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Putting Elizabeth Warren in the White House won't save liberalism

One problem with the ongoing spate of speculation around Elizabeth Warren's presidential aspirations is that she's clearly not running for president. As Warren put it in an interview with ABC News, "I'm not running for President."

But you can forgive the political media for indulging in a little wishful thinking on this point. An uncontested Hillary Clinton march to victory would be boring, and the only viable candidate who clearly is in the race — Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley — clearly couldn't beat Hillary head-to-head and is best thought of as running a kind of Plan B campaign designed to put him in a good position if Hillary is unexpectedly struck by lightning or something.

The real problem is the liberal enthusiasm for the concept — running from intellectuals like Noam Scheiber to union leaders like Richard Trumka — represents an airy, immature, dream-like approach to American politics that shows just how little liberals have learned over the past eight years.

This is not a knock on Warren, who's clearly a very effective articulator of the liberal viewpoint on the main issues of the day. But have we already forgotten the last time a first-term senator from a solidly blue state beat Hillary Clinton in the primary by running to her left and then ended up disappointing his mostly highly engaged left-wing supporters by staffing his administration with veterans of the previous Democratic administration and governing in line with mainstream Democratic Party policy ideas?

In fact, the main thing that ails liberal politics today is precisely the excessive focus on the presidency embodied in these Warren daydreams. Consider an April 28 Washington Post / ABC News poll universally viewed as full of terrible news for Democrats.

For a bad news poll, it contained a piece of surprisingly good news. Slightly more registered voters said they were planning to vote Democratic than Republican for congress. The problem is that Democrats are scheduled to get creamed among voters who rate themselves "certain" to actually show up and vote in November.

Just 55 percent of non-whites and 53 percent of under-40 registered voters say they're certain to vote, compared to over 70 percent of whites and oldsters. This more-conservative midterm electorate doesn't just lead to Republican electoral victories, it systematically shapes the conduct of Democratic officeholders. Every House and Senate Democrat holding a contested seat — and every party leader and operative in Washington — knows that they have to face a disproportionately Republican-friendly electorate in the off-years.

Beyond that, a huge share of American public policy is directly in the hands of state-level officials who are primarily elected in off-year elections. Among other things, it is state officials who draw the congressional district boundaries and who write the voter registration laws, meaning that political success in midterms allows the winning party to further entrench their political power for years to come.

That makes this simple fact — conservatives show up to vote every time there's an election — an enormous source of political power.

Meanwhile, since Ronald Reagan's time conservatives haven't actually been very good at securing presidential nominations for right-wing heroes. It simply doesn't matter because, as Grover Norquist as explained, in an era of sharply polarized political parties all he really wants from a president is a Republican who's able to hold a pen and sign the right laws:

Norquist is obviously exaggerating a bit, but on a fundamental level he's right. Hillary Clinton plus a Democratic congress will enact many more liberal policies than any Elizabeth Warren or anyone else plus a Republican Congress. That's just how the American political system works.

None of which is to say that given a contested primary, people shouldn't support the candidate they like better. That's what they hold the elections for. But turning real or hypothetical presidential primary campaigns into your main vehicle for achieving political change is a recipe for a downward cycle of disappointment and despair. First liberals place unrealistic expectations on their would-be savior. Then when he (or she!) lets them down they become demoralized, exacerbating the problem, and instead of recognizing it they start looking for a new savior. Real change takes a much broader and deeper form of engagement.