It was Elizabeth Warren’s Marco Rubio Moment.
In a televised debate last October, the Massachusetts senator repeatedly ducked questions about whether her health care reform would raise taxes on middle-class Americans, robotically reciting that she would “lower costs for middle-class families.” Her dodge conjured the night that Rubio’s 2016 campaign self-destructed, as rival Chris Christie hammered him in a debate as a scripted empty suit. That Warren bobbed and weaved while Mr. Authenticity, Bernie Sanders, admitted his Medicare for All plan would indeed raise taxes amplified her gaffe.
Her competitors piled on; voters peeled off. Warren’s poll-climbing candidacy “plateaued as her campaign became consumed with health care,” the Washington Post noted. When she finally released a detailed, responsible plan, one that transitioned gradually to single-payer health care to cushion the economic and political fallout, unforgiving ideologues unfairly damned her for selling out their M4A Utopia, while moderate Democrats cringed at all-government health insurance. Her campaign cratered.
Is Joe Biden replaying this history on his memory’s videocam as he readies his announcement of a vice presidential running mate? Warren, who is on the shortlist, presents the Democratic nominee with the most perplexing case of any veep contender, a Shakespearean figure in her gifts and possible flaws.
There’s no doubt Warren is prepared to be both second fiddle in the White House and, should circumstances demand, conductor-in-chief. The contrast with her GOP counterpart is stark: Whereas Mike Pence is a toady who’d back Donald Trump if he outlawed the Ten Commandments, Warren actually coaxed Biden her way on a few of her famous plans.
Warren [is] a Shakespearean figure in her gifts and possible flaws.
But Biden has plenty of qualified women on his list. So the key question becomes, which gives him the best hope of beating a racist, child-caging, climate change-denying, pandemic-bungling president? “Winning is not the most important thing in a campaign. It’s the only thing,” liberal columnist Mark Shields says.
So, is Warren the likeliest to help Biden win?
On the plus side, she’s quick on her feet, as evidenced by her debate performances, the health care botch aside. (While she did a standout Rubio impression, in other forums, she brilliantly played Christie to both Mike Bloomberg and John Delaney). She created and administered the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau, bolstering her administrative cred. And having run a presidential race, she knows the campaign trail potholes that can twist candidates' ankles.
And yet, at a crucial moment when she was climbing in the polls, she choked, with her failure to prepare a plan on health care as carefully as she did on student debt, agriculture, bankruptcy protection and breaking up Big Tech. It may haunt Biden, as he ponders a running mate, that not only did he shame her by winning her home state primary, Warren couldn’t even finish second (Sanders beat her).
Her supporters blamed sexism for dooming Warren’s candidacy. The evidence of misogyny among slices of the electorate is undeniable, from Trump voters who support a credibly accused predator to Bernie Bros who trolled Warren and Hillary Clinton before her. But giving Neanderthal-ism top billing in the Bay Stater’s fall ignores history: her polling slide over health care, her party lofting her to contention in surveys in the first place, and the fact that those allegedly women-averse Democrats had nominated Clinton just three years earlier.
Sexism won’t mar Biden’s VP pick, as he’s pledged to select a woman. And as Clinton won the popular vote in 2016, I don’t lose sleep worrying that a woman running mate will hurt his chances. Clinton’s Electoral College loss owed to the Trump base’s racism, which surely would ignite were Biden to heed advice to tap a Black woman as running mate. But you don’t let haters dictate such an important choice. Besides, Biden’s route to the White House lies in ginning up enthusiasm among Black voters — especially Black women, the Democrats’ most loyal constituency — not kowtowing to angry white people.
Shields’s conservative PBS partner, David Brooks, notes that historically, vice presidential candidates rarely boost their ticket; it’s the top dog who decides voters’ minds. Texan Lyndon Johnson geographically balanced John Kennedy’s ticket in 1960, but Warren hails from Kennedy’s own blue state, which Biden is sure to win regardless.
I’d eagerly vote for a Biden-Warren ticket ... But I’m guessing another running mate would be the Democrats’ best chance to wake the nation from its Trump-Pence nightmare.
A bad veep pick can hurt a ticket, however. Warren’s tortured wrestling with health care during the primaries and her siding with Sanders’s approach unsettles moderates even in her own party. If she were the only short-lister capable of being the proverbial heartbeat away, such political considerations wouldn’t matter. But she’s not.
Finally, the history-making first of an African American woman on a major party ticket would ignite excitement that a septuagenarian senator, for all her gifts, couldn’t unleash as she posed with the septuagenarian Biden.
That Black woman could also be the next front-runner for the Democratic nomination; at 77, Biden may serve only one term if he wins this November. I’d eagerly vote for a Biden-Warren ticket, confident that the nation would be in good hands if they won. But I’m guessing another running mate would be the Democrats’ best chance to wake the nation from its Trump-Pence nightmare.