American politics has its norms and polite fictions. Presidential candidates are not supposed to admit that they are running for president until they are ready to formally launch, a tradition that has led dozens of candidates to flatly lie about their intentions. Vice presidential prospects are not supposed to openly stump to be considered, in part because it is seen as somewhat beneath the dignity of senators, governors, and recently defeated presidential contenders to admit wanting a second-banana job, partly out of concern for upstaging the nominee.
Stacey Abrams, the unsuccessful 2018 Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia, has clearly decided to ignore that norm and openly campaign for the job. Abrams tells Elle:
Stacey Abrams does not give the expected answer when I ask if she would accept an offer from former vice president Joe Biden to serve as his 2020 running mate. “Yes. I would be honored,” Abrams says. “I would be an excellent running mate. I have the capacity to attract voters by motivating typically ignored communities. I have a strong history of executive and management experience in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. I’ve spent 25 years in independent study of foreign policy. I am ready to help advance an agenda of restoring America’s place in the world. If I am selected, I am prepared and excited to serve.”
She told the Obama-alumni Pod Save America podcast much the same. It’s an interesting strategy. Joe Biden has already broken with convention by declaring that he will consider only women as his running mate, which accentuates the incentive for prospective candidates to vie for his attention. Biden currently leads in national polls, has visibly aged over the past four years, and would be 82 years old by the end of his term if elected, so the position of his heir apparent is an unusually valuable one. Black voters were hugely important to Biden’s nomination, and their turnout in 2020 will be one of the important determinants in the election. There are only about a half-dozen black female Democratic elected officials in American politics prominent enough that they might be seriously considered for the job. Abrams is a cause célèbre with progressives, who buy her mathematically-challenged claim to have been robbed in 2018, and creating a groundswell for her could put pressure on Biden, already widely seen as a malleable figure.
Whether or not Abrams would be a good pick — Americans may be hesitant to see a presidential nominee of Biden’s advanced age choose a running mate who has never served in an office higher than the state legislature — she has not been hesitant to break norms before. She has openly and repeatedly refused to accept the legitimacy of her election loss, despite the convention of losers not trying to tear down the democratic legitimacy of American elections to avoid admitting defeat. She entertained a long, public musing on whether she might run for president or the Senate in Georgia in 2020. Perhaps she has less concern about dignity than someone actually serving in statewide office, and more about forcing the national conversation to take her more seriously than her record would justify.
In any event, norms have been broken before. Until Stephen Douglas in 1860, American presidential candidates did not stump for themselves. Until Harlan Fiske Stone in 1925, Supreme Court nominees did not appear to testify before Congress. Donald Trump broke another norm on the Supreme Court selection process by running in 2016 on a public list of potential nominees. It is not clear that the norm against touting yourself as a VP candidate actually serves any purpose. If Abrams’s gambit succeeds, expect imitators.