Correction appended, April 2
Liberals have two recurring nightmares about the 2016 elections.
In the first, they wake up on Nov. 9, 2016, to find that Americans have elected a Republican who has spent the past year and a half promising to dismantle Obamacare, undo the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean air regulations and cut corporate taxes.
In the second, they wake up on Nov. 9, 2016, to find that Americans have elected Hillary Clinton, who has spent the past year and a half promising them absolutely nothing and courting independents and moderates.
The second scenario is obviously preferable to most liberals, but it’s still worrying. They’d much prefer to elect a Hillary Clinton who has made specific, concrete campaign pledges to them — especially since political science research shows that, contrary to popular belief, politicians tend to keep their promises.
But without a competitive Democratic primary, how can liberals push Clinton in their direction? For now, there’s no clear roadmap, but liberal activists have five general ideas.
1. Pray that Elizabeth Warren runs.
Liberal outfits such as Progressive Democrats of America have launched small-scale grassroots campaigns urging Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ready for Bernie) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (Draft O’Malley) to join the race. But the big money is on Massachusetts Senator and liberal firebrand Elizabeth Warren. MoveOn.org gave $1 million to launch “Run Warren Run,” and Howard Dean’s old shop, Democracy for America, dumped an additional $250,000 into the effort. The Boston Globe ran a special package last week declaring that “Democrats need Elizabeth Warren” in 2016.
While Sanders and O’Malley seem likely to follow through with a run, neither has the clout at this point to mount a serious challenge. Both are polling in the double digits behind Clinton. That makes drafting Warren, despite the fact that she has said repeatedly that she is not running, priority No. 1. “We want to get Elizabeth Warren into the race. She is someone progressives innately trust,” said Neil Sroka of Democrats for America. When he was pressed for a contingency plan, he said, “We’re extremely focused on trying to get her in, building the infrastructure she would need to run, and extending the amount of time she has to change her mind.” Wesley Clark, another one-time progressive fave, didn’t enter the 2004 race until September 2003, Sroka added, hopefully. (Of course, he didn’t win.)
2. If that fails, keep Warren’s ideas in the news.
If Warren isn’t going to be a candidate, liberals hope she can at least be a player behind the scenes. That way, they might indirectly influence Clinton as she seeks a full-throated endorsement from Warren. To that end, liberals are doing everything possible to ensure that the public conversation—in newspapers’ op-ed pages, and at every political forum, debate, and town hall meeting—centers on Warren’s brand of economic populism. “We view an election as a multi-billion dollar conversation with voters,” said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “The more that conversation is about progressive issues, the better.”
Making that happen will involve enlisting progressive leaders both in the all-important early caucus and primary states and nationally. On Tuesday, the PCCC launched a new campaign, Ready for Boldness, along with a signed letter from 200 leaders from Iowa and New Hampshire designed to urge presidential candidates to “campaign on big, bold, economic populist ideas.” Signers included Iowa’s longtime Sen. Tom Harkin, union presidents and state legislators. “We want to show [Clinton] that it she embraces big bold progressive ideas, she won’t be alone,” Green said.
3) Stay on message.
Creating a united front around a handful of broadly popular progressive policies will be as important as ensuring that the message isn’t diluted by squabbles over fault line issues, like free trade and education reform, progressive leaders say. The PCCC’s letter Tuesday, for example, centered on helping students graduate college debt-free, expanding Social Security benefits, reforming Wall Street, enacting campaign finance reform, creating clean-energy jobs and boosting worker pay.
“There’s a real attempt by the beginning of next year to establish a clear platform that gets embraced by everyone,” said Robert Borosage, executive director of the Campaign for America’s Future, which will host a big-tent progressive conference, Populism 2015, at the end of April along with National People’s Action, USAction and Alliance for a Just Society.
“The idea is to avoid the populist bait and switch where they campaign like a populist but govern center-right,” said Maya Rockeymoore, the president and CEO of the progressive Center for Global Policy Solutions. Progressives have to get candidates to make public commitments to enact specific agenda items, she added. “It’s not enough to say all the right things.”
4) Use Congress as a sounding board.
The PCCC and other organizations have been working with progressives in the House and Senate to propose bills on solid liberal issues, like expanding social security, reining in Wall Street financial firms and creating clean energy jobs. But timing is everything. While such bills aren’t likely to pass the Republican-dominated Congress any time soon, they can still make their way into nightly news broadcasts and shape the national conversation that way. “We’re organizing in Congress to propose bills that could become presidential issues” on the campaign trail, Green said.
5) Play the long game.
National People’s Action Campaign, among others, plan to focus on recruiting and supporting progressive candidates in municipal, county and state-level elections. The idea is not only to put progressive policies in place on the local level, but also to help shape the national political landscape from the bottom up, explained George Goehl of the National People’s Action Campaign.
“If you could get thousands of people down ballot running on a similar platform and create a bottom-up swell—that would be something that both parties would have to react to,” he said. Such a groundswell could shape the Democratic Party in the same way that the Tea Party has shaped the Republican Party. “They could help energize people across the board and create a clear line in the sand: Are you a progressive populist in this moment in time, or are you not?” he added.
While Goehl said he also supports the other prongs of the progressives’ national plan—”Getting Elizabeth Warren into the race would be great,” he said—he advised his fellow populists to hedge their bets.
“Hail Mary’s happen,” he said. “But only every so often. There has to be a plan.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described Democracy.com. It is nonpartisan organization that works with candidates of all parties.