Amid the push by liberals to get Hillary Clinton to elevate Elizabeth Warren to the vice presidency, some wonder whether this would be much of a promotion at all.
After all, as one of the best-known senators and the major liberal factional leader, Warren has considerable autonomy to pick fights and wage crusades. As veep, she’d lose capacity for autonomous action in exchange for an unclear upside. She’s too old to use the vice presidency as a launch pad for a future presidential race, and the vice presidency is not itself a powerful office.
Traditionally, vice presidents are chosen for near-term coalition-building reasons, not due to a desire to give the chosen politicians more power. John Adams and Aaron Burr served as vice presidents under George Washington and Thomas Jefferson respectively, in both cases primarily in order to add northern heft to Virginia-based administrations. Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president was a New England radical put on the ticket to balance out Abe’s moderate Midwestern persona. His second VP was a border-state white supremacist Democrat put on the ticket to broaden the ideological appeal of the Civil War coalition. Dwight Eisenhower put Richard Nixon on the ticket to appease the right-wing faction of the GOP, while Ronald Reagan added George H.W. Bush to appease the moderate faction.
And sure enough, all these men found the vice presidency to be a frustrating office. Adams dubbed himself His Irrelevancy. FDR’s first vice president, John Nance Garner, famously proclaimed the office to be worth less than a warm bucket of piss. HBO’s broad political satire is called Veep for a reason — the vice president is the ultimate comic figure in American politics, proximate to power but personally powerless.
On the other hand, the practical prestige of the vice presidency has risen in recent decades. Modern veeps routinely get face time with the president, a precious Washington commodity denied to most Cabinet secretaries and almost all senators. As VP, Warren could be the most powerful liberal insider in decades — pressing her distinctive agenda on trust busting, financial reform, and other issues.
The promise of Vice President Warren
Progressive optimism about a Warren vice presidency is premised on the long-term trend toward veeps being more important members of a presidential team, and on the fact that Warren has repeatedly proven herself to be very shrewd at identifying leverage points in the political system.
Vice President Warren could serve, in theory, as a kind of liberal answer to Dick Cheney. Whatever top priorities President Clinton is focusing on, there will inevitably be dozens of fairly important things that aren’t top priorities. Warren will be digging into those, plumbing the depths of the bureaucracy and the vast cadres of political appointees for chances to drive her agenda forward and hold corporate America accountable.
Warren is the kind of person who likes to delve into obscure details — she’s managed to provoke significant national controversies over things like the Federal Reserve’s general counsel and the investor-state dispute settlement provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — so were she given free range to kick the tires of an entire presidential administration, she could get a lot done.
The peril of Vice President Warren
The trouble with imagining Warren as a progressive Cheney is that, based on what we know about Clinton, she seems overwhelmingly likely to be her own Cheney.
Clinton is not a big-picture ideas person. And she’s not a glad-hander. She’s certainly not a charismatic empty suit. She’s a person who lives to delve into the details of things. Positive anecdotes about her from people she’s worked with usually involve an earnest, diligent, low-key partnership on something relatively obscure.
Cheney wouldn’t have been Cheney without Bush, and Clinton is no George W. Bush.
And Cheney aside, while modern vice presidents have tended to play a more substantive role than the ones from the “ain’t worth a warm bucket of piss” days, it hasn’t usually been a policymaking role. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all entered the Oval Office with very little Washington experience and picked veteran senators to essentially help them as senior emissaries to Capitol Hill.
But just as Clinton doesn’t need a Cheney to run her executive branch, she doesn’t need a Biden to shoot the shit with the old bulls of Congress, either — and if she did, Warren would be an odd choice. What Clinton could use is an emissary to the kind of liberal activists who didn’t back her in 2008 or 2016, whom she needs to have on her team to lead a united party.
Warren’s job would be to explain why Sherrod Brown or Bernie Sanders was wrong to be raising the alarm bells about this or that, that such-and-such bill was really the absolute best bill the administration could get, and that so-and-so the new appointee is really much more progressive than people realize.
If this all sounds out of character for Warren, then recall that all the various humiliations visited upon historical vice presidents have also been out of character.
Warren would change the campaign
The stakes around this choice are unusually high because Clinton’s opponent, Donald Trump, is a very unusual kind of Republican.
His lack of ties to established Republican Party actors, his deep hostility toward both immigration and international trade, and his tendency to lash out at those who criticize his positions mean it will be feasible for Clinton to try to position herself as the consensus choice of a certain swath of corporate America that depends on participation in global markets.
Warren, who is really disliked by the business community, would essentially spoil that possibility — which liberals might like because it would force Clinton to run a more progressive, more issue-oriented campaign and try to win a clearer mandate for specific ideas. That, more than anything Warren would actually do as vice president, might be the main attraction for liberals. Clinton adopted a very progressive platform to defeat Bernie Sanders in the primaries, and putting Warren on the ticket would essentially lash her to that mast and prevent her from pivoting to the center.