Right Place, Wrong Time
The Progressive Case Against Elizabeth Warren for VP
Elizabeth Warren is a hero to many progressives—which is why she should not be Hillary Clinton’s running mate.
Elizabeth Warren is deservedly a hero to progressives who supported Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton. She is fearless, fierce, and focused on economic inequality, campaign finance, and the corruption of the 1%.
That’s exactly why she’d make a terrible choice for vice president. Here are five reasons.
1. It’s not just the economy, stupid.
As we saw in the Democratic primary, non-white voters are not primarily interested in the economic issues that were the bread and butter of the Sanders campaign. This should not be surprising. White supremacy has reared its ugly head in the Republican Party, every week brings another acquittal of a police officer brutalizing an African American suspect, and the supposedly post-racial Obama presidency has been anything but post-racist, from #oscarssowhite to #blacklivesmatter.
The 1% is the main villain of many white progressives, but not of most non-white Democratic voters. The problem with Senator Warren isn’t simply that she is a white woman like Hillary; it’s that her message and her experience are about economic issues.
That may motivate all my friends in Brooklyn, but it’s the wrong message to send to the people of color who delivered Clinton the presidential nomination. (Of course, many people of color voted for Bernie, but they are in the minority.) Progressives, whoever we supported in the primary, need to check our privilege and remember that others don’t see the world the way we do.
2. The (Small) Positives
Then there are the usual reasons.
Typically, vice presidential nominees add something to the ticket, either in terms of profile (e.g., Biden was strong on foreign policy where Obama was weak; Quayle was young where Bush Sr. was old) or in terms of states they can help carry.
What does Warren add? Her home state of Massachusetts is safely blue. Her demographics are identical. While her economic agenda will presumably motivate the Bernie base, the truth is that enough of that base is probably going to vote Democratic anyway, given Trump’s absolute odiousness. Some will peel off to Trump, Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson, but it’s hard to see a repeat of 2000 (when Florida’s Nader voters cost Al Gore the election) with an overt racist on the other side.
Those are not big enough positives. By contrast, Clinton can tack toward the center and govern with a larger mandate by picking Tim Kaine, the senator from Virginia. With Julian Castro, the Hispanic head of Housing and Urban Development she can inspire Latino and black voter registration, and offer a powerful counterpoint to the build-a-wall-and-deport-them-all message of Trump. With Labor Secretary Tom Perez, she gets some of each: Warren’s progressive credentials, Castro’s Latino background, and Kaine’s gravitas.
And then there’s the cold, calculating part. Kaine could swing Virginia, and Castro could make even Texas competitive. (Remember, unless Republicans are successful in their voter suppression efforts, changing Demographics will likely turn Texas blue by 2024.) No such benefit with Warren (or Perez, for that matter).
However you slice it, Warren’s net benefits to the Clinton campaign are small. The negatives, however, are potentially large.
3. The Negatives
In addition to not adding enough, Warren could actually hurt Clinton in two ways.
First, it’s awful to admit, but as my colleague Michael Tomasky pointed out last month, an all-female ticket could alienate some Neanderthal male voters, particularly in swing states.
It’s not just the sex of the candidates; it’s also he kind of challenge they pose to masculinity. Clinton has spent two decades morphing from the strong (to chauvinists: shrill) feminist of her early years to an overly coached hybrid of strong-but-not-too-strong female political presence. As Jimmy Kimmel perfectly satirized in a hilarious sketch of manplaining to Hillary how to talk, one consequence of these decades of coaching is the candidate’s tendency to appear wooden and insincere. But it does make her more palatable to Middle America.
Warren, on the other hand, has been blissfully free from such constraints. Her constituents don’t mind that she’s a fierce, outspoken woman; on the contrary, many love it. I love it. But politics isn’t about convincing me; it’s about studying and empathizing with other people—in this case, scared white middle-class men who aren’t Trump’s hard core reactionary base but who might tip either way. It sucks, but it’s true that a Clinton-Warren ticket will cost some of their votes.
Just as white progressives need to think beyond their concerns and accept that people of color have different ones, so we also need to think beyond our comfort zones and imagine what it would be like to really be on the fence between Clinton and Trump. Thinking like that voter—however much we may dislike him—an all-powerful-female-liberal ticket is a huge liability.
Second, while again most of my personal Facebook feed is thrilled by the idea of Clinton saying F-You to her Wall Street backers, F-You is rarely a good fundraising pitch. True, Bernie was able to mount a transformative campaign on small donations. But will the Bernie Army really turn out for Hillary if she gave Wall Street the shaft and ran with Warren instead? At the very least, it’s a risky proposition. More likely, no.
Without a backup plan, a grand F-You gesture to Wall Street is like telling your boss to take this job and shove it, without anything else lined up. Once again, this sucks, but is there another way?
And it’s not just money; it’s votes, too. Clinton can pick up significant numbers of what used to be called ‘Rockefeller Republicans,’ folks who are basically small-government fiscal conservatives, but who find Trump’s race-baiting appalling. They, too, might be on the fence between the two candidates – and they, too, might be pushed over by a divisive (though, again, awesome) VP pick.
Simply put, if we like that pick too much, they probably won’t like her/him enough.
4. The Senate Balance
Even if Senator Warren’s positives and negatives evened out, progressives need her in the Senate. Were she to leave her seat, attaining a Democratic majority—or, dream of dreams, super-majority—becomes that much harder. Under Massachusetts law, the governor—in this case, Republican Charlie Baker—appoints a temporary replacement to fill a senate vacancy for the 145 to 160 days until a special election. If Senator Warren were to resign in November, that could conceivably swing the Senate for the first 100 days of the Clinton administration.
Senator Harry Reid and others have proposed some possible workarounds, such as an earlier resignation (a risky move, since Warren could be out of a job if Clinton loses) that would limit the damage.
But even if the workarounds work, there’s no guarantee that a Democrat would succeed Senator Warren in a special election. This is the state that elected Scott Brown, after all. Taking Elizabeth Warren out of the Senate decreases the chances of Democratic control of the Senate.
And given the shenanigans we’ve seen from Senate Republicans lately—such as ignoring their oath office and declining even to entertain a Supreme Court nomination—that’s no small matter. It’s yet another serious cost of a Warren VP candidacy.
5. Don’t Muzzle Elizabeth Warren!
Besides, let’s think from the left for a moment. Let’s assume that Hillary Clinton governs as a centrist, like her husband, especially on economic issues. A Vice President Warren would surely be bound by loyalty to not criticize her boss too much or too frequently. Yes, she would have the inside track to influence the president. But she would lose her existing platform as an independent who speaks truth to power.
In many ways, a Vice President Warren would be a gift to Wall Street. Keep your friends close and enemies closer, right? With Elizabeth Warren effectively quieted by the political responsibilities of her new job, progressives would lose perhaps their most eloquent and forceful voice on economic issues. It’s easy to imagine the Clinton administration sidelining the vice president if she became too nettlesome. Whereas if she remains in the Senate, she can call out President Clinton when she kowtows to Wall Street and can help define the progressive agenda for the future.
Even in the campaign, Warren as a Clinton supporter can hold Clinton accountable from the left in a way that Warren as a running mate could not. She doesn’t have to tow the party line. She can side with Bernie’s camp on key platform issues. She can say things that might be too unpopular, disagreeable, or radical for Clinton herself to approve.
Yes, as Veep, Warren could have an insider’s effect on policy. But do progressives really want her to be coopted by a centrist administration?
Neither Julian Castro nor Tim Kaine nor Tom Perez is a perfect choice either. Castro is young and inexperienced (Trump could run Clinton’s anti-Obama wake-up-at-3am ads against him), Kaine moderate and uninspiring, Perez anathema to conservatives. But none of them carries the kind of negatives that Warren has, and each has different strong positives (what a contrast a Latino VP would make to a nativist, anti-immigrant ticket, for example) that make up for them.
So, yes to everything Elizabeth Warren stands for, and can stand for in the future. No to constraining all of that potential within a small, VP-candidate box. She will have more power outside of it.