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Biden’s Choice

More so than any recent presidential nominee, Joe Biden's vice presidential choice will be the defining moment of his campaign. Here's the short list.
April 27, 2020
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Amidst Joe Biden’s many challenges—defeating an incumbent president, formulating a plan to rescue America from a global pandemic, reforming our healthcare system—one stands out: Selecting a running mate.

COVID-19 has raised the already high stakes. Given Biden’s age, his choice must be plausibly presidential. But he should also find someone who can help him accomplish the first step—winning—while avoiding a Palin-esque running mate who, when weighed against the presidency, threatens to become an electoral millstone.

This complex equation complicates guesswork. Still, Biden is beginning his selection process, and the torrent of early speculation inspires one to tempt fate. Besides, doesn’t his elimination of male candidates shrink the opportunities for folly?

So, at great risk of being dead wrong in public, here goes:

First, some competing and no doubt tendentious criteria.

For several reasons, Biden should heed the estimable James Clyburn by strongly considering a woman of color. Among Democrats, the swift exit of minority presidential candidates provoked considerable discontent: to many the prospect of an all-white ticket began feeling, well, retrograde. And a candidate who inspires more nostalgia than excitement could profit by making a breakthrough choice which speaks to the future.

Further, Biden owes his nomination to African-American voters, whose unalloyed enthusiasm could help buoy Democratic turnout in battleground states—enthusiasm Hillary Clinton lacked in 2016. Conversely, the primaries exposed his need to do much better among Hispanics. And whether black or Hispanic, a strong minority candidate might help with other Biden-averse constituencies: progressives and young people.

Even granting that Donald Trump is, in himself, a Democratic turnout machine, Biden will need to get every last base voter to the polls. But his selection should also appeal to—and certainly not alienate—the swing voters Democrats rallied in 2018: suburbanites, women, independents and alienated Republicans. Finding the right demographic and ideological balance while complementing Biden will be as difficult as it is essential.

No doubt Democrats would take Michelle Obama in a heartbeat. But the party has other strong contenders of color. And, in my subjective assessment, there is no non-–minority candidate whose overall strengths are so compelling that they impel her selection.

That said, a look at some leading candidates:

Gretchen Whitmer. The increasingly visible governor has one obvious credential: Michigan is crucial in November. Drawbacks? Little national experience. No real connection to progressives. The dubious optics of a first-term governor, beset by politicized fractiousness over her stringent lockdown, abandoning her post to seek higher office while the pandemic persists.

Amy Klobuchar. Granted, she’s Midwestern, an experienced legislator, and skilled in debate. But her appeal to independents and Republicans duplicates Biden’s. Having campaigned as a militant moderate, she has zero cachet with progressives. Among minorities, she flat-lined. She adds little which complements Biden but her popularity in a state, Minnesota, which is otherwise not a lock—although, in the end, Biden should win there.

Elizabeth Warren.Here’s a president-in-waiting: smart, principled, steeped in policy, and addicted to knowledge. She’s a strong debater and campaigner who would excite progressives—save for Sanders supporters so hard-core that they’re probably out of reach.

The problems?

She’s also in her 70s. She lacks a strong personal relationship with Biden: Their somewhat contentious history goes back to clashes over the 2005 bankruptcy bill. She decisively lost the primary in her own very blue state. Despite her best efforts, she did not register with minority voters. Nor is she catnip for swing voters in battleground states. One must hope that Warren gets the top-flight cabinet post she deserves.

Andrew Cuomo. I throw in this twitterverse fantasy just so I can quote John McEnroe’s trademark plaint to tennis umpires: You can’t be serious. He’s at once too moderate and too abrasive. Also: He’s a guy. For Biden to renege on his pledge to nominate a woman would be crazy.

Kamala Harris. She’s everyone’s default choice. So why does one instinctively squirm? Because she is so obviously that—a default choice—rather than someone who should become president.

Harris’s attributes remain those praised throughout her career. Whatever office she occupied, her combination of presence, personal appeal, and performative skills caused many to encourage her in seeking the next. Rising became her raison d’être; running for president exposed its limits.

She offered no compelling reason that she wanted to be president—she just did. Her oscillations on basic issues such as healthcare exposed a lack of interest or depth. Bereft of real commitment to policy, her candidacy became a tactical exercise in serial repositioning. Her campaign organization was a fractious mess.

What would she bring? Talent—as always. And Biden could hope that Harris resonates with suburban women.

As a practical politician Biden has no doubt discounted her contrived attack in an early debate, that made-for-TV moment when she feigned outrage over a long-buried issue—busing—on which they had little substantive difference. But he may wonder whose interests she would serve as vice-president.

Still, she’s Kamala Harris. That may suffice.

Stacey Abrams. She trails only Harris in the most-mentioned category, and enjoys deep popularity among blacks and progressives. She’s charismatic, a terrific speaker, and a genuine intellectual who holds a Master’s degree in Public Affairs, a law degree from Yale, and has authored numerous articles on pertinent issues in addition to—believe it or not—romance novels. Since her narrow defeat for governor of Georgia, she has maintained her visibility by advocating voting rights.

Still, her peak experience in office was as minority leader in Georgia’s House of Representatives. Given that Georgia Republicans have perfected the art of voter suppression, it seems unlikely that Abrams can help carry her state. And the contrast between Biden’s lifetime of high-level political experience and her relative lack of it might prove detrimental to both.

Catherine Cortez Masto. Like Harris, she’s a freshman senator who was her state’s attorney general. The current chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is deemed very effective by her peers—smart, focused, hard-working, collegial, and good to staff. While her closely-contested state, Nevada, has only six electoral votes, Cortez Masto could also help with Hispanics elsewhere.

Val Demings. The two-term Florida congresswoman has an appealing biography. She rose from poverty to earn a master’s degree, serve in law enforcement, and become Orlando’s first female chief-of-police. She has three kids, and a 32-year marriage to a former county sheriff and current mayor. She impressed during the House impeachment hearings, and as a manager in the Senate impeachment trial.

While Demings has never held statewide office, she might add some value in a pivotal state. The question is whether she’s sufficiently seasoned, politically and substantively, for voters nationwide to envision as president.

One of these women will likely become Biden’s choice; one might become president. Biden should not rush. He has much to consider: the least-known—Cortez Masto and Demings—may offer the most potential to make a small but critical electoral difference. This decision will test his sagacity, instincts and, above all, ability to judge capacity and character when it matters most.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.