Elizabeth Warren Tests the Waters for 2020

Massachusetts senator waded into the flamewar for the soul of the Democratic Party Tuesday

Elizabeth Warren Credit: Alex Wong/Getty

Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday waded into the flamewar for the soul of the Democratic Party that Bernie Sanders started in 2016, with an impassioned speech decrying the increasing concentration of money and power in the highest, most rarefied echelons of American society.

"Concentrated money and concentrated power are corrupting our democracy – and becoming dangerously worse with Donald Trump in the White House,"  Sen. Warren tells a room full of progressives at the Center for American Progress' Ideas Conference in Washington, D.C.

"Over the past few decades, money has fundamentally re-oriented our democracy," she goes on. "Money slithers through Washington like a snake – and I'm not simply talking about giant bags of money exchanging hands in dark alleys. I'm talking about the dozens of perfectly legal ways that the super rich and giant corporations use their cash and their influence to rig the system and to get government to favor their interests over the interests of everyone else."

Politicians, Warren says, "swim in oceans of corporate campaign contributions." Billionaires "build super PACs to secretly finance candidates and tilt elections." Lobbyists "swarm Washington like a plague of locusts demanding favors for their employers."

There's a certain irony to her remarks, delivered as they are from a ballroom at the D.C. Four Seasons, where room rates start at $795 a night ($2,450 for a suite). The hotel even smells like excessive amounts of money – it's a perfume, "Georgetown Garden," crafted specifically for this property and pumped out through the air-conditioning system.

Then there's the fact that the event – widely considered a showcase of prospective 2020 Democratic candidates – is being hosted by CAP, the liberal think tank founded by Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign chairman, John Podesta. That campaign steamrolled fundraising records, bringing in more than $1 billion, with the help of super PACs funded by billionaires like George Soros, Haim Saban and J.B. Pritzker. Warren is introduced Tuesday by CAP's current president, Neera Tanden, who also advised the Clinton campaign. Which is all to say that it feels like there's quite a bit of money and power concentrated in this ballroom as Warren delivers her populist pitch.

The contrast between her words and surroundings is striking, and highlights the existential decision the Democratic Party will face in the run-up to 2020: whether to double down on the center-left status quo Clinton campaigned on, or lurch leftward in the direction of the more radically progressive policies – Medicare for all, free college tuition – favored by her onetime rival Sanders.

Warren doesn't directly address those things Tuesday, instead focusing on areas that Democrats can focus on to combat Trump's agenda over the next four years – like pressing for the passage of the Presidential Conflicts of Interest Act, which would require presidents and vice presidents to put their assets in a blind trust; winning more resources for inspectors general, who oversee agencies; and upgrading the executive branch watchdog, the Office of Government Ethics, which Republicans tried, and failed, to quietly gut at the beginning of this Congressional session.

One certainly gets the sense Tuesday that Warren, if she chooses to run, would have strong support among a large segment of the base. A number of rising Democratic stars have also scored speaking slots at the conference – Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Sens. Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker – but the Massachusetts senator is the day's keynote speaker, given both the prime slot and the most time to speak.

After her speech, an email blast from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, longtime Warren backers, declares victory. "Today we see how well top Democratic leaders have learned the right lessons from 2016 – that the only way to defeat Trump is with a bold message of challenging power, from corporate power to systemic racism," the grassroots group's co-founder, Adam Green says, hailing Warren as "a North Star, showing Democrats the direction to march."

It's unlikely to be quite that easy. For one thing, the old, moderate guard is still firmly entrenched in the Democratic leadership. Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi easily defeated a challenge from the more progressive Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan late last year, and Obama appointee Tom Perez beat out Sanders' favorite Keith Ellison in a surprisingly competitive race for DNC chair.

The PCCC isn't not alone in their enthusiasm for Warren, though; according to a recent survey, the senator is near the top of the list of potential Trump challengers in 2020. Public Policy Polling found she would beat the president by 10 points, second only to Joe Biden, who would wallop him by 14. (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson would supposedly win by 5.)

If she chooses to run, Warren could find herself at the center of a rift that continues to play out as Sanders tours the country giving or withholding his seal of approval to Democrats seeking office in local and special elections; he bestowed it on Heath Mello, a pro-life progressive in Nebraska, but not Jon Ossoff, a moderate in Georgia.

The fight for the heart of the party doesn't look like it's going to be over anytime soon, but, for now at least, centrists and progressives can find common ground in Donald Trump.

"I have news for Donald Trump: No matter how much he might admire Vladimir Putin's Russia, here in America, we will never accept autocracy," Warren says Tuesday. "Here in America, we embrace and defend democracy. And we do that by demanding that everyone in our government is accountable, even the president of the United States."

Hard to argue with that.