Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Joe Biden has moved into the vice-presidential sweepstakes phase of his candidacy. Although the choice for vice president rarely matters as much as the media buildup suggests it will (long gone are the days when regional balance on the ticket was vital to the outcome), Biden’s pick this time around will be significant.
Besides the concerns some have raised about Biden’s age and stamina, the fact that this campaign will take place in the middle of a full-scale pandemic means Democrats will need all hands on deck to pull out a victory in November.
While there are many good possibilities from which Biden can choose, one stands out more than any other: Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
She fulfills several key criteria that Biden will need from a running mate to help him win.
Keeping big promises: This is a basic part of the decision, but one that he can’t get wrong. During his debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders in March, Biden vowed on national television that he would select a woman for the role. He can’t back down from this promise even if governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom — who have raised their profile during the pandemic — seem appealing. The last thing that Biden wants to do is follow in the footsteps of former President George H.W. Bush, who famously said, “Read my lips: no new taxes” on the campaign trail in 1988, before doing exactly what he promised he wouldn’t in 1990.
The party of governance and serious ideas: The pandemic has laid bare the danger of an administration that does not value expertise or take the task of governing seriously. President Donald Trump’s haphazard respond to Covid-19 at every step of this crisis will intensify the desire for an administration that can handle the demands of the office. National polls have shown that trust in the President’s ability to handle the pandemic has fallen.
Americans may be looking for someone they can trust, and Warren brings all the qualities to the table, with her devotion to ideas and public policy, extensive experience in public service, and the ability to deliberate substantively over the most complex matters. Adding her to the ticket would help Democrats draw a distinction with Trump and define the campaign as a race between the party of experience and ideas versus the party of chaos.
Mobilizing the base: This remains as central as ever. Given the President’s ability to retain much of his base support in the major Electoral College states, Democrats will need to make sure every voter undertakes his or her civic responsibility by sending in a ballot through the mail or showing up on Election Day. The challenge will be doubly difficult since the effects of the pandemic could easily lead to lower turnout.
Of all the contenders for vice president, Warren has one of the best chances of mobilizing progressives within the party. Without having to compete against Sanders, Warren can represent the left wing and serve as a unifying force on the ticket. She is an unabashed supporter of using government to solve problems and she has consistently put forth policies that progressives agree with.
Because the world has changed so much since January, some of the ideas that may have made her seem too radical during the campaign — like an expansive vision of health care, an aggressive approach to climate change, and bold economic policies for working Americans — will sit easier with the center of the electorate. Warren can also help Biden draw female voters, who in the 2018 midterm election made all the difference to the balance of power in Congress.
Media sophistication: During the primaries, Warren was remarkably adept at generating media attention and using social media to communicate her message in a crowded field.
In 2020, breaking through the noise and communicating effectively across different platforms will be essential, especially since traditional campaign events will be limited due to the coronavirus and a substantial amount of media attention will be devoted to public health.
During her campaign, Warren was known for taking selfies with her supporters, which helped generate excitement for her candidacy and create a substantial online presence. Her Twitter feed was an effective way for her to share her policy messages and offer personal glimpses into her life.
When it comes to political communication, Warren brings the receipts. She could easily help Biden boost his public standing and communicate in ways that he is not comfortable with. Warren performed extremely well in the televised primary debates and showed an ability both to hold her own in contentious moments and explain complex ideas in a simple way.
Middle class insecurity: Due to the pandemic, voters are particularly concerned about economic security. Many working Americans, who were already struggling to provide for their families, have now lost their jobs, while a major recession looms on the horizon.
There are few politicians in the national arena who have tackled the economic challenges of the middle class as intensely as Warren. She spent much of her time as an academic studying the threats that the middle class faces from high credit burdens, education and health care costs, consumer fraud and nonunionized work.
She headed the congressional panel that oversaw the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which was created in 2008 to address the subprime mortgage crisis. It was Warren who helped establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. As senator, Warren made the economic health of the middle class her top priority. Placing Warren on the ticket would send a strong signal to voters that Biden will deal with these struggles from his first day in office.
Warren has something else to offer. She became known for having a plan, or what seemed like an answer for every problem. She thought systematically about the nation’s challenges and laid out detailed responses. At this moment, Americans are desperate for a plan. Somewhere in between the choice of permanent self-distancing and reckless liberation must come a well-thought-out plan that is comprehensive and clear.
Americans want to know how this will end and how we will restore our lives, with a healthy economy and our social institutions intact. More than ever, we need a planner to help us out of this mess.
Among Biden’s many options, Warren would be the most powerful choice. She would instantly energize Biden’s campaign and expand its capacity to reach a broad electoral base. While Biden may be considering others, like former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams or Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, it is Warren, one of the stars of the Democratic primary, who offers him the best chance for taking the Oval Office.