Why Biden’s Veep candidate matters
Normally, by now, the Democrats would have held their national convention, as they had planned to do in July, and we would know the woman Joe Biden had chosen as his running mate.
Normally, by now, we would have heard about the good and bad of his vice-presidential nominee: her political, philosophical, geographic and demographic advantages; her record in public life; her prospective strengths in governing. And then, normally, we would hear the statutory disclaimer that the vice-president makes little difference in winning or losing. That the vice-president is no more than “standby equipment” in the event the president dies or is incapacitated.
This is the way it once happened in presidential campaigns, when conventions were weeklong festivals, the vice-presidency was an empty title, and the value of the office was more about running than governing.
No longer. Things have changed. To begin, the vice-presidency matters. It mattered for Al Gore and Joe Biden. It mattered most when the wily and wilful Dick Cheney manipulated George W. Bush to push Cheney’s robust conservative agenda. The choice of vice-president is more momentous this year than ever. Never in the history of the republic has the vice-presidential nominee of the opposing party been so consciously and evidently consequential.
Several vice-presidents have come to power on the death of a president, including: Andrew Johnson in 1865, Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, Calvin Coolidge in 1923, Harry Truman in 1945, Lyndon Johnson in 1963. But Americans had not expected that the vice-president would become president when they voted in 1864, 1900, 1920, 1944 and 1960. In 2020, things are clearer. We know Joe Biden is likely to be president in January.
That makes his vice-president count in a way that it did not for, say, Walter Mondale (who chose Geraldine Ferraro) in 1984 or Robert Dole (who chose Jack Kemp) in 1996. Because neither Mondale nor Dole had much chance of winning, their running mates were unimportant, even if Ferraro was the first woman on a national ticket of a major party.
Moreover, we know this time that Joe Biden would be the oldest president to take office, and we know he is not as sharp or alert as he once was, which can happen at 77.
So, what matters most in a future vice-president to a former vice-president?
Forget geography. Biden isn’t going to pick Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms solely to win Georgia, an unlikely gain.
If he chooses her, it will be for personal appeal and her urban administrative experience.
Geography hasn’t mattered since John F. Kennedy picked LBJ to win Texas. Bill Clinton didn’t pick Gore to carry Tennessee any more than Barack Obama chose Biden to carry Delaware.
Winning the Midwest is no longer in serious doubt for the Democrats. Biden is ahead in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as well as Michigan, where Trump has stopped advertising. Biden does not need Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer or Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin for that reason, though he might for another, such as chemistry.
Political experience remains indispensable. Biden takes a risk picking Susan Rice, much as he likes her, because she has never held elective office. (He could make her Secretary of State — before she runs for the U.S. Senate in the newly created state of Columbia, a prospect if the Democrats win big.)
It is thought Biden, a former senator, values national more than state experience, which is why he is considering Kamala Harris and Tammy Duckworth, both senators, and Karen Bass, a congresswoman.
But Duckworth would disappoint black Democrats, a critical party constituency.
Bass, a highly credentialed progressive who famously praised Fidel Castro, would bolster Trump’s well-worn canard that Biden is controlled by “the radical left.”
Duckworth and Harris would prosecute the case brilliantly against Trump, which matters in a scorchedearth campaign. Both would probably be better for running than governing.
But if Biden decides governing is more important, and he wants executive experience to implement a complex social agenda, he may opt for a governor, such as Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island.
Running or governing? No one among the reported finalists has it all. The safest choice remains Kamala Harris.