Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. vice-president could be the most consequential in 60 years
Sometime around August 1, promises former U.S. vice-president and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, he will push aside all the advice from officious armchair campaign strategists to end the speculation and finally let us know whom he’s chosen as a running mate for the Nov. 3 elections.
Historically those with an interest in the job of vice-president have been quiet about it or at least publicly coy, but not this time. The public clamouring to get on the ticket this year gets livelier by the day.
It’s hard to pinpoint when it began. Maybe when Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was asked on MSNBC last month if she would accept an offer from Biden, and her reply was startlingly direct and economical: “Yes.”
Or maybe it was when Stacey Abrams, an up-and-comer who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Georgia two years ago, equally bluntly told a magazine she would be “honoured” to serve with Biden and added, “I would be an excellent running mate.”
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“Candidates like [Minnesota Senator] Amy Klobuchar will not energize us,” warned Alicia Garza, principal of Black Futures Lab, a political advocacy group for African Americans.
Klobuchar, meanwhile, seems to have kept her name in the game by allowing the leak that the Biden team is vetting her.
Such boldness is understandable. Biden’s pick could be the most consequential since Senator John F. Kennedy put Senator Lyndon B. Johnson on the Democratic ticket in 1960 — a campaign decision that ranks among the more far-reaching in American history.
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Charles Cook, of the independent Cook Political Report, says in his newsletter the Johnson pick was “arguably the last time a running mate made the difference in a key state,” the Texan helping Kennedy win electoral college votes in the South.
Largely because of how well the Johnson pick worked, every four years the conventional wisdom is that the VP pick matters in November — even if Kennedy could not have foretold the lasting impact of his choice.
He could not have known that his running mate would be at the centre of the socially and politically turbulent 1960s any more than he could have foreseen his own tragic death less than three years into his term.
He did not dwell on whether he was opening the path to a Johnson presidency, much less on what kind of president Johnson might be, we learn in biographer Robert Caro’s book Lyndon Johnson: Passage to Power.
For Biden it’s different. He seems to embrace the size of the moment, to consider the VP decision as one that should have significance beyond its political value on election day.
He promised in March that he’d choose a woman — meaning that if the ticket wins, she will be the first woman elected to the executive branch of the U.S. government.
You could see that as just a political calculation, but what’s more prophetic, perhaps, is Biden’s vagueness about whether he’ll even seek a second term if he wins a first. Some around him suggest he won’t because of his age: He’ll be 82 on inauguration day 2025.
That inflates the chance that the person on the ticket with him in November will become the Democratic nominee for president after Biden’s gone. Biden knows it, and so does everyone who wants to share the ticket with him.
VPs have approximately zero power; their constitutional importance comes from where they stand in the line of succession: first. As Americans euphemistically say, the VP is only “a heartbeat away from the presidency.”
But the unique perk of the office is that it confers a status that almost automatically puts its holder in the pole position for the nomination race in 2024, should Biden choose not to run again.
And, of course, that assumes Biden’s health doesn’t come into play before 2024, which could profoundly alter the course of everyone’s history, including the country’s.
Cook wrote this month that Biden’s pick “matters more in terms of where the party is heading over the next few years than in terms of who wins this year.”
And yet the punditry about whom Biden shouldchoose seems mostly framed by how the choice affects everything leading up to the election as opposed to everything that comes after.
Would an African American woman such as Abrams draw out the black vote? California Senator Kamala Harris, maybe? Or Val Demmings, a representative from Florida, a swing state with the third most electoral college votes — 29 — in the country.
Could the centrist midwesterner Klobuchar appeal to soft Trumpers?
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Would the lefty progressive Warren soothe the most bitter Bernie Sanders supporters still sulking because the senator from Vermont isn’t the nominee?
Political tactics drove Kennedy’s thinking in 1960, too.
In Caro’s colourful and comical account of the behind-the-scenes machinations between Kennedy and Johnson at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles that July, Kennedy secretly settled on Johnson over the noisy protests of progressives in the party because Kennedy reckoned — correctly, it seems — that Johnson’s most appealing qualification for the job was his Southern roots (Kennedy called him Cornpone behind his back).
But just more than three years later it was as president that Johnson began to steer through Congress a progressive agenda of civil rights bills, health and welfare laws, education legislation and so on — the Great Society — that has shaped the country for generations. He began an ambitious “war on poverty,” though will forever be remembered for leading America deeper into a divisive and bloody war in Vietnam from which it has yet to fully recover.
Biden lived through all that, saw the course of history rerouted in a moment by a rifle shot in Dallas. So now, vying to become the oldest president in U.S. history, he can’t help but see that his choice for the ticket — the biggest decision he’ll have made as the nominee — will not only define him as a candidate in November but will quite possibly define the next decade of the Democratic Party, and maybe the country.
More likely than most nominees, he could be choosing a president.