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If Bernie Actually Wins This Thing, He’ll Need a Reliable Vice President

There’s not really a “Bernie Sanders wing” of the Democratic Party. When it comes to picking a vice president, he’ll have to settle for the next best thing — a reliable progressive like Wisconsin senator Tammy Baldwin.

Wisconsin senator Tammy Baldwin listens during a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on July 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Astrid Riecken / Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders is, famously, not a Democrat. This fact has been both a source of strength and a line of attack by party loyalists who wish to discredit him among Democratic voters. That line of attack hasn’t mattered all that much this primary season. And if his surge in the polls continues to hold, it might not even matter through the rest of the season. But if he wins the nomination, Sanders is going to need to unify the party as quickly as possible if he’s to have any chance of beating a sitting Republican president.

With Democratic Party voters, that’s going to be much easier than the party insiders imagine. Sanders already has a high favorability rating among the Democratic electorate — the vast majority indicate they would be perfectly happy with him as the nominee.

But with Democratic Party elected officials, it’s another case entirely. And unfortunately a party nominee — and even a president — needs more than the masses to enact his agenda. Despite the wild popularity of Sanders among its voters, the Democratic Party shows no signs of becoming the willing agent of any kind of social-democratic “political revolution.”

In Washington, It’s Still (Mostly) Sanders Vs. Everyone

While Sanders has managed to summon a “Bernie wing” of the party into existence among the general electorate, nothing of the kind exists in any meaningful way among Democratic politicians in 2020. (In 2016, Sanders received the endorsements of only eight then-current members of Congress — seven in the House, one in the Senate — and zero governors.) According to FiveThirtyEight, Sanders is currently ranked third in number of endorsements from Democratic officials.

Although his support among elected officials is dwarfed by Biden, he has the backing of rising stars such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. Yet these congresswomen face as much resistance from the party leadership as Sanders. Among the upper echelons in DC, it’s still a lonely place for Sanders — and a hostile one.

With a historically strong Republican Party ready to take him down by any means necessary, Sanders will need to diffuse any hostility from Democratic elected officials and the liberal DC establishment he’ll need on his side. A vice-presidential pick is the most effective way to do just that.

Elizabeth Warren is frequently touted as Sanders’s natural running mate. Her supporters claim that Warren is doing from within the Democratic Party what Sanders is doing from the outside — pushing the party to the left.

However, in a tough election cycle against an incumbent president, Warren is not the best choice for either Sanders or the Left. In fact, as Matt Karp has demonstrated, she’s a massive electoral liability.

The Left should rather push for a politician with a long record both as a champion of working-class politics and, just as important, of winning tough elections in places where Trump does well. Tammy Baldwin, the junior senator from Wisconsin, is that candidate.

Unlike Warren, Baldwin Knows How to Win “Obama-Trump” Counties on the Left’s Terms

Baldwin has consistently been one of the most progressive members of Congress and the Senate. On the two issues where Sanders has most distinguished himself from the rest of the field, foreign policy and health care, Baldwin has a record that approaches Sanders. She voted against the Iraq War and the Patriot Act and was one of the staunchest critics of George W. Bush’s foreign and military policy. Since 2000 she has also sponsored legislation establishing a single-payer healthcare system and is one of the fourteen Senate cosponsors of Sanders’ Medicare-for-All bill.

Baldwin’s career in Congress is uniquely suited to enacting Sanders’s agenda. Two of the seven major bills she sponsored that became law dealt with veteran and maternity health care. According to GovTrack, 24 percent of bills sponsored by Baldwin have been related to health care, her single largest category. If Sanders does indeed make a major overhaul of the US health care system his first legislative priority, a vice president with Baldwin’s record and experience would be the best choice to shepherd that effort through Congress as his right-hand person — and tie-breaking vote.

Not only has Baldwin been on the right side of these progressive battles — she knows how to win. Baldwin won her first Senate race in 2012 by defeating popular former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson. She won a landslide reelection in 2018, flipping back seventeen Obama-Trump counties in the process. Take Kenosha County, Wisconsin, which had voted Democratic in presidential elections for forty-four years until Trump took both it and Wisconsin itself in 2016. In 2018, Baldwin carried Kenosha with Obama’s 2012 level of support while running ahead of him in the state as a whole.

Warren, however, underperformed both Obama’s 2012 and Clinton’s 2016 support in Massachusetts. According to Morning Consult, Warren is less popular in Massachusetts, which has a D+29 partisan lean, than Tammy Baldwin is in Wisconsin, which has an R+1 partisan lean. (According to the FiveThirtyEight forecast, Warren is not even favored to win her own state’s primary on Super Tuesday.)

Warren’s weaknesses as a presidential candidate would likely follow her as a vice-presidential nominee. Trump would no doubt focus a fair share of his fire on her in his effort to bring down the whole ticket.

Why the Running Mate Still Matters

In contemporary politics, the selection of the running mate is one of the most consequential decisions a presidential candidate makes. This is not because of the electoral advantages of a good choice. Although there is evidence that running mates confer some home state advantage to presidential tickets, the common political benefits attributed to them are overblown. Rather, the importance of the selection bears on future presidential contests.

Biden’s subpar electoral record and even worse political career did not stop him from shooting to the top of the polls and staying there for most of the election cycle. This is largely because he was the popular vice president to a popular president. For most voters, serving as the VP of their party’s president marks someone as the de facto number two of the party, making any pick the likely frontrunner for future primary contests. Sanders should therefore select a running mate with both a proven record as a champion of progressive politics grounded in the labor movement and a record of winning hard, contested elections.

The truth is that there is no “Sanders wing” of the Democratic Party, especially among those holding high office. At least not yet. Uniting the party after the primary cycle is over will require concessions, but a Baldwin pick would be a concession on the Left’s terms.

As an openly gay woman, Baldwin would be two “firsts” as vice president. As a senator from Wisconsin, her choice would signal a commitment to winning back states Trump flipped in 2016. And with an established record as a left-wing, pro-labor politician, she doesn’t compromise Sanders’s political vision.

I know it’s extremely premature, but Baldwin is probably as good as it gets for a VP option.