Elizabeth Warren
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Recent reports are suggesting that Joe Biden is looking more seriously than ever at choosing Massachusetts Senator and former presidential rival Elizabeth Warren as his running mate.

It seems like an unusual choice at first: running mates are typically chosen to balance out the nominee in a specific demographic and geographic way. But times have changed and old rules have less relevance now. The biggest divide in the Democratic primary was age: voters over 45 strongly preferred Biden, while voters under 45 strongly preferred Sanders, with Warren in a distant but consistent second in most polling. Even now, Biden’s biggest weakness among Democratic-leaning voters is low enthusiasm from young people desperate for radical changes to an economy that seems impossibly rigged against them.

Given the nationalization of politics, it’s not clear that a geographically targeted pick will yield results. It’s not clear that picking Tim Kaine helped Clinton to do any better in Virginia than she would have otherwise, for instance. Pressure on Biden is understandably and admirably intense to pick a woman of color, but Warren is currently the most popular choice for VP among both African-American and Hispanic/Latinx voters.

But there’s another even bigger picure. The key fracture in the primary was over a return to pre-Trump normalcy, versus the bolder transformative visions for American society pitched by Sanders and Warren. The need for rethinking the rules of the economy was already urgent before the pandemic, but the economic consequences latest crisis only exacerbate the need for bolder changes. Billionaires are getting richer than ever even as tens of millions have lost their jobs and face ruin. 21st century economies were already facing a monopolization crisis unprecedented since the Gilded Age. Small business closures in the COVID-19 era, combined with the plutocrat-response of the federal government in bailing out big business while leaving crumbs for small business, will only make it far worse.

Even Joe Biden’s team is taking note of the shifting ground, and Warren seems uniquely suited to help him meet  the challenge:

Biden spent much of the Democratic primary locked in on a pledge to revive decency in American political culture. Warren ran on a call for “big, structural change” that launched her to the top of the polls in the summer of 2019, but didn’t translate into success this year. The heart of Biden’s appeal remains steady, but as the coronavirus fallout deepens, he has also begun to telegraph a desire to strike out with a more ambitious policy agenda — a political enterprise, in scope and scale, that many Warren allies believe she is uniquely qualified to shepherd through the mazy, grinding gears of government.

Warren has focused her political career on holding big business, Wall Street and corporations accountable. Her messaging has been consistent about changing the rules of American capitalism to give an even playing field to workers and small business. In doing so, she has adopted most of the essential critiques of the system made by younger democratic socialists and social democrats, without scaring off the suburban coalition that has become essential to Democratic electoral fortunes.

If Biden does take over the presidency in January 2021, he will almost certainly be faced with daunting challenges, not least of which will an economy in need of rescue not only from self-imposed recession but also decades of structural neglect. Rampant inequalities, a healthcare crisis and the looming threat of climate change will also need urgent action. It’s a relevantly similar situation to the one he and Barack Obama faced in 2009 during the Great Recession, and one of the clearest lessons from that period was that the stimulus response was not only inadequate to the need, but that Republicans will oppose whatever Democrats ask for no matter what. So Democrats must be bold in making demands, and use whatever levers of power are available to move policy in the right direction, knowing that conservative structural impediments will attempt to block them at every turn. Warren, with her focus on Big Structural Change, is uniquely suited to credibly help the Biden Administration bend the bureaucracy to the needs of the public.

And Warren can do it while remaining consistent with the Biden appeal to basic decency so crucial to appealing to voters sick of Trump’s daily offensive outrages. Her more measured demeanor may not be as thrilling to understandably angry young voters as Sanders’, but it also communicates the necessary transformative policy focus while reaching the anti-Trump base where it currently is.

There may come a day as Millennials approach their fifties and combine with Generation Z to become the dominant likely voter bloc, when a much more aggressive democratic socialist politics can win nationally. But the results of the 2018 midterms and the 2020 Democratic primary made it clear that that day has not arrived. But we are also long past the point where we can credibly advocate a return to a pre-Trump “normal.” That “normal” wasn’t actually good to begin with, and the burgeoning unaddressed crises of the Clinton/Bush/Obama eras have now exploded into raging bonfires in the wake of Trump’s disastrous presidency.

Warren supporters during the primary felt that she was the best bet to bridge the divide between the need for big structural change and the desire to return to a calmer decency in public life. She remains the best choice to do so from among Biden’s possible vice-presidential choices, especially as Democrats confront the economic devastation left by the pandemic.

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David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.