When the financial crisis hit in fall 2008, Warren was ensconced as a professor at Harvard Law. Her expertise was in personal bankruptcy, and she was known as a critic of credit card companies — but she didn't seem to have any political ambitions.

But, that November, Harry Reid appointed her to Congress's panel overseeing the TARP bailout. Warren soon became nationally known as a harsh critic of Wall Street, big banks, and occasionally President Obama's economic team.

Warren advocated for the rights of consumers, and pushed the idea that a new federal agency should be created specifically to stand up for those rights. That agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, was eventually created by the financial reform law after a fierce legislative battle. President Obama appointed her to help set up the new agency, but didn't nominate her as its permanent director.

Instead, after coaxing from progressive activists, Warren ran for Senate in Massachusetts against the recently-elected Senator Scott Brown (R). Her economic populism and criticism of Wall Street and the wealthy were central to her campaign. "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody," she said in one viral video.

After an expensive, tough-fought campaign in which Warren raised huge amounts of money — much from small donors — Warren was elected to the Senate in November 2012. Harry Reid then appointed her to the Senate Banking Committee.

2016 speculation

Almost immediately after she was sworn in, chatter began about a possible Warren presidential run in 2016. Progressive activists never had any great love for Hillary Clinton, and many considered her to be too close to business and the wealthy. They hoped that Warren could change the conversation around economic issues, and motivate a grassroots movement to stand up to the power of the very rich.

Indeed, there's currently a group named "Ready for Warren" — modeled after a similar pre-campaign group for Clinton — that's trying to coax Warren into the race. It's run by former Obama campaign staffer Erica Sagrans, and is holding events around the country to try to demonstrate support for Warren and her message. The group even produced this music video urging her to run:

Warren has repeatedly said she is not running for president — though in one recent interview she was slightly less definitive on the topic. But some thought that a Democratic loss of the Senate this year would make Warren less likely to want to stick around the chamber in the minority — and more likely to throw her hat in the ring for a presidential bid.

With this new Senate leadership position, though, Warren has a reason to stick around in DC — and a reason to focus on the work of legislating and strategizing against the new Republican majority.

Additionally, if she intended to challenge the powerful front-runner Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, she'd really have to start planning about now. (Obama began sending signals that he'd jump in the 2008 race in October 2006.) It takes months of hard work to win supporters, raise money, and build a campaign infrastructure in the key states. Warren's acceptance of the Senate position right now is just the latest indication that she has a different agenda.

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