‘First, do no harm.” It’s the most elementary rule of medicine and the veepstakes, and it’s why Joe Biden would be foolish to tap Senator Elizabeth Warren as his running mate. Warren, who held off from endorsing Bernie Sanders — her ideological ally and Biden’s last remaining rival in the Democratic presidential primary — predictably indicated last month that she would accept a spot on the ticket were Biden to offer it to her. Such a decision would please a certain segment of the Democratic Party. In both a CBS news poll and a Data for Progress poll of Democratic voters, Warren recently finished well ahead of other prospective running mates such as Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar. However, despite her apparent popularity as a potential VP, picking her would harm Biden in the general-election campaign.
Biden’s campaign has always been about returning to normalcy. His thesis has been that most Americans are eager to win a “battle for the soul of the nation” and that Democrats yearn for the return of what they see as the benign presentation and pragmatic progressivism of Barack Obama. Warren and Sanders disagreed with that approach, insisting that the country needed a starker contrast and more fundamental change. Warren claimed that Biden would not “meet this moment.”
As the past few months have made clear, Biden has won this argument in the minds of most Democratic voters. Despite his weak performances in the first three primary contests, he cruised to victory after victory, beginning in South Carolina, leaving both Warren and Sanders in the dust. In Warren’s home state of Massachusetts, Biden won with 33.6 percent of the vote. Warren took home the bronze trophy and 21.6 percent. Presidential-primary campaigns always include sniping between candidates, and often those candidates end up on a ticket together anyway. But why would Joe Biden — a 78-year-old man with significant health questions who won the Democratic nomination handily — select a former rival with a dearth of electoral accomplishments and a radically divergent outlook to serve as his vice president?
Warren’s base, wine-track female voters, are already going to come out to support Biden in droves. Despite her progressive politics, Warren’s supporters in the primary tended to be less ideologically motivated than Sanders’s and were attracted to her campaign because of her gender, her perceived wonkishness, and the obvious contrasts of her Harvard Law–professor status and personality with President Trump. Her voters showed up at the polls in 2018 to rebuke the president, and they are going to do so again in 2020 regardless of whom the Democratic Party chooses as its nominee.
Furthermore, Sanders voters and true believers in the socialist agenda he espouses would not see Warren’s being on the ticket as a sign that Biden respects them and that he will seek to integrate part of that agenda into his policies. Rather, choosing Warren would be apt to look like a transparent attempt to appease them — and an unconvincing one at that, considering that she essentially accused Sanders of sexism, alleging that he told her, in a private meeting, that a woman could not win the presidency.
It’s also obvious that Warren would not be an appealing pick for a campaign that needs to shore up its strength with swing voters in states such as Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Head-to-head polling matchups with Trump during the primary perpetually pegged Warren as the worst performer. Independents tended to prefer both Biden and Sanders to Trump, but they stuck with the incumbent when Warren was posed as the alternative.
Finally, Warren would make for a poor contrast with Vice President Pence. On a debate stage with the even-keeled Pence, Warren would not appear as the enthusiastic, teacherly progressive portrayed by Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon. The vice president would likely bring out the angry, indignant, and haughty Harvard Law professor, solidifying a negative image that conservative and moderate voters already have of Warren. Americans have largely embraced same-sex marriage, and Pence’s religious views are considered anathema among Warren’s base, but the accusations of homophobia and bigotry that Warren would probably level against Pence would not come across well on television. The politically astute Pence would be ready to parry Warren’s attacks in a way that Mike Bloomberg wasn’t, leaving Warren looking petty and small.
One can see how offering Elizabeth Warren a spot on the ticket could be superficially attractive to Biden: It would balance the ticket with both a woman and a progressive. Ultimately, though, selecting Warren would be a huge mistake for Biden. She would fail to bring in any constituencies currently eluding his campaign’s reach, she’d undermine his campaign’s ethos, and she’d be a substandard foil for Vice President Pence.