Elizabeth Warren is the darling of the Democrats. So could she be the next US president?

The high-profile, progressive senator may have ruled out a 2020 run for the White House, but a lot can happen in two years. 

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Elizabeth Warren is the darling of the Democratic Party base – with good reason. In March, the senior senator from Massachusetts introduced a bill that seeks to make it easier to investigate crimes at financial institutions and to punish senior bank executives for fraud. In April, she joined forces with Republican senator Cory Gardner to sponsor a bipartisan bill that would allow states to regulate marijuana without interference from the federal government. This month, in a speech at Georgetown University, Warren announced that she would be introducing “sweeping anti-corruption legislation to clean up corporate money sloshing around Washington”.

So is this high-profile, progressive senator planning a run for the White House? When I sat down with Warren for my podcast, Deconstructed, the day after her speech, I asked her the 2020 question three times and three times she replied: “I am not running for president.”

Case closed? Not quite. Notice the tense. She isn’t running right now. But in 2020? Well, a lot can happen in two years, can’t it?

There is, though, a pretty glaring obstacle on Warren’s potential path to the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and his name is Bernie Sanders. The independent senator from Vermont, who won 23 states in the 2016 Democratic primaries, is the most popular politician in the United States and, like Warren, a hero to the progressives who now dominate the Democratic Party base.

I asked a close political ally of both Sanders and Warren the 2020 question. Sanders, confirms my source, is considering another run for the presidency: “He’s in terrific health and has twice the energy of people half his age.” (He would be 79 by the day of the election in November 2020.) Nevertheless, if his age or health were to become a factor, Sanders “is pragmatic… [and] prepared to pass the baton to someone else. That person would be Elizabeth… I don’t think Elizabeth will run if Bernie runs. Elizabeth doesn’t want to split the base.”

But what if Warren decides she has a better chance of beating Donald Trump? What if she feels she should be the standard-bearer of the populist, anti-Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party in the 2020 primaries, rather than Sanders? What would be the pros and cons of a Warren presidential bid?

Let’s start with the pros: the Massachusetts Democrat is an unabashed economic populist who was lambasting the big banks long before it became fashionable to do so. To quote Robert Kuttner, the co-founder of the magazine the American Prospect, she has made “pocketbook populism feel mainstream”. Warren has other advantages. A poll released in May ranked her as the Democratic front-runner in the all-important New Hampshire presidential primary, which kicks off the formal campaign period. She has the potential to act as a bridge between Democrats on the right and left of the party. “Clinton allies open to backing Warren for president in 2020,” read a headline in the Hill newspaper earlier this month.

Importantly, Warren is a registered Democrat while Sanders isn’t. Why does this matter? Last week, the Democratic National Committee adopted a new rule that requires a presidential candidate running for the Democratic nomination to be a member of the party. Sanders could not maintain his independent status, as he did during the 2016 primaries. Above all else, Warren knows how to get under Trump’s skin. Few Democrats are able to needle the Republican president the way Warren does; she has mocked him as a “loser”, a “hot-air balloon” and a “small, insecure money-grubber”. Her candidacy would also be a stark reminder to progressives, especially female progressives, that electing the nation’s first woman president is unfinished business.

And the cons? Well, Warren may be an economic populist like Sanders but she is also a policy wonk like Hillary Clinton. She may be popular but “millennials don’t scream with delight when Warren walks into a room”, says my source.

This millionaire former Harvard law professor is also vulnerable to the classic Republican smear of being “elitist”. “She understands that her Ivy League pedigree is an impediment and cannot be spun to appeal to working-class Republicans, no matter how well she tells the story of her middle-class upbringing or [the repossession of] her family station wagon,” the source adds.

Then there is race. Despite her claim to Native American heritage – which prompted Trump to taunt her with the racist nickname “Pocahontas” – Warren, like Sanders, has “few inroads to communities of colour”, says her ally. Clinton struggled to mobilise Obama’s multiracial electoral coalition in 2016. Could Warren do any better?

Then again, what about a joint Sanders/Warren ticket? Or will their age – come November 2020, Warren will be 71 – or race get in the way of such a populist pairing? “Sanders and Warren is the whitest ticket ever but it would work,” says my source. “It’s under consideration, I bet, and I think Kamala is in that equation.” (Fifty-three-year-old Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, became the first biracial senator from California when she was elected in 2016.)

After the disappointment of the Clinton campaign, the US left is now in an enviable position, with two candidates offering a clear progressive and populist vision: both Sanders and Warren want to reduce inequality, tackle corruption and tame Big Finance. As Warren told me: “We have to make this an America again that works for the people, not for the rich and powerful, and not for the likes of Donald Trump.” 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article appears in the 15 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?