Joe Biden is getting a lot of unsolicited advice about a running mate. Here’s mine: Find yourself another Joe Biden.
When Barack Obama was cruising to the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2008, he chose someone who buttressed his political weakness. Obama’s overriding political weakness wasn’t hard to pinpoint: He was a mixed-race intellectual whose father was from Kenya.
She can make manifest what’s at stake in this election, especially to those underwhelmed by the prospect of another old white guy in the Oval Office
In the midst of economic collapse presided over by a Republican incumbent, any generic Democrat was poised to win in 2008. But there was nothing generic about Obama.
Enter Regular Joe. Obama aides have said that the final veep choice came down to Indiana Senator Evan Bayh or Biden. Bayh was white, Midwestern, cautious, reserved, moderate. Regular Joe was better.
Comfort with Biden
Obama’s evident comfort with Biden, and Biden’s with Obama, helped white voters find their own comfort with an unprecedented nominee. Bayh, a senator’s son, lacked the middle-class emoting gene, and hard-times sheen, that Biden has in abundance.
Biden’s more hazily defined weaknesses will come into better focus after Republicans work through their arsenal and find a few attacks that stick, more or less. He starts out with not-so-great favourable/unfavourable ratings — typically net negative by a couple points.
Meantime, Republicans are already attacking his age, 77, and in the primaries young Democratic voters invariably preferred other candidates.
Despite Biden’s support among older black voters, Republicans are likely to repeat their 2016 efforts to suppress black voter turnout; a black vote surge is far from guaranteed.
Finally, Biden has a wobbly left flank, the residue of rekindled left-wing ambition and Senator Bernie Sanders’ persistent campaign against the party whose nomination he sought.
Which women — Biden has committed to pick a woman — help here?
Senator Elizabeth Warren might help close the enthusiasm gap on the left, and would make a vice president for the ages. But she soon turns 71, and would thus elevate the age issue and raise uncomfortable questions about the future.
A double-septuagenarian ticket might be pushing its luck. (President Donald Trump turns 74 next month, while Vice President Mike Pence turns 61.)
Younger white contenders, such as 60-year-old Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota or 48-year-old Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, are often pitched as regional firepower to win the upper Midwest. Maybe. Each is popular in her home state. But neither provides the kind of cultural outreach that Biden provided for Obama.
They reinforce his strength with white moderates rather than buttressing his vulnerabilities. And in the upper US Midwest, victory may well come down to black turnout in such places as Milwaukee and Detroit.
Senator Kamala Harris of California and former Georgia legislator Stacey Abrams are more appealing in that vein. But Abrams, who was minority leader in the state House of Representatives, doesn’t meet the credential test.
On a strictly comparative basis, of course, that statement is absurd. The incumbent president shows no interest in the workings of government or issues of public policy, and never will.
But Biden’s age makes the credentials of his No. 2 more salient, and women typically need more credentials than men to meet a given (manufactured) political threshold. Abrams, who has never held statewide office, falls short.
The No. 2 slot
That leaves Harris, who was California’s attorney general before her current position. Harris’s presidential campaign was hugely disappointing. She seemed ideally suited to the Democratic electorate, but never won it over. The No. 2 slot entails different opportunities and demands, however.
The daughter of immigrants, a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, Harris is a youthful and energetic 55 (if not quite as youthful and energetic as Warren’s 70). Some progressives don’t like her record as a prosecutor.
Another former state attorney general turned senator, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, is also reportedly under consideration. But if Trump’s non-stop scapegoating of Mexican and Central American immigrants is not sufficient to turn out Hispanic voters, it’s hard to believe a vice presidential candidate can do much more.
Meanwhile, Harris would elevate black women from the foundation of the party to one step short of its pinnacle. She’s also a sharp inquisitor who will likely be an effective attacker on the (presumably digital) campaign trail.
Biden leads a largely unified party whose members widely consider his opponent a borderline sociopath who threatens democracy — not to mention prosperity, decency and human life. Under the circumstances, any sensible vice presidential pick will do.
But Trump will be waging a culture war that, by November, will be but a few steps shy of civil war. Harris will have cultural resonance in the parts of America — immigrant, brown, black, female — that will be under sharpest attack.
She can make manifest what’s at stake in this election, especially to those underwhelmed by the prospect of another old white guy in the Oval Office.
Harris’s face is the future of the Democratic Party, and of the nation, just as Biden is the face of receding power. She complements and strengthens him. She can be Biden’s Biden.
Francis Wilkinson is a columnist. He was executive editor of the Week