As Hillary Clinton moves closer to officially clinching the Democratic presidential nomination, the next phase of the competition has already begun: speculation about her running mate.
A Boston Globe article kicked off the latest round on Thursday by floating the possibility of an all-female ticket — specifically one filled out by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
With the Clintons, people are quick to assume everything is calculated. Appearances aside, the Clinton campaign did not choose a Boston paper to float a Warren trial balloon. Campaign chairman John Podesta just answered a question from a Globe reporter after the most recent debate.
But the speculation around Warren is not baseless. “Real folks are pushing Warren. I’m into it,” said one member of Clinton’s inner circle. And if Warren needs them, she has friends inside the campaign, including its CFO Gary Gensler, a leading Wall Street reformer who is close to Warren, and campaign strategist Mandy Grunwald, who helped run Warren’s 2012 Senate bid and remains close to the senator.
Whether Clinton would choose her, though, is impossible to know yet. It would solve some obvious problems with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but would create new ones with the Wall Street wing — and give her headaches she might rather avoid. And at least until a special election could be called in Massachusetts, it would take Warren out of the Senate.
But among progressives, that’s all beside the point: There is a firmly held belief that even if the job were offered to Warren, she would decline it, aware that her true power lies in operating from within the Senate.
Don’t buy it. There is a strong case to be made that Warren could significantly expand her ability to advance the issues she cares about by taking the VP slot.
The argument that follows is not based on any recent interviews with Warren or people close to her, who aren’t commenting on the speculation, but rather draws from years of watching her accumulate and wield power in Washington.
Those making the case that Warren would be muzzled or neutered as a vice president first must explain why they were wrong at least the last two times.
When Warren was offered a temporary role setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, skeptics warned that she’d get eaten alive in the Treasury Department, would have no real power and, as a member of the Obama administration, would lose her independent outsider voice.
Instead, she won the internal knife fights, carved out space to operate and set up the agency that is today the greatest check against the power of Wall Street. To get a sense of how strong it is, look no further than the legal effort to have it ruled unconstitutional.
From there, Warren made a bid for the U.S. Senate. Again, her friendly skeptics worried that as one of 100 lawmakers, she’d be shorn of her true power, her independent outsider status. Just look at what happened to political satirist-turned-senator Al Franken, they warned.
Instead, Warren maneuvered her way onto the Senate Banking Committee and built a power base. She and a group of allies were able to stop Larry Summers from even being nominated to chair the Federal Reserve, and she has otherwise held sway over the administration’s personnel decisions she’s focused on. Banking regulators and Education Department officials, well aware that a viral embarrassment awaits them at their next committee hearing if they fall short of their regulatory duties, have a new pep in their step.
Why Give Up All That Power Now?
The answer is the same as it was the last two times: for more power over the issues that matter to her. An outspoken member of the Banking Committee has influence over banking regulators and Wall Street. But let’s not kid ourselves: The president has more. In what position would Warren be more able to influence the president?
History is filled with powerless and forgettable vice presidents, but recent years have seen an elevation of the role. George H.W. Bush had significant influence over national security policy; he was followed by the dud that was Dan Quayle. Al Gore carved out some turf within Bill Clinton’s administration before Dick Cheney became the most powerful vice president ever. Now we have Joe Biden.
With Hillary Clinton as president, Warren couldn’t hope to match Cheney’s string-pulling, but she has the potential to be far more influential than Gore or Biden. Neither seemed particularly interested in or adept at strategizing and maneuvering for internal position. You have to want it.
Dick Cheney wanted it, and he had a base of conservative support, along with the conservative media, that he knew how to exploit in order to advance his own agenda. In other words, it can be done.
Warren wants it, and her career shows she knows how to do it: Ask Summers or former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner or Antonio Weiss. Ask any of the financial institutions that have coughed up billions in fraudulent gains when the CFPB came knocking. In each case, the internal politics were supported by outside pressure, whether from unions or the progressive base that organizes online. Gore and Biden had no such armies.
Both Warren and Cheney also differ from figures like Gore and Biden in why they pursue power. Warren and Cheney each have a view of how the world ought to be, and they want to bend the world in that direction (though these are obviously starkly different views). Gore, Biden and most other vice presidents were more conventional politicians, who hoped to use their position to become president first and then do something with it second. For Warren and Cheney, the doing comes first.
And there’s plenty to do once you’re in the administration. Warren cares deeply about the types of agencies and regulators that Quayle probably never learned to spell — 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 (which was rejuvenated under Gensler) or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. That’s before we’ve even reached the Education Department, which Warren has all but waged war on over the student loans crisis and the department’s shoddy oversight of dodgy for-profit colleges. Warren would not need Cheney-level power to move the needle inside those regulatory bodies.
Warren’s time in the Senate has helped to create a power bloc that would not simply dissipate if she left. Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) would still sit on the Banking Committee, and Brown would be chairing it if the Democrats take back the Senate. A newly empowered Bernie Sanders would have his own power base. The three of them in the Senate and Warren in the White House would make a powerful unit — stronger than if all four were in the Senate together.
It’s wrong to think of a Senate seat as inherently more powerful than the vice presidency, but the Senate does have one key advantage: As another influential Massachusetts senator, Ted Kennedy, showed, it can be a lifetime gig. Going to the White House would mean a jolt of power for four years, perhaps eight.
At age 66, though, it’s uncertain how much more time Warren wants to spend in the Senate. For someone who never set out to be a lifetime lawmaker, going all in on the vice presidency could be an attractive exit strategy, and it would allow her to set down rules of the road that would long outlast her tenure.
As Warren has shown repeatedly during her unlikely political career, the size of the title doesn’t matter. It’s what you do with it.