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Would Elizabeth Warren Even Want to Be Vice President?

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It’s easy to see why, say, Wall Street bankers might not want Elizabeth Warren in the White House. The Massachusetts Democratic senator has earned a reputation as an outspoken opponent of corporate America and the influence of money in politics. Harry Reid, the U.S. Senate’s top Democrat, is reportedly promoting Warren as a vice-presidential contender in the 2016 election—an indication that party leaders believe her populist message would resonate on the campaign trail. But would she even want the job?

While Warren is widely considered a progressive icon, Democrats could end up in a precarious situation if she becomes Hillary Clinton’s running mate. To defeat Donald Trump, Clinton will need to unite her party after a fractious primary battle with Bernie Sanders. For now, Sanders remains in the race, but on Monday the Associated Press reported that Clinton had amassed enough delegates to secure the nomination. If Clinton believes she has placated Sanders supporters by selecting Warren as her vice president, she may run a more moderate campaign in a bid to appeal to Republicans and Independents. 

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Progressives may find it hard to sustain an influential political movement if Warren becomes vice president. Sanders is poised to return to Capitol Hill with newfound political clout. He could join forces with Warren to amplify a progressive agenda in Congress. But the pair may end up at odds if Warren serves as VP and Sanders opts to take on the administration at any point. If Warren withdraws from the senate, she could leave behind a power vacuum. “Elizabeth Warren has been a key independent voice for the American public,” said Ben Schreiber, a spokesperson for the progressive environmental group Friends of the Earth Action, which endorsed Sanders last year. “She has taken on banks and polluters and stood up for everyday Americans. That’s really important since we have far too few politicians in Congress [who] are willing to take on big money.”

If Warren aligns herself with Clinton, she may hurt her credibility with progressives. Fans of the senator love her because they view her as uncompromising. Warren has cultivated her political persona in part by not hesitating to publicly challenge the Obama administration over issues such as corporate accountability and international trade. It would be difficult for Warren to speak out against a Clinton administration as VP. Some progressive voters might see the decision as an unforgivable compromise. “I think she would be giving up a lot more than she gains,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist and president of Bannon Communications Research. “She wouldn’t have the same visibility. It might be a move up in the organizational charts, but it would be a move down in influence.”

Congressional Democrats could find themselves at a disadvantage, too. If Massachusetts’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, were to temporarily appoint a replacement to Warren’s current seat, that could pose a challenge for Democrats as they try to win back the Senate majority. The Boston Globe reportedon Friday that “Senate Democrats may have found an avenue to block or at least narrow ... Baker’s ability to name a temporary replacement.” Even so, Warren as VP would add another layer of uncertainty to November’s highly anticipated elections. 

Of course, if Warren becomes Clinton’s VP, there are plenty of ways that could help Democrats. A woman presidential candidate joined by a woman vice-presidential candidate would make an already historic ticket even more noteworthy, as David Graham points out. That might energize Democratic voters and increase turnout, which could help Democrats win the White House and benefit candidates running in races lower on the ballot. 

Democratic power brokers seem to think Warren could make a good VP. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the possibility of a woman vice president “fabulous” in an interview on Tuesday, in which she also endorsed Clinton. “We’ve had two men over and over again for hundreds of years,” Pelosi told ABC. “I think that two women—whoever they may be—that would be fabulous as well, but Hillary Clinton will choose the person that she feels most comfortable with.”

Even if Warren traded in the visibility she has in the Senate by becoming vice president, she could still end up with more political clout. As vice president, Warren would be more proximate to power than she is currently. Warren has long worked within an institutional power structure, from the Treasury Department to the Senate, and still found ways to exert her will while maintaining progressive credibility. Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post points out that Warren managed to wield power from inside a Democratic presidential administration when she helped set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as well as from the Senate, despite hand-wringing from “friendly skeptics” who worried she would lose her independence. As VP, Warren could conceivably build on that track record to leave a lasting mark on policy. 

The White House inevitably has an allure for any politician. Whatever risks it might involve, the possibility of joining a presidential ticket isn’t a prospect any senator could easily dismiss. Warren has so far had an unconventional career, charting a path from teaching law as a single mother to serving as a U.S. senator. It’s certainly possible she will continue to defy conventional wisdom in her political pursuits. Warren has so far demonstrated plenty of ambition. She has also felt the pull of the presidency before, given her devoted supporters’ efforts to draft her as a contender into the 2016 race. A vice-presidential position would inevitably create new opportunities for her to exert influence. But Warren would also have to risk losing the influence she has now.  

lare Foran

Clare Foran is an associate editor at The Atlantic. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic Cities, Philadelphia City Paper and NPR's science and technology blog, All Tech Considered. Clare is originally from Buffalo, N.Y., and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in History.

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