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Opinion Elizabeth Warren’s dilemma: Should she endorse Clinton, or Sanders?

(Dave Roback/AP)
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With Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders locked in an intensifying struggle over Iowa and New Hampshire, the chatter among Democrats is turning to a big unknown: Which candidate will Elizabeth Warren endorse?

A Warren endorsement of Clinton before Iowa could help her stave off the Sanders challenge by signaling to more liberal voters who are intrigued by Sanders’ candidacy that she should be seen as sufficiently progressive on Warren’s core issues, such as Wall Street oversight and accountability. On the other hand, a Warren endorsement of Sanders before Iowa could help Sanders pull off an upset there, which would likely be followed by a New Hampshire victory, possibly shifting the dynamic in later contests, though she’d still be the favorite. It’s hard to know how much influence a Warren endorsement would have. But it might have some.

Which candidate will Warren endorse, if either? If she does endorse, when will she do it? My conversations with a number of Democrats about this decision suggest it may prove more complicated for Warren than it might seem at first glance.

On the one hand, it would seem to make sense that Warren might endorse Sanders. The Vermont Senator backs a similar agenda to Warren’s — such as breaking up the big banks and reinstating a new Glass Steagall that builds a wall between commercial and investment banking, and a $15-per-hour minimum wage. Clinton doesn’t support those things. What’s more, Warren and Sanders both share an emphasis on the notion that financial institutions have too much power, and have been able to rig the rules of the market in their favor — rules that need a fundamental overhaul, along with a substantial stiffening of oversight and accountability. Clinton stresses this, too, but it’s not as fundamental and central to her vision as it is to that of Warren and Sanders.

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On the other hand, Politico reported this the other day:

People close to Warren’s political advisers in Boston say an endorsement of Clinton is far more likely than one of Sanders at this point. Clinton allies have long pointed to a 2013 letter that Warren signed with other female Democratic senators urging the former secretary of state to get into the race.

It turns out that a Warren endorsement of Clinton would not be all that surprising, either, even though Clinton is widely described by progressives as too close to Wall Street. As Mike Konczal has detailed, there is actually substantial overlap between Warren’s agenda and Clinton’s Wall Street plan, too.

Clinton’s plan would defend and build on the Dodd Frank Wall Street reform law. Clinton has pledged to fight any GOP efforts to weaken financial reform and would preserve that law’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a Warren brainchild. Clinton would toughen up oversight over financial institutions in ways Warren has called for, though Clinton would not go quite as far as Warren in this regard. Clinton’s plan offers details on how she would rein in the sort of shadow banking that led to the financial crisis, also an important Warren priority.

All of which is to say that a Warren endorsement of Clinton could hardly be dismissed as a sellout of her own priorities. Still, Warren is also surely mindful that a Clinton endorsement would disappoint a lot of Sanders supporters — who make up her own national base, too — as well as progressive groups that have backed the Vermont Senator.

There is also the question of how Warren can best continue to wield influence over the policy debate. Since Clinton is favored to win the nomination, a Warren endorsement — particularly one before Iowa — might earn the Massachusetts Senator a coveted role in the campaign and a direct line to Clinton’s most important advisers. Warren could then plausibly help shape the Clinton campaign’s general election message around inequality and Wall Street accountability, which would boost her influence over the political debate throughout 2016.

Yet some observers think Warren maximizes that influence by holding off on any endorsement as long as she can.

“The longer she holds out, the more it will push all the candidates, especially those who might not be as good on her issues, to be as strong as possible on them,” Neil Sroka, a spokesman for the progressive group Democracy for America, tells me. “She holds on to that power as long as the candidates continue to vie for her endorsement. In turn, that makes the candidates better for progressives. Everything about Warren suggests that this is her ultimate concern: how do we get our Democratic nominee to be as strong as possible in the fight against income inequality and for Wall Street accountability?” So holding out could keep Clinton worried about shoring up her progressive flank.

Also, if Warren were to wait until Clinton looks like she’s on her way to wrapping up the nomination before backing her, it might not be as disappointing to Sanders backers, since Warren would not have played any direct role in arresting the Sanders surge. Or if she were to wait that long before backing Sanders (which seems less likely at this point), she would not have played a role in complicating the establishment pick’s march to the nomination.

So, you see, it’s complicated.