Elizabeth Warren Wows Ohio

Either Elizabeth Warren just made Hillary Clinton's vice-presidential choice a lot harder or a lot easier, depending on how you see her strategic decision-making process and how much chance you think a Clinton/Warren ticket has of becoming reality. Warren appeared onstage with Clinton today and the Massachusetts senator wowed the Ohio crowd, proving without a shadow of a doubt she is unquestionably the best "attack dog" the Democrats have against Donald Trump. But is this enough for Clinton to select Warren as running mate? Or, perhaps is it too much? In other words, is there a danger that Warren could actually upstage the presidential candidate? And even if Hillary knows Warren is the best anti-Trump weapon around, will Clinton's choice ultimately hinge on this criterion or not?

Vice-presidential picks are made for any number of reasons. The selection can be made for geographical reasons (to help the candidate carry a battleground state, for instance), or even to balance one region of the country with another. The choice can be made for demographic balance, such as the selection of Dan Quayle or Sarah Palin (Quayle was young, offsetting George H.W. Bush's age; Palin was female). These are usually framed in terms of balancing the ticket -- shoring up a candidate's weakness by offering a stabilizing factor as a running mate. But sometimes these calculations are ignored and a more personal choice is made. Bill Clinton picked Al Gore in 1992, which surprised many because it was a ticket of two Southerners. Sometimes the decision just boils down to the personal preference of the candidate, no matter what the wonky vote-predictors tell them they should do.

Elizabeth Warren would unbalance the ticket in two major ways, but she'd provide an overwhelming amount of balance on a third, which might make up for it. The selection of Warren would mean the first all-female ticket in American history from a major party. This already worries many Democrats (even staunch Hillary supporters) who are skeptical that the electorate is ready to vote for two women to lead the country. Warren doesn't add anything in the realm of geography, either, as both candidates would hail from the Northeast. In fact, this is actually an argument against choosing Warren, because Massachusetts has a Republican governor who would get to select Warren's temporary replacement (before a special election was held). If this tilts the balance of power in the Senate, even for the first few months of a Clinton presidency, it could hobble her ability to press her agenda at the very start of her term.

But the upside would be an ideological one. No other veep choice would enthuse supporters of Bernie Sanders more than Elizabeth Warren (other than Hillary picking Bernie himself, which is not very likely to happen). Warren would be seen as a big check on Clinton's tendency towards going easy on Wall Street by millions of Bernie voters. Even before Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy, if you'll remember, there was a massive "draft Warren" effort to convince her to launch her own presidential bid. These Warren supporters eventually drifted over into Bernie's camp (after the thousandth time Warren unequivocally said "I'm not running"), so for many of them Warren was actually their first choice. Seeing her on Clinton's ticket would be a big reason for excitement for many, to put it mildly.

The big question that ran through my mind watching today's video footage, however, was whether this might be too much of a good thing for Hillary Clinton to accept. Wildly cheering crowds for the vice-presidential candidate -- which are nowhere near as enthusiastic for the top of the ticket -- can be awkward. John McCain learned this, after seeing Sarah Palin's adoring crowds. If Hillary Clinton did choose Elizabeth Warren with the hope that Warren would provide some enthusiasm, then she'd have to be prepared to assume the role of "being presidential" and by doing so let Warren be the main foil to Donald Trump (with as many crowd-pleasing attack lines as possible). As long as Clinton accepts this from the start, it could work out fine. But if there's any tinge of "Warren's crowds are bigger than Clinton's" (either from disgruntled campaign staff or from the candidate herself), this could lead to some resentment.

The biggest question is whether Hillary Clinton trusts Elizabeth Warren and has the confidence that she could step into the presidency at any time. That's always what the personal part of the selection process boils down to. There have been whispers that Warren and Clinton don't exactly like each other all that much, but now there are counter-rumors that they have personally bonded over being grandmothers together (which sounds suspiciously like a focus-group-tested line, if I ever heard one). Both Clintons have always valued loyalty very highly, and Warren famously was the last female senator to endorse Clinton (at the very end of the primaries, when it essentially made no difference).

The Clinton camp has indicated it is heavily vetting only three candidates at this point (although they leaven this with caveats about looking at a "much longer list"). Warren is one, and the other two are Tim Kaine and Julián Castro. All agree that Castro, currently in President Obama's cabinet, is destined for political stardom in the Democratic Party sooner or later. He would bring two demographic strengths to the ticket: he's young, and he's Latino. He hails from Texas, which is probably not possible for Democrats to pick up (even this year), but he would definitely provide a healthy dose of balance to the ticket. The first woman in the White House might have the first Latino vice president at her side -- that'd be doubling down on the historic nature of this campaign for Democrats.

Then there's Tim Kaine, currently in the Senate but previously Virginia's governor and head of the Democratic National Committee. He is (by his own admission this weekend) "boring." To say he'd be the safe choice is an understatement. He's white, male, a Southerner, and he could virtually guarantee that Virginia's 13 Electoral College votes wind up in the Democratic column. The current governor of Virginia is not only a Democrat, but also a Clinton acolyte, so Kaine's Senate seat replacement wouldn't be a problem. If Clinton chooses Kaine, it will be to "triangulate" the general electorate, in the same way her husband used to so effectively do. Kaine would be seen by moderates, independents, and even Republicans disgusted with Trump as a fairly soothing choice and definitely not some sort of radical candidate. Clinton would be gambling that the Democratic base (including all the Bernie supporters and lots of Latinos) are already sufficiently behind her and need no further enticement to vote for her. Kaine, it almost goes without saying, would never be in danger of upstaging Clinton in front of a crowd.

These are the three choices the Clinton camp has said they're now intensely vetting. One is a populist firebrand who already has millions of nationwide supporters who love her dearly (and fervently) -- and who is already proving she's the best weapon the Democrats have against the Republican nominee. One is a handsome young Latino who is quite likely to run for president himself at some point in the future, and who is also capable of inspiring crowds with his oratory. Either of these choices would be historic in their own way. Then there's a white male from the South who could carry his home state. Kaine is the safest of safe choices, but when he introduces himself to a national politics-watching audience with the admission that he's "boring," he's likely not going to be an inspiring choice or (for that matter) an effective attack dog against a loose-cannon candidate like Donald Trump.

Of course, at this point, none of us knows who Clinton will pick (perhaps this is all a feint, and she'll select a dark horse that nobody's currently paying any attention to?), and nobody knows exactly what she'll be thinking when she does decide. But the pros and cons of the selection calculus of the current shortlist are pretty easy for all to see. Warren's audition today showed she is the most capable person to take the fight to Donald Trump. Nobody else really even comes close. If that's what Hillary is looking for, she really needs to look no further. But Hillary Clinton may have different criteria when making her choice, and other factors may weigh more heavily when she does decide.

 

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