Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Elizabeth Warren vs. Hillary Clinton is a false choice

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 7:53 AM EST, Mon November 18, 2013
Future primary rivals? Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, left, and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Future primary rivals? Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, left, and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pundits speculate Sen. Elizabeth Warren could oppose Hillary Clinton for 2016 run
  • Julian Zelizer: Predictions of left-vs.-center war among Democrats are misplaced
  • He says a progressive message is crucial to the heart of the Democratic Party
  • Hillary Clinton has strong ties to business but also believes in social safety net, he says

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Over the past week, speculation emerged that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might not be the only prominent Democrat running for the nomination for president in 2016. Her "inevitable" path to the nomination is once again being questioned.

In The New Republic, Noam Scheiber launched the debate with an article titled, "Hillary's Nightmare? A Democratic Party That Realizes Its Soul Lies With Elizabeth Warren."

Scheiber focuses on the possibility of the Massachusetts senator running on a campaign centering on the issues of economic inequality, restoring the middle class and regulating Wall Street.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

"What we need is a system," Warren has said, "that puts an end to the boom and bust cycle. A system that recognizes we don't grow this country from the financial sector; we grow this country from the middle class." Comparing such a contest to the race between Barack Obama and Clinton in the 2008 primaries, the article suggests that Warren could re-energize liberal Democrats who feel disillusioned by the past five years.

Watching this unfold, some commentators have predicted that a civil war might be brewing between the progressive and moderate wings of the party.

David Frum, the insightful commentator and CNN contributor who has been a prominent critic of what tea party Republicans have done to his GOP, warned that "where Democrats have scored successes since 2010, those successes have been owed less to Occupy-style militancy, and much more to the seeming unquenchable determination of Republicans to render themselves unelectable."

Competition within the party doesn't have to be a negative; Democrats could turn this to an advantage that helps candidates who enter the race to focus and refine their message about the economy in a way that would make for a powerful campaign theme.

It would be a mistake for Democrats to think that the entry of Warren, or a candidate similar to Warren, into the race would somehow create problems or even a "left-center" divide.

The notion that dealing with economic inequality represents the "progressive" wing of the party as opposed to the mainstream is an extremely flawed way for Democrats to think of their party. Painting Warren's concerns as being to the left ignores how tackling these kinds of economic challenges have been at the heart of the Democratic Party for almost a century. Mainstream Democrats have usually done best when they have kept their eye on these questions and put forth policies that address the problem of middle class security.

During the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt made this the centerpiece of his New Deal. Most of his policies centered on providing economic support, such as creating old age pensions, protecting unions and providing unemployment compensation as well as creating public jobs to help Americans make it through the crisis of the Great Depression and to serve as a foundation for their future.

The policies revolved around a vision of "moral capitalism," according to the historian Lizabeth Cohen. His programs proved to have widespread appeal and provided the foundation for a durable coalition of industrial workers, farmers, progressive activists and African-Americans that would last for decades.

During the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson continued along these lines by tackling the problem of economic inequality through programs that aimed to bolster the strength and size of the middle class. The war on poverty sought to help the poor become self-sufficient and enter the marketplace.

Medicare guaranteed that middle-class families could count on health insurance when they retired and wouldn't be overwhelmed by medical costs of their parents. Federal education assistance offered affordable loans to Americans who wanted to attend college and money for local schools to ensure that all children received an adequate education. Food stamps provided food security for struggling families. Civil rights laws gave African-Americans access to public space, employment opportunities and voting rights that were central to full citizenship.

While Republicans rebounded as controversy over Vietnam and the war on poverty grew, the programs in fact survived and remained quite popular. Republicans have either learned to live with them and, in some cases, have expanded them.

Democrats in Congress were often able to succeed in the Age of Reagan by fighting back against Republicans who try to dismantle the welfare state.

Starting in 1982, Democrats regained their footing in the House of Representatives during the midterm elections based on campaigns about economic fairness. When congressional Republicans conducted a full-scale assault on Medicare and other programs in 1995, President Bill Clinton stood his ground and rebounded to a landslide r-election victory the following year.

Indeed, Clinton, usually tagged as a hard-core centrist, devoted considerable energy to the cause of middle-class America. In his 1992 campaign, he hammered away at President George H.W. Bush for his inability to deal with the recession and failure to sympathize with the economic concerns of average Americans.

While Clinton couldn't persuade Congress to pass his health care reform that aimed to broaden access and lower costs in the insurance system, he did find support for smaller measures, such as the State Children's Health Insurance Program, that have proved to be popular.

Despite the characterization of Hillary Clinton as a market-based centrist, she has frequently addressed these themes throughout her career, including while in the Senate, and in 2008 made it clear that she would be a president who fought for the middle class.

While Clinton, as her critics have said, has ties to the financial community and is not in any way an opponent of big business or big finance, she has also been a strong defender of the social safety net and programs that help the middle class grow.

In 1978, Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy warned his party about veering too far to the center under President Jimmy Carter.

In words that Democrats should heed, Kennedy said: "We are heirs to a great tradition in American public life. Our party took up the cause of jobs for the unemployed in the Great Depression. Our party took up the cause of civil rights for black and brown Americans, and the cause of equal rights for women in America and the people of the District of Columbia." Although Kennedy did not win the nomination in 1980 (for many reasons outside of his policies), his speech offers an important message for Democrats thinking about 2016.

It would be a mistake for Democrats to break off into opposing camps, with some tackling these so-called "leftward" issues and others sticking to the "center." A better bet, based on the record, would be to put these questions front and center in the primaries and see which candidate offers the best and most aggressive response to the challenges that have faced middle-class Americans in recent decades.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:06 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 7:17 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT