Why Clinton Must Pick Warren
And Why Donald Trump is Praying She Settles on Tim Kaine
Trump can still win. Yes, Nate Silver’s first general election forecast set social media aflame with excitement for Hillary Clinton’s impending landslide. Yes, Donald Trump’s campaign has spent the last few weeks undergoing a spectacular implosion. (Who would have guessed that a showboating proto-fascist would react indecently to tragedy in Orlando and chaos in London?) And yes, the specter of indictment is gone. But, as the Clintons reminded us this holiday weekend, their tendency towards political psychodrama ensures that Trump’s core narrative still holds.
From his first day on the trail, Trump’s gamble has always been that his unorthodox campaign could win over the disaffected Rust Belt. If Trump can make inroads with white voters in post-industrial states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, etc.), Clinton can run up her margin nationally — and in diverse states like Florida and Virginia — and still lose. This means he is playing not to affronted coastal professionals or menaced minorities, but working class voters who feel most jilted by the global capitalism and cultural pluralism embraced by Democratic and (many) GOP elites. This is why Elizabeth Warren needs to be Clinton’s Vice Presidential pick.
Their joint campaign appearance last month demonstrates just how much Warren emphasizes Clinton’s strength as a candidate: smart, engaged, and empathetic. Her presence on the ticket would excite liberals, women, and young people — all key elements of Clinton’s voting bloc. All this, we know. But that’s not why she should be VP.
Above all, a Warren pick deprives Trump of the opportunity to meaningfully develop his “Crooked Hillary” narrative, which would do to her what the Brexiteers did to David Cameron: paint her as a cynical insider who is perpetuating a rigged system for the sake of the global elites like herself. This is where his campaign is headed, if it does not fully self-immolate first. Read this excerpt of his speech last month, attempting to excoriate Clinton:
Hillary Clinton has perfected the politics of personal profit and even theft. She ran the State Department like her own personal hedge fund, doing favors for oppressive regimes, and many others and really many, many others in exchange for cash. Pure and simple, folks. Pure and simple.
If Clinton picks Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, which she is favored to do, Trump can amplify this line of attack. Both of them are long-time, establishment politicians with a history of supporting free trade deals. Both of them speak guardedly, and have never been vanguards of political change. And both of them have publicly complicated relationships with ethics laws. More fundamentally, Kaine looks like Clinton’s VP pick: a centrist Democrat meant to give her breathing room in Virginia, and to attract a few John Kasich die-hards without pissing off too many Bernie fans. In short, he’s boring, as he himself admitted last week.
Kaine is the choice of a normal campaign, when both candidates are aligned on core issues such as religious tolerance and America’s role in NATO. In such a race — Obama vs. Romney, Clinton vs. Dole, Bush vs. Kerry, etc.— candidates use VP picks to burnish their party bona fides, or to woo a targeted group of voters who have been previously lukewarm to their pitch. In this campaign, such a carefully calibrated addition of Senator Kaine would be dismissed with a gleeful cry of “Crooked Tim!”
This is the fight Trump wants. He can only win if he is the irascible renegade pitted against detached, perk-happy elites. His campaign is not built to attract conservative voters who might be mollified by Kaine’s centrism on abortion; it is a populist juggernaut designed to encourage rage against a Clinton-led ticket of hapless millionaire politicians whose globalist agenda has destroyed the working class. Kaine’s pick gives Trump tacit permission to draw the battle lines of the fall: insider vs. outsider, open vs. closed. They will be arguing that Trump is “dangerous,” and he will counter that they are failed, corrupt, and uninterested in the Average Joe. Many voters, morose, will stay home. The matchup has catastrophic echoes of Brexit.
In choosing Warren, however, Clinton could rebut Trump’s central promise that, if downtrodden Americans embrace his dangerousness, he will “win” for them. Though she comes from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, Warren represents the new center of American politics in the Age of Trump: culturally tolerant, but economically populist. The once-controversial hallmarks of Warren’s liberalism — a belief in the importance of government-built infrastructure to support private businesses, and antipathy to big banks — have been key pieces of the Sanders, Clinton, and Trump campaigns. Of all the viable VP contenders, only Warren can tear Trump’s populist veneer to shreds without the self-contradictory baggage of a decidedly non-populist political history.
A Clinton-Warren ticket could thus keep the campaign’s focus, rightly, on Trump’s racism and incipient authoritarianism. Trump may yet win the Rust Belt if its residents decide that his poison is preferable to the familiar agony of establishment politicians, but he cannot win if his clownish hatred is juxtaposed to Warren’s strong but morally unblemished denunciations of capitalism’s potential for callousness. Her attacks on him don’t hurt, either.
While Warren’s rhetoric might alienate “centrist” voters in the pre-2016 sense of the term, we must ask ourselves who those centrists are. Are they wealthy, anti-Trump neoconservatives? They live overwhelmingly in blue states like New York, which she will win with or without them. And if a few Bush Administration and Goldman Sachs alums trash Clinton’s pick of Warren, the ensuing CNN stories about the revolt of the donor class would combat Trump’s narrative that Clinton is simply the unlikeable plaything of plutocrats. That could prove far more valuable than the few lost donations.
It’s also doubtful that any social conservatives would vote for Clinton-Kaine but not Clinton-Warren. If they so vehemently oppose gay marriage and abortion that they would stomach the presidency of thrice-married Trump so that he can fill Antonin Scalia’s vacant seat instead of Clinton, then they will vote against Clinton whether she chooses Kaine, Warren, or Ted Cruz.
The “swing voters” that truly matter — blue collar workers in the Rust Belt — might not see Warren’s focus on infrastructure spending and financial regulation as “radical.” The tangerine tyrant’s case against Hillary Clinton has no substantial relationship to the critique of Keynesian economics that defined the stump speeches of Mitt Romney and John McCain. Those conservative economic ideals are burning on the GOP’s pyre — neither Trump nor his voters are concerned with the carried income tax; they are worried about a rigged system that benefits the Other.
No one rails against this rigged system better than Warren. She does it without any of Trump’s xenophobia or authoritarianism, and her indignant speeches offer more appeal to this disillusioned chunk of the electorate than Tim Kaine’s admirable but safely establishmentarian career (or, say, Cory Booker’s Twitter-savvy liberalism). Trump’s revelation that GOP rank-and-file crave the economic anti-establishmentarianism that has been synonymous with Warren in D.C. is the biggest political earthquake of 2016. Clinton should not pretend that it did not happen. It is not good politics for November, and it is not good policy in the long-term.
Counterarguments against Warren — that her seat would be temporarily filled by a Republican governor, that she could overshadow Clinton on the stump, or cause tension in the future Hillary Administration — all shrivel into insignificance, compared to the immediate necessity of defeating Trump.
The RNC plans to present the Clinton-Warren partnership as bond of mutual hypocrisy: “Sellout Lizzy” and insincere, say-anything Hillary. But if Clinton and Warren are bombarding airwaves and barnstorming swing states making a center-left case for middle class rejuvenation, those Trump talking points will sound downright incoherent next to the fusillades he can launch against Crooked Tim. The simpler explanation of Warren’s selection is not that Clinton is duplicitously manipulating voters about her positions on the TPP and the minimum wage; instead, it more obviously shows that Clinton has doubled down on these policy shifts. But if Clinton picks Kaine, a longtime TPP-booster, then Trump can more credibly gloat that Clinton was lying to Bernie supporters all along. Given Clinton and Kaine’s records, his gloating would not seem at all far-fetched. That could be devastating.
Far more important to consider than an RNC strategy memo (wasn’t their “strategy” to nominate Jeb Bush this summer?) is Trump himself. It’s already clear that Trump doesn’t know how to deal with Warren. When he attacks “Pocahontas,” he is at his worst: racially insensitive, dismissively misogynist, gleefully divisive. Yes, the attacks on Warren’s heritage will resonate with Trump’s fan base, but that sort of brash spitefulness is what decimated his favorable ratings with the general electorate. Let him shout.
Putting Warren on the ticket will keep Trump infuriated, and that will ensure that he cannot trick Americans into believing he is something more than an unstable bully. Remember how pathetically unhinged he was in that long-ago exchange with Carly Fiorina? His angry insecurities will be on constant display when two women are beating him, the god of machismo, in the greatest race of all. The results in his stump speeches won’t be pretty.
The result on Election Day will be.