Word is that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will announce her vice presidential choice on Friday, and rumors that she's going with a "safe" pick should worry Democrats. In this political climate, a search for "safety" could put her candidacy in serious danger.
Change vs. the Status Quo
The GOP chose Mike Pence as its vice presidential nominee in part because his extremist views will reassure the Republican base. Pence is also a seasoned politician whose nomination is meant to reassure voters who worry that presidential nominee Donald Trump has no experience in statecraft or governance.
(Note to readers: Yes, I just used the words "Trump" and "statecraft" in the same sentence. It feels as strange to me as it does to you.)
Clinton's needs are different. She has to energize and excite the Democratic base, along with millions of millennials who have never voted. She needs to bring excitement, and a sense of the new, to a campaign conspicuously lacking in those qualities.
Voters remain deeply dissatisfied with the status quo. Clinton's biggest problem, and the greatest threat to her candidacy, is the fact that she's seen as the candidate of the status quo.
Boring Is as Boring Does.
That's one reason why "safe" picks like Tim Kaine, Mark Warner, or Tom Vilsack are so dangerous. Former Iowa governor and current Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack has been described as "boring." So has Virginia's Kaine, who acknowledged the fact but added that "boring is the fastest-growing demographic in this country."
That's a good line. Unfortunately, by her own admission, Hillary Clinton is "not a natural politician," which means that this particular demographic may already be represented on the ticket.
Kaine and Vilsack have forged bland political profiles that lack progressive fire or conspicuous leadership. Both supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the latest in a series of job-destroying and corporation-empowering trade deals. So did Virginia Sen. Mark Warner.
Clinton claims to oppose the TPP, but she has a credibility challenge on the subject. She helped negotiate the deal as secretary of state and frequently spoke in favor of it before running for president. Prospects like Kaine, Vilsack, and Warner are liabilities for a ticket that must confront Trump's faux populism on trade.
Warner is also a longtime advocate for destructive budget cuts. He backed the unpopular and impractical "Bowles-Simpson" fiscal plan that included cuts to Social Security, pushed austerity economics measures as part of the Senate's misguided and self-promoting "Gang of Six," and even urged business elites to get more involved in politics - at a time when we need campaign reform to reduce their political power.
That may be an effective way to flatter rich donors, but it is a poor way for a Democrat to win votes in 2016.
Booker, the Wall Street Favorite
What about Cory Booker, former Newark mayor and current New Jersey senator? His political career has been lavishly financed by financial interests from the beginning, including $585,000 from Bain Capital and other financial industry sources for his 2002 mayoral run.
They got their money's worth. In 2012 Booker undercut Barack Obama, whose re-election campaign he was serving as a surrogate, by lambasting him for an ad criticizing Mitt Romney's association with Bain. Some excerpts: "... they've done a lot to support businesses ... this kind of stuff is nauseating to me ... stop attacking private equity."
So much for loyalty.
Booker's feeble attempt at a retraction did little to impress progressives, but Wall Street seemed to appreciate it. Contributions from hedge funders and other investors helped Booker outraise his Republican senatorial opponent by a factor of nearly 10 to 1 in 2013, when he ran in a special election.
Booker received more money from the securities and investment industry than any other senator in his next election, raising nearly 50 percent more money from that industry than second-place finisher Mitch McConnell. He also received more money from real estate, tech, and accounting industry groups.
Voters won't like Booker's record on education. Disturbing questions were raised about the millions contributed in Newark when he was mayor for education "reform," which for Booker means privatization through charter schools. Wall Street interests, including those close to Mitt Romney and Bain Capital, also contributed heavily to his "reform" projects.
Booker's presence on the ticket would remind voters of Clinton's own Wall Street associations. It would highlight big money's outsized role in politics, and would help Trump paint Clinton as the bankers' candidate.
The Progressive Choices
Nor should Clinton look for "national security experience," as a recent trial balloon hinted she might. She brings that to the ticket herself, and her hawkish record will already be a mixed blessing in the current political mood. That makes a choice like retired Admiral James G. Stavridis, one of the names floated, superfluous and potentially risky.
Who are the progressive alternatives? There's Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of course. She would bring the excitement of a two-woman ticket, she has good chemistry with Clinton, and she is a dynamic public speaker. Even more importantly, she represents the real political and economic change that voters crave - and that Clinton could never offer on her own.
Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio is considered a strong progressive, and carries some of Bernie Sanders' rumpled "anti-politician" vibe. Al Franken would be an unorthodox choice and, while not conspicuously progressive, would bring excitement to the ticket. There are also many accomplished activists and organizers outside the world of electoral politics who could bring a fresh perspective and new energy.
Hillary Clinton needs to show voters that she can make bold choices. She must embrace the populist moment and the electorate's yearning for change if she is to fend off Trump's insurgent challenge. That's not just the smartest course. In the end, it's also the safest.