As speculation swirls over who would make the best running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, a key question is how her pick might tilt the balance of power in the Senate.
Political scientist Justin Vaughn recently invited 40 presidential scholars to name which running mate to Hillary Clinton would make the best vice president. Their choices, in order of preference, were HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, and Vermont Senator (and of course strong runner-up for the Democratic nomination) Bernie Sanders. It’s not a bad list. But it overlooks the all-important question of how Clinton’s pick will impact Democrats in the Senate, and overlooks a strong candidate now serving in Obama’s cabinet.
At least one proposed nominee on the experts’ list, moreover, should be an utter nonstarter. If Brown were added to the ticket, Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, would appoint his replacement. Even leaving aside the fact that Brown is one of the strongest progressive voices in the Senate, tapping him as Clinton’s running mate would cost Democrats a crucial seat in the Senate. Given the likelihood that Republicans will retain the House even if Clinton wins, the key battles in Clinton’s first term would be around executive and judicial appointments (including one Supreme Court seat that will almost certainly be vacant if and when she takes office.) To advance her regulatory and constitutional agenda, Clinton will need every last vote in the Senate she can get. Picking Brown is terrible idea, not because he would be a bad vice president but because he’s so much more valuable in the Senate than he would be in the White House.
Creating a sort of unity ticket by nominating Sanders has a certain superficial appeal. But I don’t think the job, which requires being a team player subordinate to the president, is a good fit for him. It would probably be better for Clinton, Sanders, and for Democrats as a whole for him to maintain some independence from a Clinton White House, and make the most of his increased base of support in the Senate. Kaine, a skilled pol with a solidly progressive track record, is a better match for the job and a reasonable, do-no-harm selection—although he wouldn’t do much to excite Sanders’s supporters.
This brings us to the toughest case among the senators, Elizabeth Warren. TheProspect’s Bob Kuttner has made a robust case for picking Warren, and I find many of his arguments persuasive. From Clinton’s perspective, picking Warren has several virtues. First, she would appeal to Sanders voters who need to be brought into the fold. Second, her expertise and reputation strengthen Clinton on Wall Street regulation, an area where Clinton carries considerable political and policy baggage. Third, a two-woman ticket would throw Trump’s crude misogyny into sharp relief. Fourth, she has proven herself to be an effective attack dog, a desirable (if only marginally important) trait in a vice presidential candidate.
And, fifth—and most importantly—Warren could play a valuable role in the administration in crucial regulatory and staffing questions. If Warren were not empowered to influence in this arena, she would be much better off remaining in the Senate to anchor its ascendant progressive bloc. But presumably she wouldn’t take the job if it weren’t clear that she would have that authority, so this is a concern that largely takes care of itself.
There are, however, a couple of downsides to picking Warren. First off all, like Ohio, Massachusetts has a Republican governor. And in contrast to Ohio, as Kuttner explains, the Massachusetts governor’s selection of a replacement senator would be permanent, not temporary. Massachusetts law also allows the clock on the roughly 150-day window to hold a replacement election to start when the incumbent declares his or her intent to resign. So as long as Warren declared her intent to resign soon, if she signed on as Clinton’s vice presidential nominee, Democrats could avoid giving Republicans an unacceptable five-month window at the beginning of a Clinton administration during which the GOP would have an additional Senate vote. This concern isn’t as much of a deal-breaker as it would be in the case of Brown. But if Clinton is going to choose Warren, she needs to act quickly, and be awfully sure that Massachusetts Democrats can win back Warren’s seat.
Another concern is how effective Warren would be, in the end, at bringing Sanders voters back to the Democratic ticket. A lot of Sanders voters would applaud a Warren pick, but the ones who react most favorably are also probably the ones most likely to come around to Clinton once the prospect of a President Trump concentrates their minds. There’s always the possibility, of course, that the strongest anti-Clinton Sanders voters would also regard Warren as a sellout to neoliberalism. But in the end, Warren would likely prove a strong draw for Sanders supporters. The real risk of a Warren vice presidential nomination is that it would jeopardize her Senate seat.
A cabinet secretary, of course, would pose none of that downside risk. It’s not surprising, then, that the number one choice of the political scientists that Vaughn polled is Castro. The HUD secretary has obvious demographic appeal in an election where the turnout of Hispanic Americans will be crucial, and he is an appealing political figure. As a moderate without much of a track record, however, Castro won’t bring much to the table for disaffected Sanders voters.
Which brings me to the candidate I think deserves the strongest consideration:Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. Perez combines some of the best virtues of the other candidates, and poses none of the downside risks. Like Castro, Perez—the son of Dominican immigrants who grew up in Buffalo—brings a valuable demographic appeal to the ticket. Like Brown, Warren, and Sanders (and unlike Castro) Perez has a strong, progressive, pro-labor track record that should appeal to Sanders voters. And unlike Warren and Brown, his selection would not put a Democratic Senate seat at risk. If Vaughn had included me in his Times poll, I would have named Perez Clinton’s most likely to succeed vice president without hesitation. Let’s just hope he’s interested in the job.