Biden’s Veep Search

Every Democratic woman seems to be under consideration.

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.

Gabriel Debenedetti reports at New York magazine that “Joe Biden’s VP Search Is Turning Into an Open Audition.”

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.

While she has generated some buzz, I can’t imagine Biden chooses Abrams, who has no national stature and has never held a major political office.

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.

So, I think it comes down to Harris or Klobuchar. They both competent and experienced yet neither is a big enough star to steal the spotlight from Biden.

I don’t know that either does much in increasing Democratic turnout or carrying a swing state but tend to agree with Paul Waldman‘s take in “How to think about Biden’s choice for vice president.”

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.

FILED UNDER: Amy Klobuchar, Campaign 2020, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Lounsbury says:

    Useful reflexions.

    I think it is good it seems wide-ranging and not locked in.

    I can’t imagine Biden chooses Abrams, who has no national stature and has never held a major political office.

    Indeed, she would be a Gimick Choice, a Palin type gambit (not to suggest she is personally like Palin, but in her public attention she’s similar in not being nationally tested and a bit on the gimicky side [on partisan activist radar for partisan activist reasons] not yet truly proven for the national stage).

    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.

    She does not seem to really be the personality that would fit, indeed, and seems like the person who actually is best where she is, a Senior Senator, not the executive as such.

    Harris’ cool play recently and on exiting and her timing seems encouraging on jugment, as does Klobacher.

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  2. gVOR08 says:

    His (Cheney’s) selection sent a message of stability and reassurance.

    I guess he did seem to offset W’s youth and fecklessness. But boy howdy, how’d that work out for us?

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  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    Abrams’s pitch is that she would get those who don’t have a history of voting to the polls. Where have I heard that pitch recently? Oh he yeah, Bernie, how’s that work. While she wouldn’t a Palin bad choice, she’d only be slightly better than Quayle.

    Warren, as much as I’d like to see her in the WH, she’s too old. Assuming Biden completes one term, she’d be running as a 74 yo.

    Harris and Klobuchar, I’m on board with either.

    Whitmer and Raimondo are interesting choices. I view experience as a governor, to be about the best training to be president. Whitmer’s term in office is likely too short but Raimondo is winding up her first term and previously was state treasurer. For decades, Rhode Island’s state finances have been a mess and that all come to a head with the Great Recession, after which she became treasurer and then governor. Also RI had been economically noncompetitive despite most of the state being in the Boston metro area. Today the state is much better shape. She does have a lot to accomplishments to tout.

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  4. MarkedMan says:

    Biden has been pretty clear about his selection criteria: someone who he trusts to be the “last person He talks to before a major decision”, and “someone who could step into the presidency on day 1”. I think he means it.

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  5. DrDaveT says:

    At this point, Biden’s pick for veep is not going to change anyone’s mind about whether they prefer Trump or Biden. That leaves only turnout as the thing to aim for. Which running mate will bring the most people to the polls?

    2
  6. Moosebreath says:

    I am fine with Harris or Klobuchar. However, since Hispanics were cool to Biden in the primary, and he may need them if he hopes to move Arizona into his column, he should give some consideration to Catherine Cortez Masto (Senator from Nevada) or Michelle Lujan Grisham (Governor of New Mexico, and former member of the US House).

    2
  7. charon says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I think you are right. I also think he has pretty much already settled on Warren.

    Also, I think whoever he picks is the likely next President, I think he factors that in also.

    1
  8. gVOR08 says:

    In this case I think the veep pick does matter, in that it can make people more comfortable with Biden’s age. The pick needs to be relatively young, healthy, have some throw weight, and not trigger negative partisanship on the other side. I’d say that’s Klobuchar or Harris, but who saw Tim Kaine coming? There would be well north of 50 million women over the age of 35 in the country, any one of whom can take Mike Dense in a debate.

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  9. Bill says:

    Just a couple of quick thoughts

    Abrams- Absolutely no. No stature, her lobbying for the job. Stay away.

    Warren- Her age. One geriatric on the ticket is plenty already.

    Klobuchar’s issues with her staff bugs me too.

    I’d say Harris. Whitmer and Raimondo would be better than the three above IMHO.

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  10. EddieInCA says:

    I’m not even gonna say it…..

  11. Gustopher says:

    While she has generated some buzz, I can’t imagine Biden chooses Abrams, who has no national stature and has never held a major political office.

    I agree with this completely, and then I hear her speak and I want her to be the choice, and then about three days later I agree with this again.

    I expect that she will get a cabinet post, if Biden wins, and that she will be one of the most effective surrogates for the campaign.

    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.

    I don’t think the article you link to supports your claim.

    She says she’s willing to accept an expanded ObamaCare with a public option rather than Medicare for all. This has been her position for ages — in the campaign, when asked whether she would sign a public option into law her answer was “absolutely!” Her position has always been compatible with Biden’s.

    And she’s saying this very publicly now to shore up Biden’s left. She’s not negotiating what she will support, she’s supporting from the left.

    The endorsement probably doesn’t matter. She didn’t endorse Bernie. Her work with Biden now helps bring the party together, and Biden is doubtless smart enough to see that and appreciate that. Whether that leads to a VP nod, obviously only Biden knows.

    And the left is one of the parts of the Democratic coalition that Biden has to work harder to appeal to. He also needs to appeal more to Latinos though.

    I think Warren is too old and that hurts her more than anything else. Biden has to be considering legacy and successor at least a little.

  12. Billi says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Whitmer and Raimondo are interesting choices.

    Raimondo is interesting in a different way to me.

    An epic length novel I have written* set over a decade into the future, has the future President of the United States as a former Governor of Rhode Island and she’s a woman.
    Her name is Victoria Markov and her Vice-President is Nelson Rand**, a former congressman from South Texas.

    Let’s see if I’m a prophet one day.

    *- My editor/proofreader has this story about 70% finished. She’s currently putting the finishing touches on another epic I have written.
    **- I got the names Markov and Rand from the movie, ‘Crack in the World‘.

  13. Erik says:

    @gVOR08: agreed, and also important to note that the VP pick can make people uncomfortable as well. I saw this with McCain for sure with Republican friends that were all fired up for McCain, until he picked Palin and they decided his judgement wasn’t so good after all. I’m not sure it kept any of them from voting for him, but they weren’t donating money or time or informally convincing people to vote for him either.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08:

    But boy howdy, how’d that work out for us?

    But it was utterly unpredictable. Cheney was a fairly bland Wyoming Congressman and then an excellent, steady hand as SECDEF. And, indeed, Don Rumsfeld was a Boy Wonder in the Nixon and Ford administrations who had been our youngest SECDEF and seemed a Blue Ribbon choice as our oldest. Not so much.

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  15. Bill says:

    @James Joyner: James,

    From the Almanac of American Politics 1988-

    “Already a very important member of the House, he (Cheney) is clearly a major national politician.”

    The 1988 Almanac was published in the summer of 1987, over a year and a half before Cheney became SECDEF.

    1
  16. Michael Cain says:

    With tongue only partly in cheek, no Democratic candidate from the northeast urban corridor has won since Kennedy. And arguably, he needed the Senate Majority Leader from Texas Johnson to deliver some key southern states. Before that, as a non-incumbent, FDR in 1932, almost 90 years ago. Four years ago, with tongue only partly in cheek, I said the same thing about Clinton. Warren makes me nervous in the sense of “are we doubling down on a losing bet?”

    When I raised this question in an online forum once, a political science prof (who taught at a school outside the corridor) said, “People who live in the NE urban corridor for years do not realize how much people from other parts of the country dislike them.” Along these lines, if someone asks me what I’m looking for in a VP candidate, I want someone who will excite the unaffiliated suburban voters in Florida and the upper Midwest.

  17. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Billi:

    Rush it to publication before Biden announces, guarantee a Times book review. 🙂

  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Haven’t paid much attention and didn’t know Klobuchar was on the short list, but it does explain why she keeps showing up on wazzis name’s (the CBS Tonite Show guy at 11:30 pm) ads as being the guest that night. It seems like she’s on every 3 or 4 days, generally with Pete Buttigieg. (Or is it the same interview over and over? Don’t stay up to watch.)

  19. James Joyner says:

    @Bill: Oh, sure. He was the Whip and before that chair of the Republican Caucus. He was important. I just meant “bland” in the sense that he wasn’t a firebrand but a rather standard Western conservative.

    2
  20. Teve says:

    @Michael Cain:

    With tongue only partly in cheek, no Democratic candidate from the northeast urban corridor has won since Kennedy.

    Until Trump, no Republican from New York had won the presidency since Teddy Roosevelt. 😀

    3
  21. Kylopod says:
  22. Teve says:

    @Kylopod: yep. 😀

  23. Kylopod says:

    @Teve: I just noticed now that the post-script comment (where you hover the mouse over the image) went “No white guy who’s been mentioned on Twitter has gone on to win.” That was true in 2012 when the the comic was written (since Twitter was invented in 2006, after the most recent election of a white guy up to that point), but four years later….

  24. wr says:

    @Teve: “Until Trump, no Republican from New York had won the presidency since Teddy Roosevelt. ”

    And until Obama, it was considered impossible for a sitting senator to win. All this stuff can never ever ever ever ever ever happen. And then it does and everyone pretends they never thought different.