When former Vice President Joe Biden makes his own running mate selection in the days ahead, his decision will be assessed -- and potentially assailed -- as no other has before. In the midst of a global pandemic and struggling economy, a 77-year-old who already served eight years in the White House is thought likely to serve only one term and make his vice presidential nominee the face of the future of the Democratic Party. Or not.
What’s clear to Biden is his party wants a candidate who will energize the ascendant part of their coalition, while party stalwarts know Biden wants someone with experience -- who can take over, if need be, and do the job on Day One. The most repeated quotes from Biden advisers on background are about how the choice should “do no harm,” even be boring so as to do nothing to change the trajectory of the race.
While history shows the vice presidential pick does not end up making a significant difference in how voters cast their ballots -- and polls now show it won’t for Biden -- the pick has yet to be announced, the progressives have yet to weigh in, and the candidate has yet to be attacked by President Trump or his campaign.
The choice Biden will make will do one of two things -- push his party into the future, or provide it with a pause that will delay the battle for succession and Democrats’ direction a few more years.
Nearly all vice presidential nominees have been considered potential candidates in waiting, though Biden’s task -- should he win -- of uniting his party and the country during simultaneous crises next year would be particularly challenging in itself, so a continuing campaign would be an added burden. Of course, many progressive Democrats want just that -- someone on the ticket who will presumably be the next nominee in 2024.
Progressives, after Sen. Bernie Sanders almost beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary before she went on to lose to Trump, believed that 2020 was their time. Collectively they supported a combination of non-Biden candidates in the primary that they thought would move the party past the trauma of 2016 and of the Obama era itself. Sweeping socialist policies dominated the discussions on cable television and Twitter, and on the debate stage even moderate candidates like Biden felt trapped into supporting promises of health care for illegal immigrants. For progressives, backing Biden is a means to an end. They believe they will become -- having beaten Trump -- the dominant force in a party they think no longer must persuade its old voters, just get new ones.
Early on, progressives had dreams of Biden choosing Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor in Georgia and was a sought-after choice of the party to run against Sen. David Perdue. Abrams refused to run for Senate and set her sights on the vice presidential candidacy instead, speaking openly of her interest in it, which is the opposite of what those who traditionally want the job have done. Abrams surely would have excited turnout among non-white voters and younger voters who are not remotely excited about Biden -- and who may not vote for him in the absence of such a pick. But she remains a controversial figure because she refused to concede her loss in the gubernatorial race of 2018. Her likely ability to help deliver Georgia, however, kept her on the list.
Rep. Karen Bass embodies the pause. The California congresswoman has made it clear she has no interest in running for president, and is known as someone who avoids the spotlight so aggressively she is uncomfortable having her picture taken. Though she has never run for statewide office, Bass, once a physician’s assistant, is now head of the Congressional Black Caucus and has earned a reputation in the House of being liked and respected on both sides of the aisle.
There has never been a perfect choice among the suitable contenders, but by everyone’s estimation Sen. Kamala Harris is the only obvious choice as someone who could both excite the base as a black woman and assure centrists and independent voters with her governing experience. Harris would represent a turn towards tomorrow, and wants to be president, and the battle to define her for the next nomination would begin immediately.
Historically, Democrats have often chosen senators as running mates, and no one prizes Senate experience more than Biden. As such, the Democratic women of the Senate were likely to figure prominently in his search.
One dark horse is Sen. Tammy Baldwin of the critical battleground of Wisconsin. Baldwin, who was the first openly gay senator in history, keeps a low profile and would be a surprise pick. She doesn’t seem likely to seek the presidency.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth could be either possibility: someone who focuses solely on her role as number two, throws herself into the job without taking sides on divisive issues roiling the party, and resists becoming a candidate herself. Or she could want the top job.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose presence on the ticket would electrify a good segment of the Democratic electorate, would present a huge risk with independents and former Republicans and centrist Democrats. And she most definitely wants to be president. Biden likes her and she clearly could step into the job immediately, but the odds are against her.
Buzz started for Rep. Val Demings when she was tapped as the only non-lawyer to serve as an impeachment manager. Demings’ parents, descendants of slaves, worked as a maid and janitor while raising seven kids in a two-bedroom house in Jacksonville, and saw their youngest child become the first female chief of police in Orlando. She would excite the party, and could deliver her swing state to Biden. But just as her law enforcement career would appeal to centrists, it will subject her to criticism from some progressives. She has not indicated whether the idea of succeeding Biden as president is a dream or a source of dread.
Other than Warren, the only person with whom Biden has a relationship with is former National Security Adviser Susan Rice. Picking Rice would be fraught with baggage as her coverage will involve endless questions not only about her unmasking of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and her infamous -- and false -- defense of the administration following the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, but on her policy decisions regarding war in Libya. But in another way the pick is also quite cautious in that she has solid policy credentials and is an experienced government operator who did political stints on both Howard Dean’s and John Kerry’s campaigns. The political ambition of the former national security official is a question, though. She is viewed by some as disinterested but 1) nearly ran for Senate in Maine this year, 2) wrote a memoir and 3) has stepped up television appearances and written pieces online. On the other hand, Rice is not well known among the party rank and file for any domestic policy issues and is not necessarily going to excite liberals.
Another solid choice that could inspire confidence but little excitement is Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a more centrist Democrat who has impressed with her response to the COVID outbreak in her state. She is young, age 49, but is likely to be more of a placeholder and not the future of the Democratic Party.
The ultimate bold pick -- and she has been considered -- is Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who became a well-known figure in the drama of the pandemic and the pain of the protests that followed the death of George Floyd, well before Georgia Gov. Brain Kemp chose to embarrass himself and elevate her even more by suing her for mandating masks in Atlanta. He has since withdrawn his suit. Bottoms, a young black mom of four who has been tested in this crisis and whose family has braved infection from coronavirus, would supercharge Democratic energy and potentially help deliver her state to Biden. She would surely face scrutiny for a lack of foreign policy chops, despite the fact that they would be the same amount Trump had coming into the presidency, and face doubts that she is ready to take over for Biden because she doesn’t have the Washington experience someone like Bass does.
The process of finding the right person, or the most-right person, has of course been complicated by a pandemic that has limited in-person meetings and get-to-know-you sessions. But who knows better how to pick a vice president than Biden? Certainly Trump and Obama and George W. Bush and Clinton knew less about both the job and the relationship between number one and number two.
The closest comparison to Biden picking someone to do the job he did for eight years would be President George H.W. Bush, who chose Dan Quayle. But the role of the vice president has shifted since then, according to Elaine Kamarck of Brookings, who wrote that the “partnership” model has been used since Bill Clinton chose Al Gore, then George W. Bush chose Dick Cheney and then Barack Obama chose Biden. Vice presidents since 1992 -- including Mike Pence -- have been partners with significant portfolios, and Biden’s pick will likely be asked to do the same, if not more.
The reasoned guess is that Biden picks someone who will be a partner while also providing a pause, who can ably do the job alongside him and let the party battle more quietly about the future for at least a little longer. But there’s not a lot of reason or rhyme to 2020 -- so even Joe Biden could end up shocking us.