Who will Hillary Clinton choose as her running mate? She enjoyed the biggest crowds of her campaign when she appeared with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, setting progressive hearts aflutter. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the insiders’ favorite, has begun pre-emptive disclosure of dealings – $160,000 in gifts while serving as Governor – that could be grist for oppo research.
The Great Mentioner has bruited about other names – senators Al Franken, Sherrod Brown and Cory Booker; Labor Secretary Tom Perez; Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro; Rep. Xavier Becerra; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and more.
Too often absent from these lists is the one person most qualified to serve as vice president and most likely to contribute to victory in the fall: Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
Oregon? Yeah, delivering Oregon is not exactly heavy lifting. So let’s do the politics first.
Warren is the favorite of progressives, but Clinton is unlikely to choose to run with a woman. It is also hard to imagine why Warren would want to be vice president. She has greater independence and a big platform in the Senate, and she’s more likely to be challenging Clinton than applauding her once Clinton's in the White House. Brown would be a great addition, a true populist from the key swing state of Ohio. He’d add great credibility to Clinton on trade and on Wall Street reform. But Ohio has a Republican governor, and Brown’s departure would put the Senate seat at risk. A Senate majority is critical to any hope for Clinton’s domestic agenda. Booker might help turnout the African-American vote, but Clinton has President Obama for that. Donald Trump has already roused Latinos.
In contrast, Merkley offers real value. He’s the sole senator who endorsed Bernie Sanders in the primaries, an act of remarkable courage. Putting him on the ticket would pay tribute to the millions of voters who backed the Sanders surge. His presence would excite the young and independent voters that were at the heart of the Sanders vote. It would reassure skeptical labor activists. He would add credibility on trade, on investment, on Wall Street reform, on money and politics and on climate, all areas where doubts linger about Clinton’s commitment. He more than anyone other than Sanders himself can make the case about why the movement that Sanders helped to build needs to mobilize to rout Donald Trump in the fall.
Merkley gets it. He grew up in working-class Oregon. His father, as he put it, “worked with his hands as a millwright and built a middle-class life for us. On a single income, my parents could buy a home, take a vacation and help pay for college.” He’s in the fight to provide that kind of opportunity to the next generation. As he wrote in his endorsement of Sanders:
"It is not that America is less wealthy than 40 years ago — quite the contrary. The problem is that our economy, both by accident and design, has become rigged to make a fortunate few very well off while leaving most Americans struggling to keep up.
And as economic power has become more concentrated, so too has political power. Special interests, aided by their political and judicial allies, have exercised an ever-tighter grip on our political system, from the rise of unlimited, secret campaign spending to a voter suppression movement."
Merkley is relatively young – 59 – and no slouch on the stump. Unlike Kaine, he has no baggage. He’s a progressive reformer with the courage of his convictions. He has already demonstrated his maturity in helping build a bridge between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns, even while pushing hard to have the Democratic platform express the commitment to progressive populist principles from campaign finance reform to a new trade policy.
Oregon has a Democratic governor and a requirement to hold a special election as soon as practicable. Merkley’s appointment would not risk a Senate seat.
Not incidentally, Merkley would be a great vice president. No one has Biden’s Senate years, but like Biden, Merkley is an experienced legislator with broad ties in the Senate. He knows how to build coalitions. As Speaker of the House in Oregon, he assembled and passed a remarkable reform agenda. He’s more work horse than show horse, a trait that would serve Clinton well. On the Senate Banking Committee, he was a leader in pushing Wall Street reform, winning the "Volcker rule" designed to limit the ability of banks to gamble with taxpayer guaranteed deposits. He’s championed campaign finance reform, and has been a leader on same-sex marriage and extending equal employment protections to the LGBT community.
Clinton, of course, gets to decide how she wants to run in the fall. Cynics dismiss the vice presidential nominee as a sideshow. This election will feature a brutal back-alley fight between Clinton and Trump, more negative than inspirational, more personal than ideological.
But for Clinton, the vice presidential choice will matter. Democratic activists as well as the media will view her choice for vice president as a sign of the coalition she wants to build and the agenda she wants to drive. A cautious appointment like Tim Kaine would signal a desire to back away from the Sanders voters. Naming Jeff Merkley would declare a desire to build a coalition to drive real reform in the country. Kaine would reassure the party’s pros, the business as usual crowd. Merkley would help capture the energy that Sanders has already roused. For Clinton, looking to show that she has the vision and confidence to unify the party, Merkley is the progressive choice.