Believers in the good and true have for some time been urging Elizabeth Warren to run for president. They don’t, most of them, expect her to win—just to hold Hillary Clinton’s feet to the fire on populist issues she is beginning to endorse. Warren might even pry loose some of Wall Street’s cephalopod arms wrapped around Hillary. But Warren is already doing that, by her stellar work on the concrete issues that have long animated her—jobs, wages, bank excesses, mortgages, student loans. All the things she is doing in these areas pose a challenge to Hillary, which is why Hillary has been adopting some of her positions.
Besides, Bernie Sanders, having convinced himself that Warren is not going to run, has taken up the task of fire-bringing to Hillary’s feet. Good for him. His work at his day job in the Senate will be less missed than Warren’s. She is a massive presence there, perpetually bearing in on her colleagues—and the president. Sanders is more a gadfly making some of the livestock itchy. Furthermore, as a declared socialist he is so unlikely a candidate that there is little chance of his being infected by the attendant delirium of a campaign and starting to believe he can win. Of course he has to lie, as all candidates do, when he says he is “in it to win it.” Bill Buckley demonstrated long ago how dangerous is the truth for anyone running a symbolic campaign.
In 1965, when he was running for mayor of New York, Buckley was asked what he would do if he won, and he shot back: “Demand a recount.” That one comment got more attention than all the position papers he had labored over to show that the nascent Conservative Party of New York should be taken seriously. More immediately, the quip almost made his assistant campaign manager faint. He took Buckley aside and said, “You have people working night and day for your campaign. You can’t dismiss their efforts, making it harder for them to raise money or make voters pay attention.” Buckley never again said he could not win. He had learned the rules: pretend candidates have to pretend they are not pretending. It seems almost cruel to let down people whose belief in you is greater than your own.
Of course, once you start professing belief in yourself, it is easy to try sipping some of your own Kool-Aid. It saves psychic wear and tear just to go along with the campaign’s official line. I observed the perils of pretend campaigns in the case of Ralph Nader. In 1972, many were urging Nader to run for president—among them my friend Marc Raskin. Nader told Raskin he had worked hard to master the projects he was devoted to—car safety, consumer protection, the environment, and the PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) he was setting up state-by-state. If he ran for president, he would have to learn about many things he had not studied (who is the president of Uzbekistan?) and try pleasing a range of constituents with priorities very far from his own. He could do more by staying focused.
But ten years later, I ran into Nader at the New Hampshire primary and had lunch with him. When I quoted what he had told Raskin, he said that he now had wider interests and had convinced himself that the best way to draw attention to his concerns was to become a candidate for the highest office in the land. He ran half-heartedly in 1972, but in the nineties he changed his mind, readying himself to plunge ruinously into the 2000 race, where he came as a savior to prove that there was no real difference between Democrats and Republicans and we should reject them both for his one true position. This made him refuse to run only in states where he could not affect the outcome (advice given him by friends like his old fan Marc Raskin). He thus became one of the factors electing George Bush, giving us all the Iraq war, torture, and the Surveillance State. He has haunted subsequent presidential campaigns as the ghost of his former self, a social prophet dwindled into a mini-messiah, joining Gene McCarthy in the Harold Stassen brigade of perpetual candidates. That is how running for president can hollow you out.
I would never compare Elizabeth Warren to Nader. She is more profound and more human than Nader, the furious ascetic; and people prefer a genially learned preacher to a desert father. She is probably proof against the delusions that campaigns instill in their captives. But I would hate to see her wasting her valuable time on what I think of as visionitis, the concocting of airy nothingnesses to show you have a big message, a dream, that you want to share with Americans. In the 2012 campaign journalists called on candidates to “go big, not small,” which meant getting higher and emptier. In the 1968 presidential race, the first I covered as a journalist, Richard Nixon was told that he needed to enunciate a vision, and someone on his still-small staff (I think it must have been Pat Buchanan) came up with one—that under him the country will have “the lift of a driving dream.” Nixon shakily kept rehearsing that line in the New Hampshire and Wisconsin primaries, pairing it with a feeble Harold Lloyd right-uppercut gesture. When George H.W. Bush was campaigning he made fun of “the vision thing,” but then he took the one written out for him, reading “Message: I care.” His son said the same thing—that is, nothing—with more syllables, when he promised a “compassionate conservatism.”
Warren has better things to do than fool with such ventures into lyrical nonsense. She has become a force by sticking with what she knows better than anyone—the obscenity of banks’ high profits and workers’ low wages. She understands the concerns of ordinary people with jobs, health care, and student loans. While Republican governors are trying to learn who is the president of Uzbekistan, she has better things to do.