Joe Biden and Kamala Harris during Thursday night’s debate. (MSNBC/YouTube screenshot)
WASHINGTON—It’s summer in a presidential election year, which means it’s time for a proper veepstakes.
Whatever else may be lights out this season—Camden Yards, Coachella or much of the Carnival Cruise Line—we know at least one show will go on. As Barack Obama said on the eve of the 2016 election, “the sun will rise in the morning.” And the presumptive Democratic nominee for president will need a running mate.
Vice presidential selections are in some ways the papal conclaves of secular politics. The deliberations are done in secret (though with a generous sprinkling of leaks, of course), and the selection is not the choice of the laity or the polity but the upper echelon. In Rome, the guiding force is the Holy Spirit. In Washington, it’s the Electoral College.
For former Vice President Joe Biden, the choice just got a lot easier. He has said, prudently, that he will wait until at least August to announce his pick. But the supernova of outrage that has spilled out onto American streets in recent weeks has considerably narrowed Biden’s room for maneuver.
He has already pledged to pick a woman. But for Biden, failing to select an African-American woman is to risk forfeiting something his often staid campaign has at last picked up: enthusiasm. Biden hopes to be swept into power as a statesman at the helm of a nation hungry for fresh reflection —a place in dire need of a reckoning with its racial sins following the slaying of Minnesota man George Floyd—even as it looks for the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.
The Associated Press reports that Biden’s camp is narrowing the contenders. The top tier: California Senator Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and former National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Lagging behind: Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Former Georgia Senate Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, Florida Representative Val Demmings and New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham.
As the first half of 2020 has made unmistakably clear, much can change in three months. But his commitment to pick a woman, the fierce urgency of now to elevate an African-American, and Biden’s own perspective on his old job mean that only one prospective vice president meets the criteria for selection.
Consider first that Biden has emphasized the need for his lieutenant to be able to fill his shoes without hesitation. As he said in Iowa during the Democratic primary, whoever he picks must “be capable of immediately being a president because I’m an old guy.”
The importance of national security, both to the executive generally and to Biden personally, provides another clue. The former Vice President cares deeply about the issue—he played an outsized role in shaping the Obama administration’s foreign policy (particularly when compared to previous Democratic Vice Presidents, like Al Gore or Walter Mondale). He rivaled old Senate pals Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Obama’s secretaries of state, in influence. And before 2008, he headed the Senate’s influential Foreign Relations Committee.
And given that his national security advisors from his days at the Naval Observatory, Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, are now arguably the campaign’s most powerful advisors, it’s clear he still cares about it. This is bad news for Gov. Lujan Grisham and gubernatorial runner-up Abrams, both state-level politicians with barren foreign policy credentials. The Sarah Palin fiasco in 2008, in which questions about foreign policy revealed to many her unsuitability for high office, also weighs heavily on the minds of Biden advisors keen not to repeat history.
It’s also true that Biden, having spent 36 years in the upper chamber, prefers Senators, although that alone should not rule out Congresswoman Demmings, whose résumé includes time on the Subcommittee on Defense Intelligence and Warfighter Support, the Subcommittee on Intelligence Modernization and Readiness, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations and—perhaps crucially, when combatting immigration hawk Donald Trump—the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security. However, Demmings likely has another problem.
This is because Biden also favors figures who have run in national campaigns before, figures like himself in 2008, for instance. The enormous exposure, so the thinking goes, reveals battle-readiness (or lack thereof)—free vetting, in essence. Demmings may have attracted attention as an impeachment manager, but that pales in comparison to the celebrity and political experience that comes from a serious attempt at the White House. Moreover, that time working on impeachment could be plausibly portrayed by the Trump campaign as a distraction, a striking example of Congress frittering away time on partisan games when it could have been preparing America for the coming pandemic.
Susan Rice may pass the foreign policy test, but she’s even more vulnerable to national scrutiny than Demmings. A career foreign policy official, she has never faced election and her previous time in the national spotlight was far from positive. Whatever one thinks of her actual conduct during the Benghazi affair, the political fallout cost her the job of secretary of state when Obama won a second term. That she’s back in the news as a party in the “ObamaGate” imbroglio is also unhelpful. Even though Biden is running, to some extent, as a restorationist (painting the 45th president as firmly outside the American tradition), running with Rice may fuel perceptions of the campaign as a stale Obama-era remix, even as the Democratic Party—and, perhaps, the nation—has moved sharply left.
Since the dawn of the crisis this spring, Biden has said he thinks the country needs a presidency in the style of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But running with one of Barack Obama’s most controversial subordinates would signal to the left, as well as to disaffected independents who voted for Obama, but then gave Trump a chance, that he’s unlikely to deliver such a transformative administration.
Before May, Amy Klobuchar was probably the front-runner for this role. But the tide of history has flown with rapid and unforgiving speed, and her chances are now essentially nil. Not only is Sen. Klobuchar a longstanding member of the political establishment of the state at the center of America’s burning racial crisis—Minnesota—but she’s a former prosecutor with past cases flagged by activists. For Biden, she’s gone from safest bet to largest liability. The first rule of vice presidential selections is do no harm. He will not pick her.
In all likelihood, this now narrows the field to two principal front-runners: Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. When Biden contemplated a run for the 2016 nomination, Warren was reputed to have been his first pick for VP—and given the bad feelings festering from the Bernie-Biden showdown, selecting her might help heal the wounds between the party’s moderate establishment and its radical (and ever-louder) counter-establishment. It would also signal new bonhomie between Warren and Biden on a personal level, after a more acrimonious relationship in the 2000s.
Somewhat ironically, Warren’s most salient feud is now with Bernie Sanders, the only candidate in 2020 more left-wing than her, and a target for charges of sexism. Depending on the memories of Bernie supporters, this may depreciate the conciliatory value of the Warren selection, though likely only slightly. Warren would still be a valuable deputy, a signal to the progressive wing that Biden means business about all that FDR stuff.
And that’s why he probably won’t choose her. Wall Street has signaled ad infinitum its revulsion with Warren. While Biden has (by all accounts sincerely) moved to the left over the last year, this is still the man who a year agotold a New York fundraiser he will refuse to “demonize” the rich as president and that “nothing would fundamentally change.”
And besides, there is now a third, compelling criterion for Biden’s vice president. With almost 60 percent of Americans holding a favorable view of the movement, Black Lives Matter is branding powerful enough to rival Make America Great Again, and perhaps to overwhelm it. The protests in America’s streets are effectively shock troops for the removal of Donald Trump.
Failing to capitalize on this energy and enthusiasm would be a rookie’s political mistake—and Biden, whatever else he may be, is no rookie. Significantly for a business-friendly nominee, corporate America has also endorsed BLM without equivocation. And of all the candidates for the deputy spot, Kamala Harris would be the best-positioned to convert this into winning political momentum.
Biden’s quiet base in the primary was arguably Hollywood—he’s a long-standing champion of the American motion picture industry, including aiding studios with their work in China. As the primary campaign reached its apex, celebrities helped him seal the deal against Sanders. But if Biden’s a made man in SoCal, Harris completes the circle by bringing in NorCal. There and elsewhere, she’s a fundraising juggernaut. Although the state’s electoral votes may not be in contention, its cash is—and San Francisco tech giants have been somewhat cool to Biden.
But Biden picked up $4 million earlier this month through the fundraising of Tom Steyer, the San Francisco hedge funder and Biden’s former presidential rival. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Laurene Powell Jobs are also reputedly helping Biden close his financial gap with Trump. And the Los Angeles Timesreports that previously recalcitrant California donors have grown increasingly alarmed with the president and are finally ponying up.
An attendee at tech billionaire Sean Parker’s wedding in Big Sur seven years ago told me that on a political level, the event was a spectacle, with then State Attorney General Kamala Harris and future Gov. Gavin Newsom competing for donor attention. Harris won, the story goes, presaging the arrangement with Newsom that Harris would go to Washington and Newsom would reign in Sacramento. Harris would also get the first bite at the presidency. Though a distant memory now, it’s significant that Obama included Harris, and not Biden, in the list of future party standard-bearers he offered the New Yorker’s David Remnick in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election.
To critics who complain that California, with its insane inequality, rampant homelessness, and politically correct culture, is a liability—the failed archetype of liberals’ vision for America— the Democratic Party could counter as Newsom does: California is a successful nation-state, “the fifth largest economy in the world, 40 million strong… as diverse a state as exists in this country.” They think they’re sitting pretty. And they probably are. And in this campaign, at this moment, so is Biden.
Expect a Kamala Harris selection come August.