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Why Elizabeth Warren should scare Hillary Clinton

Quick, name someone who would have a realistic chance of beating out Hillary Clinton for the 2016 presidential nomination. Martin O'Malley? Nope. Joe Biden? Maybe but probably not. Howard Dean. No way. There's only answer to that question that makes even a little sense. And that answer is Elizabeth Warren.

FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2012 file photo, Sen.-elect Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. waves to the crowd before giving her victory speech, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

The New Republic's Noam Scheiber hits this nail directly on the head in his cover story this week entitled "Hillary's Nightmare? A Democratic Party That Realizes Its Soul Lies with Elizabeth Warren". The entire piece is worth a read but this paragraph stood out to us:

In addition to being strongly identified with the party’s populist wing, any candidate who challenged Clinton would need several key assets. The candidate would almost certainly have to be a woman, given Democrats’ desire to make history again. She would have to amass huge piles of money with relatively little effort. Above all, she would have to awaken in Democratic voters an almost evangelical passion. As it happens, there is precisely such a person. Her name is Elizabeth Warren.

Scheiber's broader argument is this: The Democratic party is facing a looming debate between those friendly and those hostile to Wall Street and its interests come 2016. Clinton is on the friendly side. Warren isn't. And all of the grassroots energy in the Democratic party -- as judged by activists and what animates them -- sits on Warren's side.

Need evidence? Check out the $42 million Warren raised in her 2012 Senate victory over Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown. Or, as Scheiber notes, the massive response her fundraising emails get for the national party -- trailing only asks from President Obama and, yes, Hillary Clinton.  Or watch Warren's speech and, more importantly, the reaction to her speech, at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

Clinton represents the head of the Democratic party. But Warren is its heart. We've touched on this idea in this space before, noting that in many ways Warren is the liberal populist that liberals thought they were getting when they elected President Obama in 2008. The New York Times' Rebecca Traister wrote about this phenomenon, describing Warren and Obama this way:

Embracing Warren as the next ‘one’ is, in part, a way of getting over Obama; she provides an optimistic distraction from the fact that under our current president, too little has changed, for reasons having to do both with the limitations of the political system and the limitations of the man. She makes people forget that estimations of him were too overheated, trust in his powers too fervid.

But, there's more to Warren -- and her differences from Obama and Clinton -- than simply her willingness to stake out unapologetically liberal positions. It's the way she does it, a sort of quiet confrontation -- yes, we know that seems contradictory -- that has created an image of her as one of the only people (in either party) willing to speak truth to the political and financial powers-that-be. It's that willingness to confront that, more than anything else, has turned Warren into an Internet sensation -- her You Tube channel is littered with speeches that have been viewed more than 1 million times, she is regularly part of highly-trafficked items on -- and given her a base of political power that lies outside the Senate chamber and, more importantly, beyond the long reach of the Clintons.

All of the above comes with two big caveats: 1) Warren and her people insist she has no interest in running for president and she has already signed a letter supporting Clinton for president and 2) She is untested on the national stage and/or against an opponent as able as Clinton. Warren, for all of the passion she creates in others, is not the Dean-like populist firebrand (at least not yet) on the campaign trail. She often comes across as wonky rather than "wow".  She's heavily focused on policy, not politics.

And yet, a path does exist for Warren.  As Clinton learned in 2008, a candidate that appeals to voters' hearts can beat a candidate that appeals to their heads.  And Clinton, for all of her built-in advantages in a 2016 race, will be hard pressed to ever be the heart candidate of the party base. Elizabeth Warren would be that candidate the minute she signals her interest in running. That fact should scare Clinton and her political team.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

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