Clinton, Warren, and the Vice Presidency

AP Photo/Paul Holston

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton leaves her Washington home after meeting with Senator Elizabeth Warren, Friday, June 10, 2016. 

This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

Quiz: Who is the one member of the president’s cabinet who can’t be fired?

A. Attorney General
B. Secretary of State
C. Director of Central Intelligence
D. Vice President

The answer, of course, is D.

Elizabeth Warren is an attractive candidate for Hillary Clinton’s running mate on several grounds, but the potential deal breaker is item D. What president would want a vice president with her own fixed constitutional office, her own national power base, and the willingness to use it to possibly defy her president?

But overriding even that concern is the fact that Clinton may conclude she needs Warren to assure her own election. Only on that basis is she likely to turn to Warren.

All other considerations pale in comparison with that one. Warren will get the nod if and only if Clinton decides that Warren will make a major difference in November. Would Warren take the job? Yes.

Why might Clinton conclude that? Because Warren brings a verve and a gusto to the campaign that has partly eluded Clinton until now, though Clinton has evidently been learning some techniques and themes from Warren. And because Warren is a hero to the progressive wing of the party—in some ways she’s a better version of Sanders than Sanders is. The worry of Bernie Bros sitting it out would drastically diminish with Warren on the ticket.

Presumably, Clinton has to choose between the need to rally the progressive base and the need to name a more centrist running mate such as Virginia Senator Tim Kaine to shore up her appeal to defecting Republic moderates. But in some respects that’s a false dichotomy. Warren actually does very well among independents. She transcends ideology. She would bring the one thing to the ticket that has eluded Clinton: excitement.

Moreover, one formula for a Clinton victory is to increase her support among white women voters, whose support the Democrat has lost in the last three elections. In 2004, 55 percent of white women voters went for Bush over Kerry; in 2008, 53 percent supported McCain over Obama; and in 2012, an even larger 56 percent voted for Mitt Romney.

Clinton herself surely brings the drama of the first woman president—but on the excitement front Warren is a more compelling version of Clinton than Clinton. And two women will be even more of a breakthrough than one.

All these are good reasons for Clinton to name Warren as her running mate. But what about that Massachusetts Senate seat? In the short run, it would be filled by a Republican, named by Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker.

However, no less than Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, a big Warren booster, has calculated that the seat Warren would give up could be back in Democratic hands, presumably the hands of Congressman Joe Kennedy, by January 2017. If Reid of all people considers this an acceptable bargain, what’s not to like?

In the end, Clinton has to decide whether she is secure enough in her own skin to name a running mate who may occasionally upstage her and even occasionally oppose her.

Elizabeth Warren became a powerful leader of America’s progressives because of her formidable skills both as an insider and an outsider. During her time as chair of the Congressional Oversight Committee, the watchdog agency for the bank bailouts, Warren was relentless in her criticisms of Obama’s top economic adviser Larry Summers and his Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Yet all the while, she maintained a sunny relationship with Obama personally, who appointed her to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, itself an invention of Warren.

Subsequently, Warren was willing to organize other senators to compel Obama to name Janet Yellen to chair the Federal Reserve over Larry Summers; and to block the confirmation to a top Treasury job of Obama appointee, Wall Streeter Antonio Weiss. She also took her time and waited for the right strategic moment to endorse Clinton. Warren plays hardball, and plays it well.

Warren, as VP, would not be content to go to state funerals and preside over the Senate. She would be the kind of activist she has always been. If disagreed with her president, she would probably say so, maybe even rallying her supporters to “make the president do it.”

There have only been a handful of vice presidents with that degree of independence and a willingness to use it. The most recent one was Dick Cheney, whose infighting maneuvers ran rings around the less politically adroit George W. Bush. (It’s a most unfortunate comparison. Warren is tough, but not devious; and Clinton is a lot shrewder than Bush.)

Other recent strong vice presidents have included Joe Biden and Walter Mondale. But you have to go all the way back to Thomas Jefferson’s vice president, Aaron Burr, to find one who had no loyalty whatever to his president.

And that anomaly operated under a different system of constitutional rules, in which the runner up (and rival) in the Electoral College was awarded the vice presidency. The Founders soon appreciated the system’s flaw and drafted the 12th Amendment. Since 1804, the president and vice president have effectively run as a ticket.

Nonetheless, presidential candidates, for tactical reasons, have sometimes chosen running mates of divergent views. Lincoln, who did not expect to be assassinated, allowed the 1864 Republican convention to nominate the drunkard and slavery sympathizer Andrew Johnson. The arch-conservative William McKinley, also assassinated early in his term, picked the progressive Teddy Roosevelt. John Kennedy went with Lyndon Johnson, supposedly a racial moderate, who turned out to be more of a racial liberal than Kennedy.

Johnson, however, was not a particularly strong vice president; he felt stymied by the Kennedys. He showed his true strength only as president. Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Johnson did not serve long enough to try to oppose their bosses before succeeding to the presidency.

Warren would be stronger and more independent than most. Nonetheless, if Clinton feels Warren would make a big difference in the election, she will be offered the vice presidency. Otherwise, Warren can continue to lead from the Senate.

This article has been updated. 

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