NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I n normal times, the vice presidency is not supposed to be worth a warm bucket of, um, spit. But these are not normal times.
A global plague has shut down much of American society. The virus is particularly deadly to the elderly, and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee will turn 78 later this year. In November, voters will want more than anything a VP who is ready on a moment’s notice to lead the country out of a crisis. So the Democratic veepstakes is suddenly much more important than it otherwise would be.
Joe Biden has pledged to name a woman as his running mate, and he has indicated that he would very much like that woman to be an African American. Stacey Abrams checks both boxes, and she is auditioning for the job. But while she might excite the Democratic base, a failed gubernatorial candidate who has never held a public office more powerful than state legislator obviously has no chance of getting the nod during the present pandemic. Maybe the coronavirus will, against all odds, abate in the coming months. But it would be an act of political insanity for a geriatric presidential nominee to select a former state legislator as his running mate under the current circumstances.
If Biden wants his VP to be a black woman, then, he is left with only one real choice: Kamala Harris. While the California senator has three years of experience as a senator and six years more as her state’s attorney general, her presidential campaign was a disaster, doomed by vacillation and equivocation on important matters of policy. She proved herself capable of delivering scripted attacks during debates, but her most famous such attack came at Biden’s expense: She hit him on his past opposition to forced busing, practically calling him a racist. That would be difficult, to say the least, for her to explain away were Biden to choose her. It shouldn’t be an insurmountable obstacle, and she still makes sense on paper. But her primary performance failed to generate much enthusiasm among Democrats, and her indecisiveness made her seem unready to step up in a crisis.
What about Elizabeth Warren? If Biden wants ideological balance on the ticket, the senator from Massachusetts makes the most sense. But does he really need ideological balance?
For most of the left, Biden’s pledges to lower the Medicare-eligibility age to 60, establish a public option for health care, and defeat Donald Trump will be enough. Bernie Sanders’s most alienated, angry, hardcore supporters are not going to turn out because of Warren; they hate her just as much as they hate Biden. The greater number of 2016 Sanders voters who didn’t turn out for Hillary Clinton in key Midwestern states could be swayed by Warren, but my hunch is that they were turned off more by Clinton’s persona than her ideology, and it’s hard to see how Warren would connect with them on a cultural level. More importantly, Warren’s pledges to radically transform the nation’s economy could scare away the moderate suburbanites who powered Democrats’ successful 2018 effort to retake the House — and Biden really can’t afford to lose those voters in 2020.
All of which suggests that a relatively moderate woman from the Midwest would make much more sense as Biden’s VP.
Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer has gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks, but a fair amount of it has been negative. Whitmer only has one year of experience as governor, and voters may come to view Michigan’s especially stringent lockdown restrictions as arbitrary and excessive in the coming months. She seems like a long-shot for the second spot on the national ticket.
The darkhorse VP nominee from the Midwest is Tammy Baldwin, who has been a senator from the potentially decisive, perpetually polarized swing state of Wisconsin for the last seven years, and won re-election in 2018 by eleven points even as GOP governor Scott Walker lost his bid for a fourth term by just one point. The existence of Baldwin–Walker voters, plus the fact that Baldwin was the first openly gay women in Congress, must be attractive to Democrats. The major drawback is that Baldwin has never endured the national spotlight.
That leaves just one name: Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator who is still the leading contender for the job. She won’t scare away crucial suburban voters the way that Warren would and Harris might. She is serving her 14th year in the Senate, so she has experience, and having run for the presidency this cycle, she has survived the scrutiny of a national campaign.
There are other senators Biden could select, of course: Tammy Duckworth of Illinois is a veteran and a Purple Heart recipient. Catherine Cortez-Masto of Nevada makes a fair amount of sense if Biden decides his path to victory depends more on the Southwest than on Wisconsin.
But neither Duckworth, Cortez-Masto, nor Baldwin has been tested on a national stage the way Klobuchar was. The Minnesota senator was far from flawless during the primaries, and she had some (literally) shaky performances. But she also proved herself more than capable of knifing an earnest and smooth-talking Indiana politician on the debate stage when it counted, a skill that might come in handy this fall.
Biden has four months to make a final decision, but at the moment Klobuchar remains his most logical pick.