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The Hardest Decision Bernie Sanders Will Make This Year

If he wins the nomination, he’ll have to choose a running mate who shares his values but expands his appeal.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As has been the case for some time now, Bernie Sanders is the front-runner in the Democratic primary, a position Tuesday night’s victory in New Hampshire only confirmed. While the race has just begun, the plausibility of his eventual nomination has already put a critical choice into view for his supporters. If victorious, Sanders will have to make the most difficult and potentially consequential vice-presidential pick of any major party candidate in recent memory. He will be 79 years old on Inauguration Day, which would make him the oldest president at the time of his swearing-in in American history—by nearly a decade. And although he’s made a lively recovery from the heart attack he suffered last year, it’s certain that his health and fitness will be not only major topics of the general election but also concerns at the top of Sanders’s own mind. He’ll want to choose a potential successor capable of ensuring the continuity of his agenda for the remainder of the administration and beyond.

Given this, it’s hard to imagine Sanders doing what many observers will insist he should: choose an obvious moderate who might reassure those voters who consider Sanders too left-wing to support. Yet it seems likely that Sanders will ultimately choose someone to his right; the pool of major and even secondary figures on the American political scene at his end of the ideological spectrum is incredibly small. Beyond ideology, Sanders would likely weigh a few other variables presidential candidates typically consider. It would be hard for him not to choose a running mate considerably younger than he is, even if he didn’t want to, but he could well decide to pick a youthful candidate, which might help him more with the kind of older voters backing Pete Buttigieg’s message of generational change than with young voters themselves. He could also choose a nominee who might boost his margins in a particularly important state or region—someone from the Rust Belt, white working-class heavy states of Hillary Clinton’s failed firewall in 2016; or from the diversifying South, where Democrats might still try to make gains if they’re feeling bold as the general election begins.

Representational politics would also weigh heavily on Sanders’s decision: Many progressives will insist, loudly and rightfully, that he ought to seriously consider picking a woman, a person of color, or both. Sanders has previously intimated that he’s leaning toward a female nominee, although he’s also declined to commit to any particular demographic profile. A diverse ticket could help ensure the breadth of the coalition that has emerged in the primaries is sustained through the general election, which will be critical if Sanders is to outperform Clinton in minority turnout within key swing states.

On top of it all, Sanders’s strategy for enacting his agenda has introduced a unique wrinkle into the equation. He’s been a critic of the push from progressives to fully eliminate the Senate filibuster, which he believes might be worth keeping in amended form to preserve some power for Senate minorities. To overcome the 60-vote threshold certain to hobble progressive policymaking even if Democrats win a Senate majority in November, Sanders has instead proposed taking full advantage of the vice president’s usually unutilized constitutional authority as president of the Senate, which would allow the White House to overrule the Senate parliamentarian’s judgments on the Senate’s rules for reconciliation bills, if not legislation in a broader sense. The last vice president to intervene in the Senate this way was Nelson Rockefeller, and the messiness of what ensued is captured in the Senate’s official biography of him:

On [one] occasion as presiding officer, Rockefeller tried to break a filibuster by declining to recognize Senators James Allen of Alabama and William Brock of Tennessee and instead ordering the roll call to proceed. Senator Barry Goldwater challenged him, but Rockefeller replied, “It says right here in the precedents of the Senate, ‘The Chair may decline to respond; the chair may decline to answer a parliamentary inquiry.’” “That is correct,” Goldwater countered. “That is what it says, but I never thought I would see the day when the chair would take advantage of it.” Later, Rockefeller apologized for any “discourtesy” he may have shown the Senate by this incident. “If I make a mistake I like to say so.”

In sum, Sanders’s ideal vice presidential pick would be a younger, but politically experienced woman of color from the South or the Rust Belt who roughly occupies Sanders’s ideological space and would be willing and able to preside over years of institutional upheaval in the Senate. This person does not exist. But who’s worthy of consideration as the next best thing?

Whenever the question is posed on social media, many of Sanders’s most fervent supporters regularly offer two names: Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator who now co-chairs the Sanders campaign and has been one of his most prominent surrogates, and Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who, lest we forget, is still running for the nomination herself. Both are women of color, and both are closer to Sanders politically than almost anyone else who easily comes to mind. On paper, Turner could potentially boost Sanders in Ohio, while Gabbard’s military service makes her a funhouse mirror version of the kind of female candidates Democrats typically consider compelling in swing regions. Yet it is easy to imagine voters troubled by Sanders’s age balking at the prospect of replacing him with a former state senator. And as much as Gabbard’s fans might see her political idiosyncrasies as an asset, the Hawaii congresswoman would face tough questions about where her political loyalties actually lie, as well as some of the bizarre details of her personal life. Outside of Sanders’s camp, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, another woman of color and one with a certain future in national Democratic politics, comes up often. But like Turner, Abrams has no political experience higher than service in a state legislature, and her positions on critical items of the Sanders platform, including Medicare for All, are unclear.

In Congress, few progressives are praised more unreservedly by Sanders’s supporters than California Representative Barbara Lee—again a woman of color, and the only member of Congress to have voted against the 2001 resolution authorizing the use of force after September 11, 2001. But her leadership on foreign policy aside, Lee, like Abrams, would not be the safest steward of the Sanders agenda. A year ago, she endorsed Senator Kamala Harris for the nomination. California Representative Ro Khanna, another one of Sanders’s campaign co-chairs, is another potential pick. Although he would make history as the first Asian-American major party nominee, it’s not clear he would bring much more to the ticket strategically.

In the Senate, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, both of whom were floated as potential 2020 candidates, could be in the running. But the Sanders campaign seems confident it already will be strong among the white working-class voters to whom both senators might appeal, and they would obviously leave progressive representational demands unanswered.

That brings us, inevitably, to Senator Elizabeth Warren—the pick for which many progressive activists and commentators have been openly pining. The very real differences between Sanders’s and Warren’s policy views and their theories of change have been the subject of intense debate and exhaustive discussion over the course of the campaign season. Nevertheless, the two are substantively close enough that they’ve respected each other for years; Sanders famously encouraged Warren to run before mounting his own bid in 2016. In addition, Warren has been a more enthusiastic supporter of the sort of procedural reforms that would be necessary to pass and defend Sanders’s agenda than Sanders has been himself.

Warren is compelling enough as a potential choice that the Sanders campaign has reportedly already made inquiries into whether she could serve as both vice president and secretary of the Treasury simultaneously. But the context from which that news emerged is relevant: The informal nonaggression pact between the two candidates collapsed spectacularly not long before Iowa, and the relationships between the loyal partisans in both camps have soured considerably, even if the mutual affections of their voters in the broader electorate have not. Additionally, it’s not obvious that Warren would make the electoral map any easier for Sanders or bolster his support with moderates, and President Donald Trump would likely revive the extant controversy over her claims of Native American ancestry during the general election.

Earlier this month, at Jacobin, Kalewold H. Kalewold spoke up for another potential choice who would check many of the same boxes as Warren, with a few added advantages: Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin. Since her election in 2012, Baldwin, he explained, has quietly become one of the Senate’s leading progressives and has additionally been a longtime supporter of progressive health care reform, including single-payer insurance. A full quarter of the bills Baldwin has sponsored, in fact, have been health care–related. “If Sanders does indeed make a major overhaul of the U.S. health care system his first legislative priority,” Kalewold wrote, “a vice president with Baldwin’s record and experience would be the best choice to shepherd that effort through Congress as his right-hand person—and tie-breaking vote.”

Baldwin would be the first member of the LGBTQ community to make a major party presidential ticket, and she hails from a critical swing state. Ironically, it’s precisely this home state advantage that would make her nomination potentially risky: Her Senate vacancy would be filled by special election, potentially jeopardizing a Democratic Senate majority that, if it even comes about, is sure to be narrow.

This list is nonexhaustive, and it’s entirely possible that Sanders could confound expectations by making a pick out of left—or right—field. Whatever the choice, the running mate always tells us something about the candidate at the top of the ticket. Obama’s selection of Joe Biden in 2008 did more than strategically mollify voters spooked by his race and relative inexperience. The choice was an illustration of Obama’s own political self-awareness and his seriousness about becoming a moderating force in American politics. John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin said precisely the opposite: McCain, and the Republican establishment in general, demonstrated a willingness to indulge the party’s populist voices and lean into the kind of dog-whistle politics that would eventually deliver Trump the presidency.

Sanders’s pick, should he be given the opportunity by voters to make one, will similarly shed light on some of the questions that would define his presidency. What kind of concessions, if any, would Sanders be willing to make to the center? And what kind of supporting figures would he bring into the White House? After all, as he regularly reminds his supporters, you can’t bring about a political revolution on your own.