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What Joe Biden Wants

Each of the main vice presidential contenders offers a different skill set. What Biden needs is someone to help him govern.

Mark Makela /Getty Images

After a weekend of oppo dumps and Twitter battles over the leading vice presidential possibilities, Joe Biden could well want to throw up his hands and tell someone else to choose his running mate.

It’s happened once before: In 1956, Adlai Stevenson let the delegates at the Democratic National Convention pick his running mate without so much as whispering his true preference to the party bosses who controlled the convention floor. As a result, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver edged a telegenic newcomer named John Kennedy for the VP slot on the second ballot, the last second ballot at a political convention in history.

Stevenson aside, for most of the twentieth century, Democratic vice presidents were chosen for a single reason: to balance the ticket, usually by pairing a Northern liberal with a Southerner. But the rules changed in 1992 when Bill Clinton tapped Al Gore—a young moderate senator from an adjoining state—partly because of his knowledge of foreign policy. As Elaine Kamarck, a former top Gore aide now at the Brookings Institution, argues in her new ebook, Picking the Vice President, “Every vice president since Al Gore has been chosen more for their ability to do his job than for the ability to balance the ticket.”

Biden was a major beneficiary of this trend in 2008. Barack Obama didn’t need help winning Biden’s tiny home state of Delaware nor did he need to appease the nonexistent Biden wing of the Democratic Party. But the Illinois senator, who had only just arrived in Washington in 2005, did need a vice president to help him govern, and Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, offered all the benefits of someone who had spent more than three decades in the Senate.

These days, almost all the handicapping of Biden’s VP pick represents an exercise in retro politics. Journalists have spent their time gaming out who would do the most to balance the ticket, suggesting that a dynamic Black woman or unabashedly left-wing Democrat like Elizabeth Warren could help unite the party and paper over any weaknesses Biden has as a candidate.

Most pundits also seem to assume that Biden is, in effect, choosing his successor, tapping not only a vice president but the probable Democratic presidential nominee in 2024. But the model of an ambitious politician using the vice presidency as a stepping stone to the White House is fast fading—the modern vice presidency has changed. Part of Dick Cheney’s vast war-making powers in George W. Bush’s first term flowed from his disinterest in ever running for president himself, so his crazed hawkish plotting seemed selfless. And, of course, Biden himself chose not to run in 2016.  In truth, given the temporarily papered-over ideological fissures in the Democratic Party and the scores of people (both men and women) with presidential ambitions, it seems probable that Biden’s VP would, at best, have a bumpy road to the 2024 nomination. 

What’s missing in this flurry of speculation is a sustained look at the vice presidential contenders from Biden’s perspective as a former VP. He is undoubtedly considering these candidates with a single overriding question in mind: Who can help me govern from the White House?

Even in normal times, a twenty-first century president can’t do it all. But with the pandemic, the economic collapse, America’s tattered international reputation, and the law-and-order thuggery Trump has unleashed from the White House, Biden would need a partner in governing. In a sense, his choice of a running mate depends on what areas of authority he wants to delegate to his VP. 

Let’s begin with those contenders who boast the credential that Biden prizes the most—Washington experience, especially a legislative background in Congress.  

Kamala Harris: No one on the lists of potential VPs arouses more passionate emotions, both pro and con. Harris brings years of experience with justice issues, dating back to her days as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general. Less well known, but potentially important to Biden, is the fact that Harris has familiarity with top-secret classified information as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. But since Harris began running for president almost as soon as she arrived in the Senate in 2017, she seems an unlikely engineer of Biden’s legislative strategy on Capitol Hill.

Elizabeth Warren: Were Warren the vice president, her obvious role would be to play a lead role in designing and advocating for Biden’s economic recovery plans. After almost eight years in the Senate, she is probably a more adept legislative tactician than Harris, and she has national security experience from her service on the Armed Services Committee. As a vice presidential candidate, she would also be able to speak eloquently about the pandemic’s toll, since her older brother died from the virus.

Tammy Duckworth: Having grown up in Asia (she lived in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge arrived), Duckworth has a wider international perspective than the typical senator. A war hero who lost both her legs as an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq, she is also particularly well versed in military policy. But given Biden’s extensive foreign policy experience, it is unclear how much help he would need in dealing with the Pentagon.

Karen Bass: Probably no one on the vice presidential lists is better equipped to serve as Biden’s emissary to Congress. Not only does Bass, who was first elected to the House in 2010, chair the Congressional Black Caucus, but she was also the speaker of the California State Assembly. She would appeal to Biden as the ultimate team player. As her House colleague Emanuel Cleaver told The Wall Street Journal, “She does not have the MacBethian ambition that damages or destroys many aspiring politicians.” One potential downside, however, is her history of naiveté about Fidel Castro’s Cuba, which might inhibit Biden’s ability to give her a major foreign policy role.

Val Demings: As the former police chief of Orlando, Florida, Demings would undoubtedly play a major role in framing Biden’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Demings also serves on the House Intelligence Committee, which gives her a window into national security matters. But it may be challenging for Demings to transcend her mixed record in Orlando, which The New York Times described as “one of the most violent police departments of its size in the United States.”

Susan Rice: Biden knows Rice well from her eight years as Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations and the president’s national security adviser. But does Biden, who in normal times probably fancied himself as a foreign policy president, need a foreign policy vice president? Only if Biden believes that he would need Rice to crisscross the globe while he deals with the many domestic crises he will inherit. An even bigger problem for Rice is that, having never run for public office, she lacks the glad-handing political skills that Biden prizes.

Michelle Lujan Grisham: Among the least well known of the VP contenders, Grisham is a twofer—she has experience in Congress and in controlling the pandemic: As governor of New Mexico, she has dealt capably with the virus. As the only Latina on the VP list, it is puzzling why Grisham has not prompted more attention, especially since she also served as her state’s health commissioner.

The other leading contenders for vice president seemingly lack what Biden sees as the most essential ingredient of all—the background and ability to become president on Day One. 

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, another effective leader in battling Covid-19, only took office last year after a nearly two-decade career in the state legislature. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was impressive when the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in her city turned violent, has no experience beyond city politics. As for Stacey Abrams, despite her role as an inspirational figure who may have had the Georgia governorship stolen from her in 2018, her entire career has been in the state legislature. 

Perhaps one of these women will prove so impressive in her interview with Biden that he would consider expanding his criteria for a running mate. If that were to happen, I would put my money on a true long shot, two-term Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, a former Rhodes Scholar. Not only did Raimondo herself design the contact tracing app that her state is using for Covid-19, but she also has economic experience confronting her state’s pension crisis. Less seriously, it might also appeal to Biden to choose as his running mate the governor of the only state smaller than Delaware. 

None of this is designed to be conclusive, since all vice president speculation is akin to handicapping an election with just one voter. But if Biden, as I suspect, is looking for a partner in governing, these background details may be more influential than the latest VP rumblings on cable TV.