by Michael Liss
That Fifties-looking gent to your right is John J. Sparkman (D-Alabama) who was Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1952. Sparkman served in Congress for more than 40 years, the last 32 of them in the Senate. While not a star, he was associated with several pieces of important legislation and became Chair of the Senate Banking Committee and, late in his career, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was also a committed segregationist and, in 1956, signed the Southern Manifesto, in emphatic opposition to Brown vs. Board of Education.
Not the best look in what was then an evolving Democratic Party, and the party bosses who made the decisions in those days knew it. When it became time for Ike to crush Stevenson again, Sparkman was replaced by Tennessee’s more liberal Estes Kefauver, who did not sign the Southern Manifesto. Sparkman remained in the Senate, where he served for 23 more years.
This scary-looking guy to your left is John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who, during a truly extraordinary career that included being a Congressman, Senator, Secretary of State, and Secretary of War, also managed to sneak in two terms as Vice President under two very different Presidents, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. You are going to hear a lot over the next few weeks about “chemistry” between Joe Biden and his running mate. Suffice it to say that John C. Calhoun never had chemistry with anyone, except perhaps of the combustible kind. Mr. Jackson and Mr. Calhoun disagreed constantly, particularly on the enforcement of federal laws that South Carolina found not to its liking (including the juicily named “Tariff of Abominations”), which led Mr. Calhoun to resign the Vice Presidency during the Nullification Crisis in 1832.
I bring you these little worm-eaten chestnuts as an appetizer before today’s entrée, the coming vetting of either the next Vice President of the United States, or the next footnote to history. Sparkman’s and Calhoun’s experiences came to mind when it was announced that this is the week when Joe Biden’s team starts seriously thumbing through his binders of women. Since I have written kindly about Joe in the past, I thought he’d appreciate the input. Mr. Vice President, give me a call.
Who are these women? Here, in no particular order, are names that have been floated, bandied about, speculated on, trial-ballooned, and obsessed over: Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, Ambassador Susan Rice, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, Congresswoman Val Demings, Nevada Senator Katherine Cortes Masto, Wisconsin’s Senator Tammy Baldwin, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and primary opponents Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris. Biden has also said nice things about the two New Hampshire Senators, Jean Shaheen and Maggie Hassan.
All of them have strengths and weaknesses, but the most obvious past-is-prologue observation we can make is that even the best Vice Presidential choices are usually not difference-makers. It’s still about the top of the ticket, and Trump is still Trump, still selling a knowledge-free adrenaline-filled lifestyle brand to his still uber-loyal customers. Biden, on the other hand, is Mr. Kumbaya, a healer who also offers the radical idea that expertise and competence belong in the White House.
Of course, there won’t be any good vibes (or competence) unless Joe wins, and, in what is likely to be a brutal cage match with absolutely no rules, that is not going to be easy. Since he can’t out-glitz the Glitz King, he will look to improve his chances in a more conventional manner: Pick a running-mate who offers one or more of (a) youth and energy (please, no Tim Kaine duller-than-dull types), (b) can step into the Presidency if the need arises (and be a standard bearer in 2024), (c) offer a leg up with an important constituency, and (d) maybe (although history really doesn’t bear this out) give an advantage in a couple of critical states. Simple, right?
Trump himself did that (in a Trumpian way) in 2016. Having absolute confidence in his own abilities to run everything, he picked Mike Pence for his connection with the Evangelical community, and, more importantly, with megachurch pastors who were in the business of being faith leaders. Trump saw a demographic he could swallow whole, despite his sybaritic personal history. Pence was the vehicle able to put meat on Trump’s message, which basically came down to “I’m the sinner who is going to give you everything you’ve ever dreamed of.” Of all the promises Trump has made, this is the one he’s kept, probably because it’s the easiest—it takes nothing at all from him personally, and he gets his most loyal bloc. The Pence selection was a masterstroke.
Which of the potential Democratic nominees will produce the greatest marginal gain? That’s for Biden’s braintrust to figure out. But there is also a more subtle calculation that has to go on: With whom can Biden generate some chemistry? The ticket is not a marriage of equals. Presidents have vast power. Vice Presidents attend funerals and ribbon-cuttings, along with the occasional tie-breaking vote in the Senate. The Framers themselves placed so little importance on the position that, until the adoption of the 25th Amendment, there was no mechanism for replacing a Vice President, and no fewer than 16 vacancies went unfilled, several for years.
Because of this, the Vice-Presidential candidate must walk a tightrope between deference and establishing her own bona fides. Most successful pairings resolve this through the construct of ticket-balancing, giving both defined roles so they can play their parts without stepping on each other’s toes. Ike-Nixon and Reagan-Bush I (uniting both wings of the GOP), Bush II-Cheney and Obama-Biden (linking a younger, more charismatic candidate with age and experience) and JFK-LBJ (covering all the bases, including regional preferences and religious differences) are all good examples. The most notable exception to that is Clinton-Gore, but Clinton’s pick sent a calculated message that was right for the moment—after 12 years of conservative government led by senior citizens it was time for generational change. (I’ll never be able to get “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” out of my head.)
All of those tickets had one thing in common which won’t be applicable to Biden: The President was the star; the Vice President the character actor. JFK, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama were all generational political talents. Joe Biden is not. This could make him unusually vulnerable to the “Too Much Voltage at the Bottom of the Ticket” problem, when the voters pine for the Veep more than they do the person in the top spot. This happened to McCain with Palin (until she self-destructed), and to an extent with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, John Kerry and John Edwards, and even Bob Dole and Jack Kemp.
Enough of the appetizer, time to get to the meal.
The New Hampshire Contingent: Realistically, there is no chance that either Jean Shaheen or Maggie Hassan will be selected. Whatever their stature, their seats would be filled by the (loyal) Republican Governor, Chris Sununu. With the Senate possibly in play, and Mitch McConnell taking the institution to new lows on a regular basis, regaining the majority is essential. While it’s not impossible that Joe would risk a Senate seat for some nominees, I don’t think he will for either of them.
Val Demmings: Her star rose during the House Impeachment hearings, but I think she’s overhyped if people are putting her on the short list. She’s an African-American former police chief who will drive Trump’s base bonkers, but with only three years of experience at the national level, it’s hard to argue she’d be ready. I don’t know how you risk an unknown at a time like this.
Those were the easy ones, now it gets harder.
Susan Rice: My initial reaction was, “no chance,” given that her nomination would cause Senate Republicans to writhe with feigned indignation and restart the Show Trials on Benghazi (Part 83). But Rice is accomplished and credible (and African-American if Biden thinks that’s important). This is a serious person who is more than capable of handling the Presidency, but I still think it’s a long shot.
Michelle Lujan Grisham and Catherine Cortez Masto are really interesting choices. Both are Latinas, and selecting one would be an acknowledgment of the growing impact of the Latino vote, particularly in states like Florida, Texas, and Arizona. Beyond that, both are able, popular in their home states and credible candidates. I’d rate Masto a bit ahead of Grisham. She has state and national experience: two terms as Attorney General before her election to the Senate. Joe also might need her. Nevada could be a difficult place this year for Democrats, depending on how the COVID-19 situation plays out. The Governor, Steve Sisolak, is a Democrat, and he’s getting slammed for the economic drain from any stay-at-home orders in a state where leisure and gaming industries (and their enormously deep pockets) play such a big role. Grisham and Masto are my dark horses.
Stacey Abrams has some star appeal, she’s very smart, very assertive, could help motivate the African-American vote, and, theoretically could put Georgia in play. But her biggest drawbacks are that she’s never won any election beyond the state legislature, and she lacks higher-level experience. Competence is on the table after a chaotic first term of Trump, particularly in light of his COVID-19 response. Experience doesn’t confer competence, but lack of it might be seen as a fatal flaw. I’m going to go against the grain on this one and say no. At this moment in time, she’s not the right pick.
The Tammys, Duckworth and Baldwin. They have different profiles. Duckworth is from Illinois, and, if the Democrats have to fight for that state, then Trump is waltzing towards reelection. Duckworth’s personal story is compelling; Purple Heart winner (double amputee) and first incumbent Senator to give birth while in office, but she hasn’t really been a star electorally. I don’t know if she adds enough. Baldwin is interesting: Wisconsin is going to be a bloodbath, regardless of the nominee, and if she can help deliver it, that could be crucial. She’s also gay, and that creates an interesting dynamic in an election in which social issues are going to be one of the drivers of Trump’s base. I like Baldwin more than Duckworth: she’s more Progressive than Duckworth (and that might be important to Sanders and Warren supporters) and she also comes across with more gravitas. The risk to a Baldwin nomination is putting the Wisconsin Senate seat at risk in a special election (don’t forget, the other Wisconsin Senator is the thoroughly unappealing Ron Johnson).
Keep your eye on Gretchen Whitmer. Look at the treatment she’s getting—a sustained assault by Trump, by Trump-friendly bots, by right-wing media, by “throngs” of “spontaneous demonstrators” spontaneously funded by dark money and all being given almost leering coverage by Fox and other Trump-affiliated networks. Whitmer has lived a political life—she comes from a political family and spent 14 years in the state legislature before becoming Governor, so she’s used to the public eye. She’s telegenic; she’s smart; she’s tough; and she’s exactly the type of woman with whom Trump cannot cope. But she’s going to be put through a meat grinder the likes of which few people could manage, and she’s making some mistakes. I like her potential (and taking back Michigan would be a huge get for Biden), but she’s a high-risk, high-reward pick.
The Almosts: Warren, Klobuchar, and Harris
Intuitively, you would think that Presidential nominees would look to select a former rival, given that they’ve all been vetted. That’s actually not been true recently. Since 1960, only LBJ, Bush I and Edwards were actually runners-up, and only Biden himself was an early dropout. Some of this may have been because of a clash of egos, but Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report made an interesting observation that Warren, Klobuchar, and Harris, given their failures in the primaries, have already demonstrated their lack of firepower. Still, all three will get serious consideration.
Elizabeth Warren likely won’t be the nominee, although she may stay on the short list for some time. Not only is there a problem with the loss of her seat (Charlie Baker, a Republican, is Governor of Massachusetts), but she showed some troubling vulnerabilities in the later stages of her campaign. She seemed to have lost her bearings, and her spat with Bernie won’t help. She’s also a little vintage—spritely, but still in her 70s. She will be 75 in 2024, and one wonders whether America, after one angry septuagenarian followed by a kindly-but-somewhat dotty one, will really want a third, regardless of her vigor. Warren has another act left in her, but I’m not sure this is it.
Amy Klobuchar rings a lot of bells. She’s Midwest when Biden is going to need every possible advantage there. She’s got a hidden asset in her daughter, who is a terrific surrogate. She’s genuinely experienced (first elected to the Senate in 2006), and she’s good on her feet. She stayed in the race long enough to make an impression, but not so long as to feel stale, and she didn’t strafe Biden when she was in. I don’t necessarily think she’s a soaring political talent, but this is a safe, solid pick for Biden.
Kamala Harris: Also smart, tough, telegenic, with a real (if controversial) record of accomplishment. She did a very shrewd thing with her early exit, sparing herself a lot of fruitless bruising. She does have some issues—there are stories that her campaign was poorly managed, although that would seem to be less relevant in the Veep slot, and she took after Biden on the race issue in their first debate, which might make for some awkward questions. A lot of people think she has the best chance, but I have some concerns. I wonder if the chemistry will be right between them. Harris has a prosecutor’s demeanor that may not play off well against Biden’s gauzier appeal.
I want to close with a different thought. There are at least half a dozen women on this list who would make fine running mates and creditable Presidents. They aren’t the problem. Joe is, and not just because of his age, but because of his caution. Biden is offering a return to civic duty and communitarianism as a cure for what ails us, but where are the innovative ideas about improving people’s lives? There is a tremendous amount of talent in this country, just waiting to be used. Trump has no use for any of it. Joe Biden ought to. He and his running mate can be a conduit to that talent, and, in the process, transform his candidacy, and Presidency, from a mere caretaker to truly transitional.
The Presidency is a gift and an opportunity. It’s up to Biden and his running mate (and potential successor) to tell us what they intend to do with both. They need to start thinking about tomorrow.