Biden’s Veepstakes

A column is getting negative attention for all the wrong reasons

The Los Angeles Times is getting excoriated for the misogyny of this headline, which it has since replaced with an inferior one:

Given that it’s an opinion column from its Culture editor, Virginia Heffernan, I’m inclined to give the paper and the columnist a pass on charges of misogyny. It is, however, not a good column. (For those of you, like me, who don’t live on the West Coast and thus don’t subscribe to LAT, YahooNews has a full reprint.)

The setup is banal:

Sometime very, very, very soon, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden will join forces with a running mate, and his campaign signs will get a refresh: Biden-Harris or Biden-Rice or maybe Biden-Bass or Biden-Abrams. Who will it be?

The rhythm of this cartoonish cotillion is familiar, even if this is the first time a male candidate has pledged, as Biden did on March 16, to pick a woman to ride in the sidecar. Whatever the virtues of that pledge, it has generated some odd optics.

I’m not saying it’s exactly “The Bachelor: Campaign Trail,” but it’s a little weird to watch an old man set out to choose a younger woman to take to the ultimate fantasy suite, the White House.

It’s not obvious to me why the optics are “odd.” While I would have preferred that Biden hadn’t pledged that his running mate would be a woman, eschewing identity politics that smacks of tokenism, the search hasn’t been particularly unusual aside from the constraints imposed by the COVID pandemic.

If she’ll have him. Because the candidates for Biden’s final rose seem to have the upper hand here. The presumed top three, after all, are at the height of their powers: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.); Susan Rice, a former United Nations ambassador and Obama advisor; and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles). These women, with all the world before them, seem to regard the VP role with clear-eyed skepticism, a slightly arched brow. As they should.

There is, so far as I’m aware, zero evidence of this. So far as I can tell, any of these women would jump at the chance to be Vice President. Harris ran for President in her own right this cycle; she would become the presumptive 2024 nominee as veep to a one-term President. And in what sense are Rice, who nobody has ever suggested should be President, much less Bass, who’s 66 and was a complete unknown until she got on Biden’s short list, “at the height of their powers”? It’s absurd.

This year, the vice presidency — never a plum job — will be especially bruising. Whoever runs with Biden is in for an oppo inferno. She’ll be relentlessly trolled as a deep-state dragon by the Trump campaign and all those under-bridge internet dwellers who support it. There will be presidential tweets with playground taunts. Chants in the lock-her-up style. Death threats.

“Every woman in public life needs to develop skin as tough as rhinoceros hide,” wrote Eleanor Roosevelt. Biden’s running mate will have to have a thicker hide still. Come to think of it, an actual dragon, if the deep state has one on hand, might be worth considering.

That’s American politics in 2020. Harris already endured it in her own run for the White House. Rice endured it as the fall gal for the Benghazi incident; at least she’d get a promotion out of it this time. Bass has only entered the national spotlight in the last month, as a result of these veepstakes. But she would go from back bench Congresswoman to the second-highest office in the land.

And then there’s the fact that once won, the VP position will be a high-wire act in windy weather. If Biden is elected, he’ll be 78 at his inauguration — the oldest president in history. As someone who knows the second-in-command role well, Biden has expressed an uncommon willingness to delegate to his VP and to his Cabinet. According to Politico, he has also told aides he will not seek a second term. In other words, Biden’s VP will have to be an unusually active understudy, shadowing the boss in a paradoxically bright spotlight.

So, the Veep would not only have an enhanced role in policymaking but a clear path to the nomination in four, rather than the customary eight, years? The horrors!

It’s a tall order. In past years people might have disdained the VP role because it’s not enough power; this time, for women in the prime of their careers, it might mean too much ascribed power for too little actual authority.

That . . . makes no sense.

Too much responsibility with too little authority can be a problem. I would never want to be, say, Secretary of Homeland Security. But power without authority is just fine. Ask any White House Chief of Staff.

In any case, the so-called shortlist is an extraordinary group, but so are the “and Peggys.” That’s a reference to the Schuyler sisters competing for young Alexander’s attention in “Hamilton” — yes, I’m trying to make up for disparaging this solemn affair as The Bachelor.” Peggy Schuyler is the one who vanishes from the action. Biden’s “and Peggys” include the likes of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former First Lady Michelle Obama, among others.

I have no idea what the point here is. None.

Every cycle, there is running mate spot open. Occasionally, there are two. So, it’s not even slightly unusual that lots of people who had ambitions to be second banana will be disappointed. Warren will, presumably, console herself with being one of the most powerful U.S. Senators. Obama will continue being rich and adored. Life goes on.

No men. At all. It’s possible Biden could reverse his March pledge, but it would be a huge failure if he did. (Joe-Kanye is, blessedly, not going to happen.)

Right.

All of the shortlisters are Black. That wasn’t in the pledge (Biden did say he’d nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court if he had the chance as president).

In April, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said, “I’m among those who feel that it would be great for him to select a woman of color. But that is not a must.” Maybe not, but as Clyburn’s support in South Carolina was instrumental in scoring Biden the nomination, Biden would be wise to do whatever Clyburn — and so many others — thinks would be great.

Uh huh.

It does indeed look like Biden has narrowed the list to two black women, Harris and Rice. It’s not obvious to me that either of them are going to energize the base more than, say, Warren would. Thankfully, however, the fact that Donald Trump is the alternative will accomplish that on its own.

Sigh. The column goes on a bit more after that. I won’t belabor the point. It is not good.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Gender Issues, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Media, 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. Moosebreath says:

    “I’m not saying it’s exactly “The Bachelor: Campaign Trail,” but it’s a little weird to watch an old man set out to choose a younger woman to take to the ultimate fantasy suite, the White House.

    It’s not obvious to me why the optics are “odd.””

    Because the piece is literally using the language of dating for the decision on choosing a Vice Presidential candidate when the potential VP’s are of the opposite sex as the Presidential nominee.

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    It’s a Sunday morning and you felt the need to address this? James, you have daughters. Go spend some quality time with them. 😉

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Moosebreath: Right. I understand why people don’t like the frame of the piece. But the author is a highly educated, successful professional journalist. It’s a bad column but it’s absurd to suggest Heffernan is a misogynist.

    Indeed, my argument is that her suggestion that there’s anything particularly unusual going on is unfounded.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: This was making the rounds on Twitter; I found it amusing. Everyone else in the house was still asleep 😉

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  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: Well good that you didn’t miss time with them at this age (whatever age they are). I usually wake up somewhere between 2 and 4 AM while the wife sleeps until 9 or 10. Trying to come up with something productive to do that won’t wake her up is fruitless. I suppose I could go out and clean up my shop but… Uck.

  6. EddieInCA says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: @James Joyner:

    I usually wake up somewhere between 2 and 4 AM while the wife sleeps until 9 or 10. Trying to come up with something productive to do that won’t wake her up is fruitless.

    I’m usually up around 5am, and my wife not until 9am or so. For me, it’s the time when I read, and really catch up on the news from the day before. I’m a total creature of habit. Wake up. Coffee. Toast. Vitamins. Memorandum, OTB, Mediaite, The Resurgent, National Review, RawStory, Hot Air, CNN, Fox News, Dreher, Balloon Juice. If something big has happened I might wander over to The Federalist, or MSNBC, but not often.

    By the time my wife wakes up, I’m done with the news, and ready to do whatever I have to do that day.

  7. Michael Cain says:

    Folks, it’s a joke. Southern California specific, perhaps, but it’s a joke. Same as the early years of Saturday Night Live when, for about one in four of the sketches, people who lived/had lived in the New York City metro area understood why it was funny and the rest of the country was going “Huh?”

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  8. Bill says:

    @EddieInCA:

    I’m usually up around 5am, and my wife not until 9am or so.

    My wife gets up at 5 a.m. every morning. She then spends the next two hours and twenty minutes- Making our coffee, feeding cats indoors and outdoors, taking her daily walk, saying the rosary with her family in the Philippines, watching tv while eating breakfast, then taking a shower and getting dressed before racing out of the apartment for 7:30 mass. She begins work at 9 Monday- Friday. That’s her routine except for Saturday when there is no mass till 9.

    Because the wife gets up early, I have to do the same. I eat breakfast and two cups of coffee (while checking out the internet or playing strat-om-matic baseball) before starting a load of laundry (usually 4 mornings a week) then I take my walk. Come home shower, tend to laundry and then a day of working on my ebooks, playing strat-o-matic, watching television (Not all that much. I play music over my PC mostly), tend to my cat, go on the internet, and all this at my leisure. I lay down too for a 60 to 90 minutes too. That nap is needed. I don’t make solo trips outside except for doctor appointments. Very infrequent trips to the store are done with my wife.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @EddieInCA: Wake up. Coffee. Toast. Vitamins. Memorandum, OTB, Mediaite, The Resurgent, National Review,….

    That’s sort of like my AM routine too but I feel like I could be doing something productive in all that time. Instead I just feel a little bit guilty and then refresh the OTB/BJ pages again.

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  10. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner:

    I understand why people don’t like the frame of the piece. But the author is a highly educated, successful professional journalist. It’s a bad column but it’s absurd to suggest Heffernan is a misogynist.

    The column is trite fluff that has already been given more attention than it deserves, but these two sentences of Dr. Joyner’s…

    Misogyny (and racism, and the other bigotries) are seldom binary. It’s not that the author hates women, it’s that she has internalized views that shape how she considers and discusses interactions with women, even in the highest offices in the land, and that she promotes those same views.

    She’s doing it a bit tongue in cheek, and so it’s hard to pin down where the joke begins and ends, but that might be as much of a problem as doing it seriously. It allows her to go further Than she normally would in suggesting that women are picked for jobs due to sexual compatibility with their bosses, and that this is fine and normal.

    Ironic racism has fallen out of favor during the Trump presidency. Ironic misogyny continues.

    But worst of all — the column isn’t even funny. Funny can excuse a lot of things. I’m not one of those people who thinks that there are things that you can’t even joke about, I just think that if you’re joking about a bigotry and using stereotypes as part of the joke, you really have to stick that landing.

    Louis CK used to make a rape joke as part of his routine a few years back. After some questionable joke, he would get all serious and say that of course rape is a bad thing, a horrible thing, and that there’s absolutely no excuse for it unless of course you really want to have sex with someone and they say no. It always got a big laugh.

    It’s probably less funny now, given that we now know he would expose himself to women… In the long run, he failed to stick the landing.

    Ironic racism, misogyny and bigotry often just gives people an excuse to say the things that they really believe, even if they don’t know they believe those things and would claim to find them offensive.

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  11. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Gustopher: Reminds me of the Hannibal Burress quip about Cosby’s propositioning women: “Either WE are having sex….OR I am having sex….” got huge laughs.