Steve August 2, 2020
what-joe-biden-wants

After
a weekend of oppo dumps and Twitter battles over the leading vice presidential
possibilities, Joe Biden could well want to throw up his hands and tell someone
else to choose his running mate.

It’s
happened once before: In 1956, Adlai Stevenson let the delegates at the
Democratic National Convention pick his running mate without so much as whispering
his true preference to the party bosses who controlled the convention floor. As
a result, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver edged a telegenic newcomer named John
Kennedy for the VP slot on the second ballot, the last second ballot at a
political convention in history.

Stevenson
aside, for most of the twentieth century, Democratic vice presidents were chosen
for a single reason: to balance the ticket, usually by pairing a Northern
liberal with a Southerner. But the rules changed in 1992 when Bill Clinton
tapped Al Gore—a young moderate senator from an adjoining state—partly because
of his knowledge of foreign policy. As Elaine Kamarck, a former top Gore aide
now at the Brookings Institution, argues in her new ebook, Picking the Vice President, “Every vice president since Al
Gore has been chosen more for their ability to do his job than for the ability
to balance the ticket.”

Biden
was a major beneficiary of this trend in 2008. Barack Obama didn’t need help
winning Biden’s tiny home state of Delaware nor did he need to appease the
nonexistent Biden wing of the Democratic Party. But the Illinois senator, who had
only just arrived in Washington in 2005, did need a vice president to help him
govern, and Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
offered all the benefits of someone who had spent more than three decades in
the Senate.

These
days, almost all the handicapping of Biden’s VP pick represents an exercise in
retro politics. Journalists have spent their time gaming out who would do the
most to balance the ticket, suggesting that a dynamic Black woman or unabashedly left-wing Democrat like Elizabeth Warren could help unite the party and paper
over any weaknesses Biden has as a candidate.

Most
pundits also seem to assume that Biden is, in effect, choosing his successor,
tapping not only a vice president but the probable Democratic presidential nominee
in 2024. But the model of an ambitious politician using the vice presidency as a stepping stone to the White House is fast fading—the modern vice presidency has changed. Part of Dick Cheney’s vast war-making powers in George W. Bush’s first term flowed from his disinterest in ever running for president himself, so his crazed hawkish plotting seemed selfless. And, of course, Biden himself chose not to run in 2016.  In truth, given the temporarily papered-over ideological fissures
in the Democratic Party and the scores of people (both men and women) with
presidential ambitions, it seems probable that Biden’s VP would, at best, have a bumpy
road to the 2024 nomination. 

What’s
missing in this flurry of speculation is a sustained look at the
vice presidential contenders from Biden’s perspective as a former VP. He is
undoubtedly considering these candidates with a single overriding question in
mind:
Who can help me govern from the
White House?


Even
in normal times, a twenty-first century president can’t do it all. But with the
pandemic, the economic collapse, America’s tattered international reputation,
and the law-and-order thuggery Trump has unleashed from the White House, Biden
would need a partner in governing. In a sense, his choice of a running mate
depends on what areas of authority he wants to delegate to his VP. 

Let’s
begin with those contenders who boast the credential that Biden prizes the most—Washington
experience, especially a legislative background in Congress.  

Kamala Harris: No
one on the lists of potential VPs arouses more passionate emotions, both pro
and con. Harris brings years of experience with justice issues, dating back to her
days as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general. Less
well known, but potentially important to Biden, is the fact that Harris has
familiarity with top-secret classified information as a member of the Senate
Intelligence Committee. But since Harris began running for president almost as soon
as she arrived in the Senate in 2017, she seems an unlikely engineer of Biden’s
legislative strategy on Capitol Hill.

Elizabeth Warren:
Were Warren the vice president, her obvious role would be to play a lead role
in designing and advocating for Biden’s economic recovery plans. After almost eight years in the Senate, she is probably a more adept legislative tactician than
Harris, and she has national security experience from her service on the
Armed Services Committee. As a vice presidential candidate, she would also be
able to speak eloquently about the pandemic’s toll, since her older brother
died from the virus.

Tammy Duckworth: Having grown up in Asia (she lived in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge arrived), Duckworth has a wider international perspective than the typical senator. A
war hero who lost both her legs as an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq, she is also particularly well versed in military policy.
But given Biden’s extensive
foreign policy experience, it is unclear how much help he would need in dealing
with the Pentagon.

Karen Bass: Probably
no one on the vice presidential lists is better equipped to serve as Biden’s emissary
to Congress. Not only does Bass, who was first elected to the House in 2010,
chair the Congressional Black Caucus, but she was also the speaker of the
California State Assembly. She would appeal to Biden as the ultimate team player. As her
House colleague Emanuel Cleaver told The Wall
Street Journal,
“She does not have the MacBethian ambition that
damages or destroys many aspiring politicians.” One potential downside,
however, is her history of naiveté about Fidel Castro’s
Cuba, which might inhibit Biden’s ability to give her a major foreign policy
role.

Val Demings: As
the former police chief of Orlando, Florida, Demings would undoubtedly play a
major role in framing Biden’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Demings
also serves on the House Intelligence Committee, which gives her a window into
national security matters. But it may be challenging for Demings to transcend her
mixed record in Orlando, which The New
York Times
described as “one of the
most violent police departments of its size in the United States.”

Susan Rice:
Biden knows Rice well from her eight years as Obama’s ambassador to the United
Nations and the president’s national security adviser. But does Biden, who in
normal times probably fancied himself as a foreign policy president, need a foreign policy vice president? Only if Biden believes that he would need Rice to
crisscross the globe while he deals with the many domestic crises he will
inherit. An even bigger problem for Rice is that, having never run for public
office, she lacks the glad-handing political skills that Biden prizes.

Michelle Lujan Grisham:
Among the least well known of the VP contenders, Grisham is a twofer—she has
experience in Congress and in controlling the pandemic: As governor of New
Mexico, she has dealt capably with the virus. As the only Latina on the VP
list, it is puzzling why Grisham has not prompted more attention, especially
since she also served as her state’s health commissioner.


The
other leading contenders for vice president seemingly lack what Biden sees as the most
essential ingredient of all—the background and ability to become president on
Day One. 

Michigan
Governor Gretchen Whitmer,
another effective leader in battling Covid-19, only took office last year after
a nearly two-decade career in the state legislature. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was
impressive when the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in her city turned
violent, has no experience beyond city politics. As for Stacey Abrams, despite her role as an inspirational figure
who may have had the Georgia governorship stolen from her in 2018, her entire
career has been in the state legislature. 

Perhaps
one of these women will prove so impressive in her interview with Biden that he
would consider expanding his criteria for a running mate. If that were to
happen, I would put my money on a true long shot, two-term Rhode Island
Governor Gina Raimondo, a
former Rhodes Scholar. Not only did Raimondo herself design the contact tracing
app that her state is using for
Covid-19, but she also has economic experience confronting her state’s pension
crisis. Less seriously, it might also appeal to Biden to choose as his running
mate the governor of the only state smaller than Delaware. 

None
of this is designed to be conclusive, since all vice president speculation is
akin to handicapping an election with just one voter. But if Biden, as I
suspect, is looking for a partner in governing, these background details may be
more influential than the latest VP rumblings on cable TV.

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