Joe Biden built his political career as the New Deal order came to an end, one of a generation of Democrats who sought to reconcile the Democratic Party to the Reagan revolution by placing distance between the party and the racial and cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. His was a politics attuned to the worries and fears of suburban white voters, from busing and crime to guns and drugs.
Now, of course, those politics are outdated. The Democratic Party has, in the decades since Biden first won office in 1972, come to rely on the groups that fueled those upheavals. The insurgents are the establishment, and Biden — after eight years as vice president to a man who embodied the liberal, cosmopolitan shift in the Democratic Party — has reconciled himself to the new reality. He is still a centrist, but that center is well to the left of where it was even a decade ago.
The coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic crisis have done even more to enlarge the scope of possibility, and Biden, always attuned to changing political winds, has adjusted himself accordingly. Instead of an Obama restoration, Gabriel Debenetti writes in New York magazine, the former vice president is planning a New Deal-esque effort to save American society.
“I think it’s probably the biggest challenge in modern history, quite frankly. I think it may not dwarf but eclipse what F.D.R. faced,” Biden told Chris Cuomo of CNN last month.
“The blinders have been taken off because of this COVID crisis,” he said to a group of donors who gathered on Zoom for a fundraiser a few weeks later. “I think people are realizing, ‘My Lord, look at what is possible,’ looking at the institutional changes we can make, without us becoming a ‘socialist country’ or any of that malarkey.”
There is good reason to be skeptical of Biden. He is a creature of the Senate. He’s a lifelong moderate. He’s a deal-maker. He prefers compromise.
But let’s say that Biden is serious, that he wants to bring the full weight of the federal government to bear on the crisis before us, that he wants to expand and revitalize the safety net for the next generation — and that he wants to be a transformative president. If that’s true, then he’ll have to do more than talk about his goals; he’ll have to build his administration with that task in mind. And if the first step in that process is choosing a vice president, then there’s one contender who has thought (and thought creatively) about government in a way that will aid and enhance an F.D.R.-style presidency: Elizabeth Warren.
The case for Warren is straightforward. There are at least two major obstacles to broad, ambitious progressive reform. The first is political. You need a president who wants it, a Congress that wants it and a federal judiciary that won’t stand in the way of it. If you can overcome these hurdles — which, as you can imagine, would be incredibly difficult — then you’re left with the next obstacle: implementation. It simply isn’t enough to write and pass a bill. You need experienced officials and agency heads, a fully staffed and well-seasoned federal bureaucracy and skilled political leadership to manage the entire operation. You need a Congress ready to adjust programs as needed and lawmakers skilled in oversight.
You need, in other words, state capacity — the ability to actually deliver on plans and mandates. And if there’s anyone in the Democratic Party who has thought deeply about the challenges of state capacity, administration and personnel, it’s Warren.
Exhibit A is her work as head of the congressional oversight panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, from which she was an aggressive critic of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, demonstrating her detailed knowledge of the federal bureaucracy while scrutinizing the Obama administration’s handling of the bank bailouts.
Exhibit B is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Proposed by Warren in 2007, it was part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. She took a lead role in building the powerful new agency, staffing it with motivated and capable public servants. Under its first director, Richard Cordray, the former attorney general of Ohio, the bureau recovered nearly $12 billion for consumers from financial firms, including $3.8 billion in direct compensation.
Exhibit C is Warren’s aggressive effort to mold and shape a would-be Hillary Clinton administration, beginning in 2014 and stretching into the 2016 election season itself, according to Politico magazine:
As the Clinton transition team fielded ideas from senators in the final months of the campaign, Warren was treated as a “first among equals,” according to a Clinton transition official. Warren’s chief of staff, Dan Geldon, and Clinton senior staffer Jake Sullivan were in close contact and met repeatedly in the final months of the campaign. Warren was deep in the weeds on personnel and pushed the Clinton transition team to hire her allies like Rohit Chopra, a veteran of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Warren personally lobbied the Clinton transition team, spoke with the Clinton policy team ahead of her endorsement in June 2016, and had placed several allies among those responsible for staffing a second Clinton White House. Had Clinton won the election, Warren would have been among the most influential Democrats in the federal government, on account of her relentless focus on personnel.
Warren has never served in executive office. But she has a powerful grasp on the power of the bureaucracy, of the influence of federal agencies and the reach of their authority, of what you can do by organizing and wielding that power effectively. If empowered (much as Biden was under President Barack Obama) a Vice President Warren would be an invaluable asset in directing and implementing a New Deal-style program.
Of course, before Warren can become vice president, Biden has to win the presidency. And the case for other vice-presidential contenders — like Sen. Kamala Harris of California or Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor of Georgia in 2018 — is that they will assist the ticket with African-Americans and other groups in ways Warren cannot. But the research falls firmly against the idea that running mates play any substantial role in helping or harming the top of the ticket.
“In order for a running mate to help a candidate on a national scale, he or she must be exceedingly popular,” the political scientists Kyle C. Kopko and Christopher J. Devine wrote in 2016. “In order to hurt, the VP must be tremendously unpopular. By and large, neither happens.” When it does, the effect isn’t all that large. The most maligned vice-presidential nominee in recent history, Sarah Palin, cost John McCain a modest 1.6 percentage points in his campaign against Obama. A better running mate might have left him five points behind, instead of around seven.
At most, the right running mate can build partisan enthusiasm for a less-than-thrilling nominee. That’s what Mike Pence did for the president’s campaign in 2016, giving Donald Trump the conservative and evangelical bona fides he needed to unify the Republican Party. Not only is Warren more popular among Democratic primary voters than her competitors for the vice-presidential nomination, she’s just as popular and well-liked as Biden, with a 77% favorability rating to his 76%.
More important, Warren would help unify the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party; Bernie Sanders supporters, in particular, would be 61% more likely to back Biden for president against Trump if Warren were on the ticket, according to the left-leaning group Data for Progress. Overall, 53% of Democrats — as well as more than half of African-Americans — would be more likely to support Biden if Warren were his running mate, compared with 45% for Harris, 37% for Amy Klobuchar and 29% for Abrams.
The November election will be a referendum on Trump, and Biden does not necessarily need any particular running mate to win. But Biden will need one to help him govern according to the terms he has set for himself. And if he intends to push a New Deal-esque program, then he’ll need a partner who can bring those plans to fruition. He’ll need someone who, on day one, is ready to rebuild the state’s capacity to act on behalf of the public, after four years of atrophy, neglect and attrition. Every vice-presidential contender has her virtues, but for this task, there’s no choice but Elizabeth Warren.
Jamelle Bouie is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.