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Elizabeth Warren Is Hillary Clinton’s Most Rational Choice for VP

The case for Warren is stronger than Tim Kaine boosters allow. Stronger than anybody else's, in fact.

John Sommers II/Getty Images

Nearly all reports from the Hillary Clinton brain trust suggest Senator Tim Kaine is the runaway favorite to be the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee in 2016.

There are soft spots in this consensus. For instance, the Clinton campaign is apparently not 100 percent convinced that Donald Trump will walk away from next month’s convention in Cleveland as the Republican nominee. Clinton’s allies think there’s a small but real chance she’ll be running against a candidate who isn’t fatally flawed himself (or mortally wounded for having deposed Trump). If that did happen, a more electric candidate might rocket to the top of her short list.

But Kaine-as-default-choice is what Clinton-world sources are telling reporters, and what they say matches conventional wisdom, which for several weeks has held that Clinton will pick him. The Virginia senator is ideologically closer to Clinton than Elizabeth Warren. He’s also temperamentally closer to Clinton than Warren, and his choice would be reflective of Clinton’s famous aversion to political risk. Kaine isn’t a progressive firebrand, so he won’t overshadow Clinton—and by the same token, he doesn’t come fully loaded with the powerful enemies Warren has earned.

The conventional wisdom, in other words, makes a lot of sense. But that doesn’t make it actually wise. The case for Warren as vice president is stronger than Kaine boosters allow, and stronger in sum than the case for Kaine—or for anybody else Clinton might choose.

There are actually three cases against Warren as VP—one from Warren’s own perspective, one from Clinton’s, and one from the Democratic Party’s. The Warren case holds that the Senate is a more natural place for a political figure who has her own power base, values her independence, and intends to use political influence in consequential ways. This is a strong argument, undermined most significantly by the fact that Warren herself doesn’t seem to believe it. She has been signaling her desire to be Clinton’s running mate loudly, and in many different ways, ever since Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination.

Institutionally, Democrats worry that elevating Warren to VP will cost the party a Senate seat, where Kaine won’t. Virginia’s current governor, Terry McAuliffe is a Democrat and would fill Kaine’s vacancy with another Democrat. Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker, on the other hand, is a Republican, and would appoint an interim Republican senator to replace Warren, pending a special election. This is a real concern, but Democrats believe there are ways to circumvent it; indeed, no less an institutionalist than Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has satisfied himself that Warren would be an acceptable running mate for Clinton.

The Clinton-centric case is that Warren might overshadow Clinton, will have a worse relationship with her than Kaine, and will introduce liabilities (a threat to big-dollar fundraising, an abdication of the political center) that Kaine won’t. This concern only has real merit if it reflects the candidate’s thinking, rather than the reduced thinking of political analysts and a subset of her advisers.

And if that is Clinton’s thinking, then she will—and probably should—pick Kaine. But her liberal critics would be within their rights to view it as a substantive rejection of the party’s progressive wing. Kaine is no Joe Lieberman. He’s about as mainstream as Democrats get. But, like Reid, he is personally opposed to abortion and supported his state’s abortion restrictions when he was governor of Virginia. And as a mainstream Democrat, his fiscal priorities are actually rather conservative, in line with the beltway consensus that long-term deficits should be reduced with a mix of two or three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar of higher tax revenue.

The case for Warren gets short shrift in all this analysis.

Under any circumstances, but particularly for a candidate like Clinton who is operating from a position of strength over a badly weakened Republican Party, a presidential nominee should pick a running mate who fills some administrative need; who can assume functions of the office in the event that the president for any reason no longer can; and who ideally embodies a worthy vision of the party’s future.

This is more or less the thinking both George W. Bush and Barack Obama adopted when they picked their running mates. Bush didn’t know anything about federal policy, or the federal bureaucracy, so he picked Dick Cheney, an old Republican hand, and a movement conservative who had deep experience in both political branches of government. Obama had few relationships on Capitol Hill, so he chose Joe Biden, a running mate who could stand in for him as a legislative negotiator in a pinch. And both Cheney and Biden, to differing effect, were deployed to fill the needs for which they were recruited.

Unlike Bush, though, Clinton doesn’t want for federal-bureaucratic experience, and unlike Obama, she doesn’t want for relationships in Congress. Kaine’s expertise and Clinton’s are somewhat redundant. What Clinton does lack is media savvy and universal faith among the Democratic base in her judgment. Warren epitomizes both of those qualities.

Kaine is generally presumed to be better qualified for the presidency than Warren, but this is a bit like arguing only one angel can dance on the head of a pin. Warren and Kaine entered the Senate at the same time. And while Kaine governed Virginia for four term-limited years, Warren worked in the federal government for a year as an adviser to Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, tasked with standing up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (an agency that was her intellectual brainchild). She proved to be an able bureaucrat and savvy operator in that role, and used the experience to build a foundation for her successful Senate candidacy.

What Warren lacks relative to Kaine in executive experience she makes up for with a clear, consistent, and progressive ideology. President Kaine would likely be a fine president, perhaps a great one, but his slate is much blanker than Warren’s. Democrats at the elite and grassroots level know what Warren’s substantive goals are, and have responded to them enthusiastically.

The fact that Warren really is better than anyone other than perhaps Barack Obama at getting under Trump’s skin is an added bonus, but an important one.

The transition between being the runaway winner of the Republican primary and the hapless loser in the general election has robbed Trump of the lone, circular argument for his candidacy: that he deserves to win because he’s a winner. Becoming an underdog has made Trump more erratic, more an expression of id, driven entirely by a self-defeating clamor to regain his rightful place atop the polls. Losing to a woman rather than a man draws out a more revealing and unlovely aspect of that id: sexism rather than machismo. Losing to two women, one of whom is his most skilled antagonist, would be, as TPM’s Josh Marshall put it, “the ultimate, catastrophic indignity.”

There’s a reason Warren makes Trump pop off—“goofy!”, “Pocahontas!”—and there’s a reason the Clinton campaign giddily sends the Massachusetts senator out to light the fuse. Nominating Kaine would sacrifice this ancillary benefit, and provide Trump a target for aggression that isn’t boobytrapped.

Ideally, the arguments for or against any potential Democratic vice president won’t matter at all. Trump has made it overwhelmingly likely that Clinton will win the presidency no matter who she runs with. And it would be in the Democratic Party’s interest if Clinton served eight successful years in office, and then let historical events and demographic changes determine whether the party moves forward in a more progressive or centrist direction. But Clinton has to pick someone. And even if her instinct is to select the lowest-risk option, the assumption that the blander, less ideological candidate is the safer one is pat and undercooked.