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Could Elizabeth Warren beat Hillary Clinton?

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The question in the background of Noam Scheiber's exploration of whether Elizabeth Warren could challenge Hillary Clinton in 2016 is whether, come 2015, Democrats will care very much about cracking down harder on Wall Street.

An issue-based challenger needs two things to pose a serious threat to a front-runner. One is an issue that differentiates them from the front-runner. The other is for that issue to be foremost in the minds of voters.

In 2008, Barack Obama's challenge to Hillary Clinton was based on Iraq. That worked both because he'd had a different position than Clinton on Iraq, but also because Iraq was a dominant issue in the 2008 election. As such, Obama's insurgent campaign, which focused tightly on Iraq, had a shot.

The problem comes when a challenger runs on an issue that differentiates them from the front-runner but that the voters aren't prioritizing. This is what bedeviled Mitt Romney's 2008 campaign, when the candidate saw space to run against John McCain and Rudy Giuliani as the champion of social conservatism only to find out that Republican primary voters weren't looking for a champion of social conservatism.

So come 2016, is it Wall Street reform, Iraq, or social conservatism? Or somewhere in-between?

Scheiber points out that Warren's background isn't just Wall Street reform. It's protecting the middle class. "The Two-Income Trap" was a seminal book in defining the mounting pressures on working Americans. And Warren has long tried to protect that dimension of her work from being eclipsed by her unexpected turn as a finreg rockstar. ("In 2010, Obama appointed Warren to be a special Treasury adviser in charge of setting up the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Warren was particular about the title she received, wanting it to reflect her work on behalf of the middle class.")

But concern for the middle class doesn't, by and large, differentiate her from Clinton, who got her start in Washington working for the Children's Defense Fund and spent the early 90s trying to pass universal health care. They have differences on individual laws, including the noxious bankruptcy legislation that passed in 2005. But broadly, they agree: Clinton, like Warren, believes in higher taxes on the rich and universal health care and higher-education costs and universal pre-k and so on.

In fact, in many of these cases, Clinton understands the underlying policies better than anyone else in the party, and has a longer history fighting for them, certainly, than Warren. So long as the primary is about bread-and-butter policies to help the middle class, Clinton will be nearly unstoppable.

The danger for Clinton is if Warren is able to persuade Democrats that cracking down on Wall Street reform is the key to helping the middle class or — perhaps more plausibly — opposing inequality. On a policy level, that's a harder case to make. But on an emotional, who's-on-your-side level, it might work.

Ezra Klein
Ezra Klein is the editor of Wonkblog and a columnist at the Washington Post, as well as a contributor to MSNBC and Bloomberg. His work focuses on domestic and economic policymaking, as well as the political system that’s constantly screwing it up. He really likes graphs, and is on TwitterGoogle+ and Facebook. E-mail him here.

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