Why Bernie Sanders shouldn't be Hillary Clinton's VP pick

Story highlights

  • Sally Kohn: Hard to imagine Democrats, however bitter they may feel about primary, won't unite against Trump
  • Bernie Sanders' potential benefits as a VP pick may be offset by his downsides, she says

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator, and a supporter of Bernie Sanders. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee for president, she should find a substantive and valuable role for Bernie Sanders. It should not be as her vice president.

Before Sanders supporters take my head off, let me explain:
    I'm a Bernie Sanders supporter and believe wholeheartedly in his economic populist vision for the Democratic Party and for America, but he doesn't do what a VP candidate needs to do: help the presidential ticket win votes.
    Sanders has given small signals that he'd be willing to step into that job (on "Meet the Press" last weekend, he wouldn't rule it out), and there's little doubt that such a move would help Clinton secure Sanders' voters. Beyond that, at least one recent poll (from not-always-reliable Rasmussen) shows Democrats preferring Sanders as a VP pick.
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    But this should not be the main factor influencing Clinton's VP decision. Bear in mind: Back in 2008, when Hillary Clinton was in a primary race with Barack Obama, mid-May exit polls showed fully half of her supporters in Indiana saying they would not vote for Barack Obama if he was the Democratic nominee. And one-third of Clinton supporters said they would actually back John McCain over Obama. North Carolina polling numbers back then told the same story.
    Guess what happened? In the general election, Obama beat McCain in both states. Those voters came around.
    And that was only in a match-up against relative Republican moderate John McCain. It's hard to imagine that Democrats, however bitter they may feel about the primary battle, won't unite against Donald Trump.
    What's more, Sanders' potential benefits as a VP pick may be offset by his downside -- namely that he makes the Clinton ticket look even more elderly.
    So if not Bernie, who?
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    If Clinton is genuinely worried about exciting Sanders' base and looking to address this with her VP pick, Elizabeth Warren is a much stronger choice. Warren would bring the same base-rallying energy as Sanders, plus younger energy and something else very useful in a running mate: a demonstrated ability to effectively attack Trump -- particularly on his Twitter turf -- something Clinton has been either unwilling or unable to do so far.
    Plus, Warren would directly tap into the overall anti-establishment moment coursing through the electorate.
    There are some other baldly pragmatic reasons that Clinton must look beyond Sanders for her running mate -- whether to Warren or someone else -- in what could be a painfully close general election.
    All signs point to a tough battle in Rust Belt states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan, crucial to this election's outcome. A Democratic nominee needs a VP candidate who, yes, aligns with her (or his) values and vision for the nation -- but also helps pick up these key states and the demographics within them.
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    Consider Ohio and Pennsylvania -- the first- and second-most competitive battleground states in 2008, respectively. The conventional media narrative is that these states reflect the concerns of their white voting populations, that winning over this demographic is key to winning the general election. And for Donald Trump that would surely be true, as his path to victory runs straight through white male voters, as a group.
    But in 2012, Barack Obama won Ohio because African-American voters turned out at an even greater percentage than in 2008, giving him a sizable margin. There's a reason the limited demographic appeal of Sanders stings his supporters: The reality is that Democrats depend not on white swing voters but on mobilizing and activating voters of color (who have been slow to warm to Sanders) to win a national election.
    In this sense, HUD Secretary Julian Castro, a Latino, or former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, an African-American, would be a good choice for Clinton's VP. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey certainly would add youthful energy to the ticket, though his record of accomplishment is sparser. Tom Perez, secretary of labor under Obama, is also a strong choice because he would help motivate Latino voter turnout and appeal to the Sanders wing of the party.
    It is possible, of course, that the centrism Clinton is known for would rear its head in her vice presidential choice.
    Consider this: Faced with a general election against Donald Trump, an opponent that many decent Republicans find repugnant, Clinton and her team may use the VP pick to appeal to moderate swing voters and even some Republicans -- thereby expanding her base beyond those left-of-center white, Latino and black voters she can already count on.
    In this scenario, might she try to woo Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania and the director of Homeland Security under George W. Bush? He's a pro-choice Republican and -- by his party's standards today -- a moderate.
    Or Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who could help with the Rust Belt while helping with the Sanders vote, since Brown is considered more progressive than Clinton.
    Or -- a very safe choice -- Tim Kaine, a Democratic U.S. senator and former governor of Virginia with impeccable centrist Democratic establishment credentials, well-tested and well-liked, and a solid pick for a heartbeat-away job.
    Ultimately, if (and remember, it's still if) Hillary Clinton is the Democratic Party nominee, Sanders and Warren have already demonstrated a clear willingness to support her nomination and help defeat Trump. As the stakes are raised, one can expect their commitment to be raised as well. And certainly Clinton could look to Obama's model and promise a senior cabinet post to Sanders as a significant olive branch.
    No question, it's going to be tricky picking a person capable of threading all these needles -- a person who engages and even excites the Sanders base and reflects the anti-establishment populist zeitgeist of the moment on left and right, draws in swing voters and resentful Republican votes and has the personality to challenge Trump head-on while also clearly possessing the temperament and qualifications of the presidency.
    Easy, right?