VP Does Not Make Sense for Elizabeth Warren
The vice-presidential buzz around Sen. Elizabeth Warren is quickly becoming deafening. A confidant of Sen. Harry Reid whispered to the Boston Globe that “Reid sees a number of promising paths to making sure that Democrats keep Warren’s seat” despite the Republican governor’s ability to name an interim senator and Reid “is very open to her being selected.” Meanwhile, Warren has been wowing Democrats with roundhouse after roundhouse against Donald Trump. And her effusive endorsement of Hillary Clinton suggested she’s ready to defend the nominee from any sniping on the left, not echo it.
But is she really angling for the job? The Globe recently reported, based on comments from two anonymous “advisers,” that she is “intrigued by the possibility that she could be picked as Clinton’s vice president, but she is not sure that the move would make sense for her.”
Let’s clear up the confusion: It doesn’t make sense for her.
She would be trading away her perch as one of the most influential, and independent, members of the Senate to become a full-time surrogate for someone else.
Her current influence is real and demonstrable. Her reputation as Wall Street’s biggest enemy allows her to elevate any issue, no matter how obscure, into a liberal litmus test.
She has effectively stymied the president, a pretty popular Democrat himself, twice on major appointments. She played a role in forcing Larry Summers to remove himself from consideration to head the Federal Reserve. And she spearheaded the campaign to block Antonio Weiss from an undersecretary post at Treasury, putting this White House and future ones on notice that she will not let nominees with Wall Street ties get rubber-stamped.
She has also prompted Obama, and the Democratic Party in general, to modify their position on Social Security. In 2013, Obama proposed, as part of a never-realized bipartisan budget compromise, a reduction of future Social Security benefits through the use a different metric to determine cost-of-living increases. Months later, Warren took the diametrically opposite position, insisting that we should instead be “talking about expanding Social Security benefits.” Such a view was considered outside the realm of political possibility at the time. But two years later, nearly every Democrat in the Senate supported a resolution to that effect, and this year, President Obama and presumptive nominee Clinton have adopted her view.
One Senate battle she lost was the December 2014 bill to fund the government, which she opposed because the bill included a rollback of a provision in the Dodd-Frank bank reform law. But even in defeat, she still showed her ability to move votes when 40 percent of the Democratic caucus joined her, and opposed Obama, in voting no.
And that’s just after being in the Senate for less than four years. If the Democrats take over the Senate next year, Warren will be in the catbird seat. As David Bernstein detailed in Politico last month, she continues to collect chits with her Senate colleagues thanks to her prodigious fundraising on their behalf – something which Warren’s populist colleague Bernie Sanders has never been in a position to emulate (though perhaps he will leverage his shiny new email list on behalf of some Senate candidates in the fall.)
If she gives that up to be Clinton’s junior partner in the White House, what does she get? The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim made the case that she would gain influence upon entering the White House because she was proven the winner of “internal knife fights” when setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as a Treasury appointee. Grim argues her reach would be wide as VP: “whether it’s the CFPB, the Fed, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission … or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation … Warren would not need [Dick] Cheney-level power to move the needle inside those regulatory bodies.”
But Grim’s reference to Cheney undercuts the case. Cheney only had power to the extent that President George W. Bush allowed. As the New York Times’ Peter Baker explained, while he was highly influential in Bush’s first term, by the second he was “on defense more than offense. … Bush and Cheney disagreed on a long list of significant issues and policies. Where Bush was willing to pursue international diplomacy, empty secret C.I.A. prisons, sign an agreement to withdraw from Iraq and cut deals with Congress on military tribunals and warrantless eavesdropping, Cheney resisted any compromise as a sellout of the principles they once shared.”
Sure, Warren can be expected to win some internal battles. But not all. And when you’re vice president, after you lose, you salute. Does Warren want to salute if she loses a battle over a Clinton nominee with Wall Street ties, a possible trade deal with Europe, or a yet another hard-fought compromise with a Republican House over the budget? Even if she were willing to be a team player, every reluctant salute would diminish her stature with grassroots populists, and in turn, reduce her internal clout.
She might take those lumps if her ultimate goal is the presidency. Presumably, it isn’t, or else she would have taken the “Draft Warren” movement up on its offer last year. And she would be 74 years old by the time Clinton would likely be out of the presidential picture in 2024. If that were not a disqualifying age (that’s how old Sanders is now) then it would at least be an obstacle to the nomination.
But let’s assume she does want it. Certainly the vice presidency has the potential of being an easy steppingstone. But she also could end up like Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who never was able to separate himself from President Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam during his ill-fated 1968 presidential campaign. The onetime hero of civil rights movement became a toady of the Democratic establishment in the eyes of the left. A Clinton presidency wouldn’t necessarily need a calamity like Vietnam for there to be compromises that similarly rankle Warren’s fans and sully her currently golden image.
Whether or not the presidency is Warren’s ultimate goal, her Senate perch allows her to chart a course on her own terms. She can ally with Clinton when she wants. She can push Clinton from the left when she wants. She is a rare senator with a national power base designed to pressure the party establishment, not blindly serve it. And if she becomes vice president, it will disintegrate.