Biden’s Veep Search
Saturday, May 23, 2020
Political scientists will tell you that the running mate makes much less difference than the attention paid to the choice gets in the press. But maybe it’s different when the top of the ticket is this old.
The background checks, interviews, and vetting are unfolding behind closed doors in Washington and Wilmington, and on secured Zoom calls. But Joe Biden’s invitation-only search for a running mate is starting to look like an open audition with an audience of 300 million.
Stuck at home staring at his basement camera and iPhone, Biden has kept his cards close, refusing to express any preference for any of the dozen or so women he’s considering to join his ticket. That hasn’t stopped just about everyone who has his number from flooding him with advice since he effectively wrapped up the Democratic presidential nomination in March. And ever since he named a committee to lead the formal selection process last month, that group has been inundated with recommendations from just about everyone else — including via unsolicited texts from a handful of lawmakers promoting their friends as viable contenders, and searching for gossip, after word leaked among some House members in mid-May that Biden’s team had started asking candidates for references.
None of that is unusual. What is unusual is how publicly lobbying for the job has been.
Stacey Abrams’s push for the job is by far the most public, to a degree that’s amazed some traditionalist Biden allies. The former Georgia statehouse minority leader is the only candidate openly campaigning for it, sitting for a range of interviews about why she would be “an excellent running mate,” while also aiming to bulk up some of the weaker spots on her résumé: She may have little international experience, but this month she published an essay in Foreign Affairs outlining her view of American leadership.
Still, many people close to Biden are convinced he will ultimately choose among Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar — and many game their chances in roughly that order, though the ranking has shifted a few times in recent weeks, in their view, and likely will again.
Publicly, Harris has been focused on pandemic-era voting rights and the coronavirus’s unequal effect on minority communities, topics she’s discussed in virtual events for Biden’s campaign. But she’s pitched in behind the scenes, too, handing Biden access to her donor network in a handful of fundraisers. And after her disorganized campaign crumbled last year, she’s slimmed down her roster of political advisers — an encouraging sign to Biden allies — while in mid-May, Biden hired her former political director to advise him on Latino voters. Warren, meanwhile, has recently emphasized protections for essential workers and the need for oversight of Trump’s stimulus spending. She’s discussed those priorities repeatedly with Biden, leading to a joint op-ed they published in a chain of swing-state newspapers early this month. Though the progressive and the centrist have clashed in the past, Biden has, increasingly, been calling Warren for policy advice. And people who’ve spoken with him say Biden noted it with interest when Obama said privately last year that he’d been impressed with Warren’s campaign. Biden and Warren have spoken at least four times since the senator left the race in March, including after her brother died of the virus last month.
Biden called Klobuchar, too, when her husband was diagnosed with COVID-19, and they spoke when he recovered. The Minnesotan, whose election-protection and voting-rights work Biden has followed, has been eager to feature in his campaign events ever since she first endorsed him in March and, soon after, slipped by telling a Michigan crowd she couldn’t think of a better way to end her campaign “than to join the ticket,” before correcting herself: “I was going to say, than to join the terrific campaign of Joe Biden.” Since then, she has headlined a handful of events alone, like a virtual letter-to-the-editor-writing workshop for Colorado educators, and joined Biden for others. In April, she appeared on his new podcast to discuss their shared prioritization of bipartisanship and esteem for John McCain, as well as the importance of compassion and empathy in the White House.
Some of the longer shots have gotten in on the action, too. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, whom Biden made a co-chair of his campaign in early March, also joined his podcast in early April to talk about her state’s coronavirus response and the federal government’s failures. And Florida congresswoman Val Demings, a former police chief and Donald Trump impeachment manager, has made a point of stepping up her presence on cable news shows, and she recently joined Biden for a virtual campaign event aimed at Orlando voters.
Warren is the biggest name on the list and she’s clearly ready step in to the presidency should something happen to Biden. But the fact that she withheld her endorsement until the race was ever can’t help her. And, frankly, that she seemingly thinks she’s in a position to negotiate which policy planks of his she’ll support and vice versa would seem an indication that she’s not suited for the second banana role.
Of the longshot candidates mentioned, Whitmer makes a lot of sense. By most accounts, she’s doing a commendable job managing the COVID crisis in Michigan. But it’s by no means a given she’d help the ticket carry the state. She’s popular right now but making hard choices like extending the stay-at-home order through mid-June will harden sentiment.
George Will makes an interesting case for Rhode Island’s Gina Raimondo but I’d be surprised if she’s on the radar screen.
We end up asking questions such as: What kind of politician is this person? Did they show strong grass-roots appeal? How did they perform with this or that group in their home state? Or more specifically: Did Stacey Abrams successfully turn out young people in Georgia? Could Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) secure the Midwest for Biden?
Those kinds of questions assume that voters will be making a freestanding evaluation of the running mate that can be judged independent of her relationship to the nominee (Biden has promised to choose a woman). But that’s not how it works.
Let’s take Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). She did pretty poorly in her presidential run, gaining traction in polls only for a brief moment in July. You might say that calls into question her ability to win votes on a national level, were it not for the fact that the running mate doesn’t actually have to win votes on a national level.
That’s because the running mate’s real job is not to make people love her or turn out to support her, but to positively affect how people think of the nominee. Take the case of one running mate who performed abysmally in his own presidential run that year, but nonetheless was a near-perfect choice: Joe Biden.
Barack Obama picked Biden not because of his proven appeal to voters, but because he could reassure certain people about Obama. Biden was an older white man who had been in Washington for decades; the political point of his selection was to quiet fears people might have had about Obama being too young or too green. And it worked.
As it did when George W. Bush picked Dick Cheney, someone with absolutely no personal or electoral appeal. His selection sent a message of stability and reassurance. To a somewhat lesser but still real extent, Mike Pence did the same thing for Trump.
My personal political memory goes back to the 1972 race. The only vice presidential picks that definitely impacted the race were bad ones: Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin. Both were attempts to add “pizzazz” to the ticket and both backfired. Granted, George H.W. Bush still won in a landslide in 1988 but Quayle was a liability, most notably in producing the most memorable debate moment of the year in Lloyd Bentson’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”
To a much lesser extent, Geraldine Ferraro was in that category: she was a Hail Mary but proved more a liability than an asset. But it’s not like Walter Mondale had a serious shot at ousting Ronald Reagan.
Several candidates, though, did what Waldman suggests. Biden and Cheney are indeed the most obvious examples. But I’d argue Bush was a major asset on the 1980 ticket, an experienced, serious hand to counterbalance the “shoot-from-the-hip cowboy” Reagan was portrayed as. Al Gore reinforced Bill Clinton’s youthful, centrist, Southern appeal. And even Mondale served as an experienced Washington hand to balance out Jimmy Carter’s relative inexperience.
My slight preference would be Klobuchar. My prediction, though, is Harris. Neither would put Biden over the top. But either would be a solid choice and a great first decision for the Biden administration.