As Joe Biden begins his search for a running mate, it seems everyone has an opinion about what kind of woman he should pick. But the kibitzers may be talking past him.
They argue his vice president should be an African American. Or a Midwesterner. A leftist. Someone with the youth and pizzazz Biden lacks.
Biden, however, has made it clear that he’s starting with more basic concerns: He wants a running mate who is ready to step into the role of president on a moment’s notice. He wants someone who is “simpatico,” someone he is comfortable with.
He is, in short, thinking more about whom he’d like to run the country with than about the short-term political benefits of a running mate’s race, ideology or regional ties.
Even so, with so much on the line in 2020, and the prospect of a close election with President Trump, Biden is being buffeted by conflicting pressures.
Some progressives and black supporters worry that Biden will make a cautious choice on par with Hillary Clinton’s decision in 2016 to pick a low-key, moderate, white running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who critics believed added little political energy to the ticket. Biden has already made one bold political leap by announcing during the final debate of the primary season that he will pick a woman for the No. 2 slot.
His campaign is expected to launch its formal process for vetting candidates soon, perhaps as early as this week. He is assembling a team to investigate potential candidates’ personal, financial and political backgrounds — a closet-rummaging exercise to avoid surprise skeletons.
Meanwhile, there is an under-the-radar competition among potential candidates and their backers and a lively political parlor game of sizing up the prospects.
A ripple of excitement spread among California Sen. Kamala Harris’ supporters when, during a joint “virtual” fundraising appearance, Biden hinted at a partnership between them: “I’m coming after you, kid.”
Stacey Abrams, the Georgia Democrat who nearly won her 2018 bid to be that state’s governor, has boldly touted what an “excellent running mate” she would be.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s fans were thrilled when former President Obama lavished praise on her on Twitter, hoping that meant he was promoting her as Biden’s running mate.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer looked as though she was invited to audition when she was a guest on Biden’s new podcast.
Biden has been talking for months — since long before he was the presumptive nominee — about what he is looking for in a running mate and name-dropping people he considered qualified for the job.
Biden’s own experience of being selected by Obama looms large.
“Joe Biden is familiar with the process of selecting a vice presidential candidate, having been on the opposite end of the process in 2008,” said a Biden campaign official who declined to offer any details of the vetting process.
Obama picked Biden over other finalists — including Kaine and then-Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana — believing he would provide a reassuring complement to a relatively inexperienced man seeking to be the first black president.
“A young black guy with no foreign policy experience had to pick an old white guy with foreign policy experience,” said Jim Messina, a former Obama advisor.
Biden says he, like Obama, is looking for a running mate who will complement his own strengths and weaknesses — starting with age.
“I’m an old guy,” Biden, who is 77, said in January while campaigning in Iowa. “People are going to look and say, ‘Is the person that Biden picks capable, if God forbid something happened to Biden, that they would be able to take over immediately?’”
He is also under pressure to bring racial diversity to the ticket. Many Democrats — including influential backers such as Reps. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina and John Lewis of Georgia — say they want him to name a black woman both because African Americans were so important to Biden’s come-from-behind primary victory and because high turnout among black voters will be key to victory in the fall.
If he does not, they warn, Biden may be seen as taking black voters for granted. In 2016, a drop in black turnout contributed to Clinton’s loss to Trump, especially in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Some former Clinton aides say she missed a big, potentially crucial opportunity when she chose Kaine to be her running mate over another finalist, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, an African American who many advisors thought could bring more excitement to the ticket and might have inspired higher turnout.
Steve Phillips, host of the podcast “Democracy in Color” and co-founder of an advocacy group by the same name, said he worries that Biden’s advisors are overconfident about black support in the general election.
“Hillary Clinton felt the same thing, and black turnout fell off the cliff,” Phillips said. “Are they going to learn from the lessons of 2016?”
A survey of members of She the People, a political group of women of color, found a majority backed Abrams to be Biden’s running mate, with Harris coming in second, said Aimee Allison, the group’s founder.
Biden met with Abrams last year and has praised her, but Abrams’ lack of national experience may be a liability, especially in the post-pandemic political environment. Harris is less favored by progressives than Abrams but has also drawn praise from Biden and has the advantage of having been vetted during her presidential bid.
Other Democrats believe that picking a Midwesterner such as Whitmer or Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota would help win the battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Academic studies have found, however, that a running mate’s importance in delivering a state has been vastly overstated. Democrats probably would have won Virginia in 2016 even without Kaine on the ticket. The last time a vice presidential candidate had a major electoral effect was in 1960, when Lyndon B. Johnson helped John F. Kennedy win Texas in one of the 20th century’s closest presidential contests.
Still, Klobuchar, who campaigned for Biden after she dropped out of the presidential race, got credit for helping him win the primary in Minnesota.
“We won because of Amy Klobuchar,” Biden said.
Whitmer’s political stock has risen for reasons other than her Michigan roots: She is on the front lines of the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic in a state that has been hit hard by the coronavirus. That gives her hands-on skills in managing the crisis which is at the forefront of voters’ concerns. It has also given her the dubious political distinction of drawing Trump’s ire on Twitter and protests in her state capital by Trump supporters who were opposed to some of her policies to enforce social distancing.
With the coronavirus sure to eclipse all other issues for the foreseeable future, managerial expertise may become the most sought-after quality.
“The normal political judgment calls about how to balance the ticket are eclipsed by simple effectiveness,” said Randi Weingarten, a Warren supporter who is president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Chris Kofinis, a Democratic political strategist, argues that voters’ yearning for managerial competence is what has made New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus briefings must-watch television across the country.
“All the talk about Cuomo is not about Cuomo,” Kofinis said. “What people are saying is, ‘Here’s an executive who has actually taken charge and done something.’”
Another governor said to be under consideration by Biden is New Mexico’s Michelle Lujan Grisham, who could also help Biden step up his game among Latino voters — a weak spot for him in some primary elections.
Progressive Democrats are urging Biden to tack to the left and pick a running mate such as Warren, Abrams or Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin in a bid to win over Bernie Sanders’ supporters.
The Vermont senator, in a recent interview on PBS, said, “The more progressive the vice presidential candidate that he nominated, the better it would be in terms of the kind of response that our supporters would provide him.”
Warren boosters are encouraged by Biden’s having adopted several economic policies she advanced.
Warren has been more subtle than Abrams about her interest in being vice president. Asked on MSNBC if she would accept the position if he offered, Warren said only, “Yes.”
One potential obstacle to Warren’s selection: If Biden and she won, her Senate seat would be filled by Massachusetts’ GOP governor, who would probably install a Republican — at least until a special election was held.
Some progressive Democrats say Biden’s choice is important not just for motivating voters in the current election but also to tee up the next generation of party leadership.
“There is a feeling that one of the things that has to come from this nomination is a vision for the future of the Democratic Party,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America, a liberal group that endorsed Sanders.
“If he’s not going to change his position on Medicare for all, picking a progressive as his No. 2 could change minds about Biden’s vision of the future of the party.”