Stop telling Elizabeth Warren to run for president

Lean away for awhile.


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Published Apr 2, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 4:15 am CDT

Sometimes in politics, the most important race is the one you don’t run.

That seems to be what Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is thinking: This week on The Today Show, the senator stated emphatically that she won’t be running for president. “No, I’m not running and I’m not going to run,” said Warren when asked about 2016. “I’m in Washington. I’ve got this really great job and a chance to try and make a difference on things that really matter.” 

Unsurprisingly, Warren was also questioned about Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions in the interview, to which she diplomatically replied, “I think we need to give her a chance to decide if she’s going to run and to lay out what she wants to run on.”

Warren’s response here, despite being nonchalant, was also quite significant. Though Clinton has been widely pegged as the left’s most likely candidate for 2016, there are a large contingent of liberals who would also be delighted if Warren challenged her. Reporting on her remarks for Gawker, Hamilton Nolan wrote, “In the wake of her words today, allow me to say this to Elizabeth Warren: Elizabeth, you should think about running for the Democratic nomination for president. You really should. Have you thought about it? Think about it. You’d be great. Will you run? You should run.”

However, rather than speculating about her campaign ambitions, those who really want to see Warren succeed in her future political career would be better off doing something a lot simpler: leaving her alone.

Warren’s potential candidacy for president has been a hot topic for some time now, with plenty of pundits lining up to tell her not only that she should run, but a few going so far as to basically tell her she has to. These writers are not wrong to give her their support. While detractors have characterized her as a left-wing Ted Cruz (i.e., a political upstart in way over their head), others have compared her to Ted Kennedy, the rare politician whose progressive values match their actions. Her tenure in the Senate has already seen Warren taking a stand on important issues, through advocating on behalf of student loan reform and standing up to Wall Street, an area in which the record of Hillary Clinton, her would-be challenger, is not so stellar.

Warren has been critical of Clinton in the past, though the media has taken it upon themselves to blow several quotes out of proportion, in an attempt to turn their disagreements into a full blown war. Referring to the situation as “Hillary’s Nightmare,” the New Republic’s Noam Scheiber wrote in 2013 that, “A Clinton-Warren matchup would have all sorts of consequences, none of them especially heartwarming” He also talked to a former Warren aide for the piece, who told him that “she doesn’t care whose turn it is.”

The idea of a Clinton/Warren race for the democratic nomination is undeniably exciting, but it’s unfortunate that the media has decided to pit these two politicians against each other, and it’s hard not to see part of the reason stemming from their gender. As the Daily Kos’ Ian Reifowitz argued, having Warren and Clinton both in the race would be “good for women,” but not as good for an America where we allow them to coexist without resorting to tired stereotypes about female competitiveness.

While it’s fine to say that you’d rather see Warren run for president than Clinton, it’s not OK to continue to demand that Warren run, even when she’s explicitly gone out of her way to say that she isn’t interested. Elizabeth Warren is a smart, talented, capable person. Only she knows whether she’s ready. To put undue pressure on her to do something which she has specifically said she doesn’t want to do is not just silly, it’s rude and condescending to women.

The situation is reminiscent of what happened when Ester Bloom wrote a piece at the Billfold urging The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams to “lean in,” evoking the term Sheryl Sandberg made famous as a call for women to step into leadership roles in the workplace. According to Bloom, Williams had become a victim of “Impostor Syndrome,” a phenomenon in which men who are less qualified tend to “round up” their abilities when approaching a new job opportunity, while women tend to “round down.” But Williams didn’t see it that way, responding with a string of tweets declaring the piece offensive.

In Bloom’s defense, her piece was partially comedic, and it was clear she was supporting Williams above all else. Yet sometimes, the assertion that a woman does not know her own self-worth can end up being just as insulting as trying to chip away at that very self-worth in the first place. Unfortunately, what appears to be going on in Warren’s case is a lot of people doing the same, not trusting whether she knows she’s capable of taking over the Oval Office or not. But that’s for Warren’s decision to make, and everyone begging her to run, flattering as it might seem, is undermining her own agency.

Some of the baiting Warren has experienced no doubt relates to a desire on the part of newspapers and websites to sell more copies and get more clicks. “What these [stories] do, in their attempt to set up a juicy narrative, is distract Democrats from committing to the real choices before them,” writes Salon’s Jim Newell. “Don’t want Hillary? No problem. Your choices are Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders, or possibly Joe Biden. Perhaps none of those are as ideal as Elizabeth Warren would be, but they’re the alternatives, and they’d welcome your anti-Clinton support.”

Newell is right to be annoyed. Unlike Fox News’s Howard Kurtz, who wrote a curmudgeonly essay chastising the media for talking about Warren, simply because he’s tired of hearing about her, his concern is the sensationalization of what might be over reporting what is.

The other reason people keep pressuring Warren, according to some, is that she really is going to run and is just biding her time for the right moment to announce. The problem with this idea is that it doesn’t even give Warren the chance to decide whether she wants to run or not—the same chance that Warren has told us to give Clinton. This, in turn, suggests that—instead of focusing on the good work she’s been doing—Warren is spinning her wheels, leading us on before she makes her inevitable move. Nowhere does this possibility suggest the idea that Warren may actually need to take some time before committing to something as huge as running for president, and nowhere does it suggest that it’s OK if she ends up not running at all.

It is possible that Warren could still decide to run for president. It’s probably more likely that she won’t. Either way, the choice is hers, not ours. An Elizabeth Warren ticket could be remarkable, but until she’s ready to run, it’s every good liberal’s job to give her some space to make up her own mind.

As Jessica Williams would put it, “lean the fuck away” for awhile. 

Photo via DonkeyHotey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Apr 2, 2015, 12:30 pm CDT