Since the NZ Herald didn't put my column from yesterday on their website, here it is for my records.
The success and durability of Bernie Sanders' presidential run is often put down to his unexpected gifts as a campaigner, but the truth is far scarier for establishment Democrats. The 74 year old Independent Senator from Vermont, who has raised close to $200 million and defeated frontrunner Hillary Clinton in nineteen states, is actually a deeply flawed candidate. Had another populist insurgent been in the running –– someone with a surer grasp of policy detail, a defter and less bellicose style, and broader demographic appeal –– such a candidate could clearly have defeated Clinton.
As it happens, precisely such a prospect existed in Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. A former Harvard Professor who oversaw the formation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under Obama, Warren has since usurped Bill Clinton as the most compelling Democratic voice on middle-class economics. In recent days, Warren has also emerged as a ferocious Twitter combatant, taking aim at Donald Trump and firing up the Democratic base in ways Hillary seems entirely incapable of doing.
No surprise, then, to see reports that top Clinton aides are urging her to select Warren as her Vice-Presidential running mate, and that Joe Biden would have done so had he contested and won the nomination. It would be a wise choice for Clinton, but not because she needs Warren to win in November –– nothing will persuade me Donald Trump is electable. The best reason for Clinton to ally with Warren is to keep from losing her own party to a populist uprising in the months and years that follow.
Consider the alternatives. If Hillary follows the Clintonian playbook and goes for a centrist like Tim Kaine, former Governor and now Senator from Virginia, she risks factional disharmony that could end in a primary fight from the left that would complicate her reelection in 2020 (Ted Kennedy's debilitating challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1980 springs to mind).
Meanwhile, the case for selecting an Hispanic Veep, such as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, has weakened in light of Trump's emergence as the GOP nominee — labelling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers and proposing mass deportation should be enough on its own to turn out Latino voters in droves.
Co-opting Warren amounts to a stability pact by reassuring the party's activist they will have a powerful voice in the White House, especially on the key question of economic inequality. The current volatile political climate is far less conducive to the crafty, triangulated moderation of the previous Clinton White House.
And then there's gender; as Michelle Goldberg argued in Slate last week, putting a second woman on the ticket "would make it blazingly clear what an epochal moment this is for an American women".
Now to the downsides. Coming from the reliably Democratic Massachusetts, Warren doesn't bring a "swing state" into contention, but it will be a Republican governor who handpicks her temporary replacement in the Senate. This may diminish the Democrat's chances to reclaim a majority in the upper house, at least immediately (Massachusetts law requires a special election between 145-160 days after the vacancy arises –– a contest Democrats should win).
Resistance to Warren will be fiercest from predictable quarters. Old Clinton hands like former Treasury Secretaries Lawrence Summers and Tim Geithner will contend that Warren's hostility to Wall Street, as well as her protectionist instincts on trade, will hurt the Democratic Party's hard-won economic credibility and damage its appeal to moderate voters.
These are all surmountable arguments.
The ability of vice-presidential nominees to win states that the candidate at the top of the ticket otherwise can't is vastly overstated. Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, failed to move the needle in his home state of Wisconsin; Al Gore couldn't help Bill Clinton, or even himself atop the ballot, in Tennessee. A possible six month delay in claiming a hypothetical Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate doesn't seem enough on its own to preclude nominating somebody otherwise well suited. As for concerns Warren will force Clinton too far to the left, two rejoinders: Vice Presidents rarely play much of a role in shaping domestic economic policy independently of the West Wing; and, by placating the left, Warren's nomination would ironically free up Clinton to make more conventional (and Wall St-friendly) choices for key economic posts.
After Trump has fallen to Hillary in a thumping landslide, the GOP will enter an even more chaotic period of recrimination and disunity. But Bernie Sanders has uncovered a potent strain of disenchantment on the Democratic side as well. With Liz Warren at her side, Clinton can enter the Oval Office confident that Democrats are unlikely to descend into a civil war of its own.