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For Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, a complex history gives way to a new alliance

Senator Elizabeth Warren and then-Vice President Joe Biden listened to remarks at the dedication ceremony for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston in 2015.
Senator Elizabeth Warren and then-Vice President Joe Biden listened to remarks at the dedication ceremony for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston in 2015.JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

WASHINGTON — The meeting drew attention around the nation’s capital: then-Vice President Joe Biden had invited Senator Elizabeth Warren for a private lunch in 2015 at his official residence, where he jovially hinted about running for president with her by his side.

“If I have my way, you’ll be living here,” he said, as the Globe later reported.

Biden decided against launching a 2016 run for president, but the two remained in touch, according to two people familiar with their conversations, speaking by phone many times over a period in which Democrats battled among themselves and ultimately lost the White House to President Trump.

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Warren and Biden did not seem like natural allies then, and in some ways, they still don’t, after two decades of shared history have left them frequently at odds. But as Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, ramps up his search for a running mate — a job Warren says she would accept, and one she is widely expected to be shortlisted for — their complex relationship will be back in the spotlight.

Biden and Warren have perhaps the longest history of any of his potential vice presidential picks, and their willingness to knit their constituencies and political styles together will have implications for a party at a crossroads whether or not he picks her.

Senator Elizabeth Warren participated in a reenacted swearing-in with her husband, Bruce Mann, and then-Vice President Joe Biden in Washington in 2013.
Senator Elizabeth Warren participated in a reenacted swearing-in with her husband, Bruce Mann, and then-Vice President Joe Biden in Washington in 2013.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Biden says he’s looking for a running mate he feels “simpatico” with, and those close to him say connection and trust are the top of his wish list as he picks someone who will likely be the Democratic nominee in four years time, given his age. That word hardly describes the relationship between Biden and Warren during the primaries, when she once suggested Biden was barely a Democrat and he countered with a broadside calling her elitist.

But the pair is forging a new partnership now that he is the presumptive nominee, one that could be key to his efforts to energize progressives as Democrats turn toward the general election. They have spoken privately on multiple occasions in recent weeks — including when Biden called her after her oldest brother died of coronavirus — and Valerie Jarrett, a top adviser to the Obama administration, said she is “confident” he is seeking her counsel. “She’d make a terrific vice president,” Jarrett said, “but he also has an embarrassment of riches from which to choose.”

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Publicly, Warren has endorsed and defended Biden against a serious accusation of sexual assault; Biden has praised fund-raising aided by Warren and has spoken warmly about their conversations. They wrote a joint op-ed criticizing the lack of oversight on federal coronavirus aid.

“I feel like they get along better than people who have always agreed with each other in this way that sometimes happens,” said Jared Bernstein, who was Biden’s chief economist while he was vice president and is on one of his task forces now. “I think they would both tell you that they’ve learned a lot from each other.”

The two still have wildly different political styles. Biden is a clubby bridge-builder, and Warren a progressive firebrand willing to make fellow Democrats uncomfortable in order to further her policy goals. Biden has sometimes been on the receiving end of that fire.

Warren has several things going for her in the veepstakes. Biden has promised to pick a woman running mate. Recent polls show Warren is a leading choice among Democratic voters, and top Democrats are singing her praises.

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“She’s very, very good,” said Harry Reid, the former Democratic majority leader of the Senate. Asked if the role would be in good hands if Biden picked Warren, he answered without hesitation — “Sure!”

But Reid also brought up a concern shared by many voters and party leaders: That 2020 could be a time to elevate a woman of color to the spot.

“The progressive community would be very happy,” he said of a Warren pick, “but then again, you have other things you have to take into consideration: The strength of the black vote in Kentucky, Virginia, and Louisiana recently.”

And she faces another problem: If Warren is chosen and she and Biden win, Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, would get to choose her temporary replacement until a special election, which could add a hurdle to Democrats’ efforts to claim a Senate majority. (Massachusetts Democrats, however, have a history of changing the law to suit them on this front.)

Ultimately, the process is likely to turn on political and personal calculations. “I think connection is important for him, because he knows how important it was that he had such an important connection with Barack Obama,” said Ed Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania and an ally of Biden.

Biden was a key opponent in Warren’s political origin story. In 2002, she published a Harvard Law Review article and a New York Times op-ed arguing that Biden’s support as a senator for an industry-backed bankruptcy bill she said would disproportionately affect women, undermined his image as a champion for women after he helped pass the Violence Against Women Act.

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Biden and Warren sparred during a Democratic primary debate in October.
Biden and Warren sparred during a Democratic primary debate in October.SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

In her 2003 book, “The Two-Income Trap,” Warren and her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi wrote: “Senators like Joe Biden should not be allowed to sell out women in the morning and be heralded as their friend in the evening.”

Michael Negron, a former law student of Warren’s who worked on a blog with her during the so-called bankruptcy wars, said her focus on Biden was tactical, not personal.

“She focused her advocacy on those who should theoretically be movable in the context of this fight: It was Democrats,” Negron said. “It wasn’t unique to Biden.”

But in 2005, the two battled in public when Warren appeared as a witness at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee and forcefully argued against a bill backed by credit card companies that would make it harder for people to file for bankruptcy protections.

“Your problem with credit card companies is usury rates from your position. It is not about the bankruptcy bill,” Biden said, his voice rising.

“But, Senator, if you are not going to fix that problem, you can’t take away the last shred or protection from these families,” Warren responded.

“I got it, OK,” Biden said with a laugh. “You are very good, Professor.”

Warren came to Washington again in 2008 in the throes of the financial crisis, when Reid nominated her to chair the oversight panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program — also known as the bank bailout fund.

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In that role, she was a fierce critic of aspects of the administration that Biden was part of, clashing with officials like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and top White House economic adviser Larry Summers. “I’m a thorn in this administration’s side as much as in the last administration’s side,” she once said.

But, thorn or not, White House officials were supportive of her idea to create a government watchdog agency to protect consumers. That included Biden, according to their allies, who seemed to have left their bankruptcy dispute in the past.

“It made a ton of sense to a lot of us in the administration, especially to Biden,” Bernstein said. “I think the signs were very clear that he understood the importance of what she was proposing.”

The appreciation went both ways, according to Democrats who worked with her. One former administration official said Warren had a “real fondness” for Biden’s economic team, and another Warren ally, Mike Lux, recalled Warren having a generally positive view of Biden’s role. The issue drew out their shared interest in middle class economics, some Democrats said, one that is rooted in how they grew up. Biden talks about his middle class Scranton upbringing on the stump almost as much as Warren touts her history on the “ragged edge of the middle class” in Oklahoma.

“They have a tremendous amount in common and they have a great chemistry,” said Elizabeth Vale, a former Obama administration official who helped Warren launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “They share a background in a way. They weren’t born with a silver spoon.”

Warren’s efforts to launch the agency brought her into contact with Biden allies who still influence him. She met with Bernstein and another top Biden aide, Ronald Klain, as she was setting it up. She also won the admiration of Ted Kaufman, the longtime aide who was appointed to finish out Biden’s Senate term after he became vice president, and he then took over the TARP oversight panel after Warren left.

When Obama declined to nominate Warren to head the CFPB, she left the White House to run for the Senate. Biden swore her in when she took office in 2013, declaring, “You gave me hell!”

They continued to disagree on fundamental matters of policy, as when Warren voted against the 21st Century Cures Act — a sprawling health care bill championed by Biden that included his proposal for a cancer cure moonshot — in 2016. She had helped to write the bill, but, in a scathing floor speech, said it had turned into a giveaway to Big Pharma.

As opponents in the presidential race, Biden and Warren clashed most notably over health care. Warren embraced Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ plan for Medicare for All, and when Biden cast doubt on her proposal to pay for it, she told reporters he was running in the wrong party’s primary.

His campaign responded with a withering Medium post that called her condescending and elitist and accused her of practicing “my way or the highway” politics.

During a debate last fall, he seemed to try to take credit for getting the CFPB passed into law — a claim that seemed to floor Warren, who credited Obama on stage, not Biden.

Privately, however, Biden admired her campaign. “He thought she was making great points, was putting out some fantastic policy proposals,” said Don Graves, an aide during Biden’s vice presidency. “She was able to simplify really complex issues in a way that many others couldn’t. I think he really admired her ability to do that.”

Warren, during the campaign, consistently called for more sweeping change than Biden, and derided the return to the pre-Trump political status quo that she said he represented. But the biggest clashes of the primary were never between the two of them. Warren held off from attacking Biden repeatedly on bankruptcy, for example, perhaps because her campaign believed his support would not endure.

“She’s more of the advocate. He’s, ‘Let’s keep things running well,’ ” said former Massachusetts representative Barney Frank, who thinks that ultimately, their differences are about “how far we could go if we could.”

“If you look at American politics as a whole,” Frank said, “they’re very close.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.