Magazine

OPINION | 2020

Biden’s Top 12 Running Mates, Ranked

He says he’s going to pick a woman. So which woman should it be?

Biden

Joe Biden’s unequivocal declaration that his running mate will be a woman began the 2020 veepstakes with a brutal cut. There will be no consolation prize for Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg or Julián Castro. There will be no unity ticket pairing Biden with Bernie Sanders. Mansplainers and manspreaders, you can go home. Joe has binders full of women.

Perhaps there has never been a more serious veepstakes than this one. Biden won’t say on the record that he would serve only one term as president, but he has given enough hints that many have assumed it. That makes his vice presidential choice the automatic frontrunner for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination and potentially the first female president of the United States. This is no time for your last-call, falling-off-your-bar-stool, so-crazy-it-just-might-work vice-presidential musings.

Already, some names Biden has casually thrown out are nonstarters. Senator Jeanne Shaheen is highly accomplished as a former governor of New Hampshire, but Biden should not team up with a fellow septuagenarian. Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates is a fun name to bat around, but getting fired by Donald Trump is not a qualification to be a COVID-19 diagnosis away from being commander in chief.

Beyond a plausible president, the 77-year-old Biden needs a running mate who can help him either win the critical Midwestern states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin or energize the more racially diverse generations of young voters, who could help not only in Midwest cities but also in swing states such as Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida.

Who can fit the bill? My rankings, on a scale from Sarah Palin to LBJ carrying Texas for JFK:

12. Stacey Abrams

She’s a rising Democratic star who may have gotten a raw deal in the 2018 gubernatorial election in Georgia. But the plain fact remains that the pinnacle of her government service is as a state House minority leader. That does not cross the “Ready on Day One” threshold.

Donald Trump’s election showed that experience doesn’t matter to many voters. But Biden is running as the candidate of reassurance. The prospect of a manifestly underqualified vice president serving under a president who is pushing 80 is the opposite of reassuring.

11. Elizabeth Warren

Warren did Biden two big favors in the primary. She incinerated Mike Bloomberg and she has declined to endorse Bernie Sanders. Perhaps Biden would have won South Carolina and Super Tuesday anyway, but Warren’s assistance certainly didn’t hurt. Should Biden return the favor, and help unite the party’s populist and pragmatist wings with a Warren pick?

Probably not. Warren has a lot of strong attributes, but being a deferential team player is not one of them. Besides, if Warren wants a job with real power that could clamp down on bad behavior from Wall Street, she should lobby for Treasury secretary or attorney general.

10. Susan Rice

Susan Rice may be the African American Democrat with the most national security experience in the country, having served for the entirety of Barack Obama’s administration, first as ambassador to the United Nations then as national security adviser. No one could seriously question her qualifications to assume the responsibilities of the presidency if necessary.

Yet Rice comes with the baggage of the Benghazi affair. Shortly after the 2012 attack on the U.S Consulate in Libya, which killed two American officials, Rice went on several TV shows and said the attack began as a “spontaneous reaction” to an anti-Islamic video, which was then joined by “extremist” elements. Rice was citing what was in the initial intelligence assessment, but Republicans accused her of covering up the role of terrorist organizations. (Later reporting concluded the attack was premeditated by members of a terrorist group, and there was no spontaneous protest, though some of the attackers were motivated by the video cited by Rice.)

Even if Rice can handle the rehashing of Benghazi, the last thing a presidential candidate wants from his vice presidential choice is an immediate distraction.

9. Laura Kelly

After just one year in office, the Democratic governor of Kansas has managed to strike an agreement with the Republican leader of the state Senate for a bill that takes advantage of the federal aid offered in Obamacare, expands Medicaid and covers an estimated 130,000 uninsured Kansans. There’s just one problem: The bill is stalled, short one vote in the state Senate needed to clear a procedural hurdle and get a floor vote.

Regardless of the final legislative outcome, Kelly would be a long-shot pick. She would almost certainly be unable to turn Kansas blue in a presidential election for the first time since 1964. She is not well-known enough in the Rust Belt to help flip Northern swing states. And as a technocratic moderate, she would not fire up younger progressives.

8. Gretchen Whitmer

People who want to put Michigan back in the Democratic column have an eye on the state’s new governor. On Monday, Whitmer told MSNBC, “It’s not going to be me.”

Even if it is her, Whitmer might not be in a position to help lock Michigan down. When Biden campaigned with her ahead of the Michigan primary, he brought back her 2018 campaign slogan, “Fix the Damn Roads.” However, her attempt to fund the fixing of those roads, a 45-cent gas tax hike, was rejected by the Republican-led state Legislature. She’s now issuing bonds to cover the cost of a less ambitious road repair program. A spotlight on Michigan’s partisan gridlock could complicate Biden’s efforts in the state. And a January poll pegged her job approval at a very soft 43 percent (although she was above water, with only 36 percent disapproving.)

7. Val Demings

The New York Times reported this month that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer privately floated the name of the African American congresswoman from Orlando, Fla. In her favor: national prominence after serving as a House impeachment manager, a law-and-order background from her 3½ years as Orlando police chief, an up-from-bootstraps biography as the daughter of a janitor and a maid, and potential vote-getting ability in the swingiest part of the swing state of Florida.

But Demings still looks like a stretch. Her political résumé is thin: She is in only her third year in the House. At 63, she may not be the best choice to rally young voters who are skeptical of Biden. And her tenure as police chief is not unblemished. When she first ran for Congress, National Journal reported that the Orlando Police Department “has a long record of excessive-force allegations,” and in 2009, she was censured “after her gun was stolen from her unlocked truck.”

6. Michelle Lujan Grisham

The New Mexican is the only Latina governor in the country. And Biden should like Lujan Grisham’s forceful enactment of a new red-flag law for gun control. When she signed the bill, she squared up to sheriffs who indicated they may not enforce the provisions. “If they really intend to do that,” she said, “they should resign as a law enforcement officer and leader in that community.”

The Trump campaign has been targeting New Mexico’s five electoral votes. Hillary Clinton won only 48 percent of the vote in New Mexico in 2016. If Trump is truly threatening to poach the state, would Lujan Grisham help protect it? Like Whitmer, her level of support at home is short of intimidating. A January Morning Consult poll found her job approval at just 44 percent.

5. Catherine Cortez Masto

While Lujan Grisham is the only Latina governor, Nevada’s Cortez Masto is the only Latina senator. She’s in the middle of her first term. Those who argue Biden is underperforming with Latino voters point to Cortez Masto as a fresh face who can help.

Though whether Biden needs that much help with Latinos is up for debate. Sanders ran away with the Latino vote in the Nevada caucuses and the California primary. But Biden won with Latinos in swingier Virginia and North Carolina. Plus, Biden stayed closer to Sanders among Latinos in Texas than in California and Nevada.

Furthermore, the low-key Cortez Masto has yet to make much of a national impression. That may not be a deal breaker, but if Biden is looking for a candidate who brings excitement, he should look elsewhere. Today’s Arizona primary should factor into Biden’s decision-making. The increasingly purple state is where the Latino vote might make the most difference for Democrats in November. If Biden’s performance with Latinos is limp on Tuesday, then he should give Cortez Masto and Lujan Grisham, both Arizona neighbors, close looks.

4. Tammy Duckworth

The Thai-American senator from Illinois has a gripping biography. While serving as a lieutenant colonel in the Iraq War, she was in a helicopter that was hit by a grenade. She was grievously wounded and had both of her legs amputated. Two years ago, at 50, she became the first senator to give birth while in office. She could easily become an inspirational figure as a vice presidential nominee.

However, her backstory isn’t perfect. During her bid for Senate in 2016, Duckworth settled an embarrassing lawsuit accusing her of workplace retaliation when she led Illinois’ Department of Veterans Affairs, a position she was appointed to by then-Governor Rod Blagojevich. Her legal team maintained it was a “nuisance” lawsuit that was settled for only $26,000. But Biden’s vetters should give the case a thorough scrubbing.

The moderate Duckworth could also attract barbs from the left. In the summer of 2018, she put some distance between herself and progressive sensation Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Asked on CNN whether Ocasio-Cortez represents the future of the Democratic Party, Duckworth snarked, “I think it's the future of the party in the Bronx.” She further argued, “I think that you can’t win the White House without the Midwest, and I don’t think you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest.”

Duckworth brings with her the hope that she can appeal both to older, moderates in Midwest swing states, as well as to younger votes who are eager for a woman of color in the White House. But if the ideological left can’t forgive her dismissal of Ocasio-Cortez, she’s not the right choice to help unify the party.

3. Tammy Baldwin

Baldwin is a two-term senator from Wisconsin who could help win back a state that’s been on a political knife’s edge. She is the first openly gay U.S. senator, which could excite liberal young voters. And she’s an economic populist, which may even impress devout supporters of Warren and Sanders.

Being white, Baldwin wouldn’t give the ticket a multicultural image, and that could deflate some younger voters. But perhaps the biggest downside is that her ascendance to the vice presidency would create a Senate vacancy that gets filled by a special election, not by an appointment by the state’s Democratic governor. And in politically polarized Wisconsin, there’s no guarantee a Democrat would win that election. With the next Senate almost certain to be narrowly divided, the loss of even one seat could spell the end of Biden’s presidential agenda.

2. Amy Klobuchar

If Biden really feels he needs help with flipping Midwest states, Amy Klobuchar is the safest pick. She raised her national profile by running for president. She held her own on the debate stage. She showed she had pull in Trump-curious Minnesota, helping throw the state to Biden. And Minnesota’s Democratic governor can appoint her Senate replacement.

Yet Klobuchar is not without risk. Allegations of staff mistreatment tainted the start of her campaign, though no one ever went on the record. Biden’s vetters should find out whether there are more shoes that could drop. And Klobuchar’s role, while district attorney, in imprisoning a black teenager on reportedly flimsy evidence could be used by Trump to try to weaken Biden’s support among black voters.

Progressive voices in the Democratic Party are already signaling they will react poorly to a Klobuchar pick. Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos tweeted Monday that Klobuchar “would be Tim Kaine 2.0—doing nothing to unify the party, bringing no new demographics to the ticket. It would be (once again) a disaster.”

But complaints on the left are an inevitable, and manageable, annoyance. Winning the Midwest takes precedence.

1. Kamala Harris

But there’s a twist. Biden should conclude, “I don’t need my vice presidential nominee to win the Midwest. I can win the Midwest all by myself!” Polls and primary results show he already has strong appeal to white, right-leaning, working-class and suburban swing voters.

Instead, Biden’s vice presidential nominee would be most useful politically by shoring up his support among culturally liberal young voters eager to elect a woman of color in 2024.

That’s why, of all the qualified women of color on the short list, the obvious choice was, and remains, Kamala Harris.

She doesn’t bring a state, but she wouldn’t cost the Democrats a Senate seat either. Besides, who was the last VP to flip a state? Maybe Walter Mondale in 1976. John Edwards couldn’t deliver North Carolina to John Kerry. Paul Ryan couldn’t deliver Wisconsin to Mitt Romney. Flipping home states may be a thing that doesn’t happen anymore.

She doesn’t bring the far left, who deride the former prosecutor as a “cop,” but those folks won’t be satisfied with anyone Biden chooses. And if they don’t live in swing states, Biden can let them go.

Harris, who is part of both the black community and the Indian American community—which Trump has been courting heavily—would excite plenty of young voters who can’t seem to get excited about electing another old white man. She’s a first-term senator who has not produced much successful legislation, but she is a road-tested orator who, over the course of the primary, was vetted by the media without surfacing any uncomfortable surprises. And she proved during the Democratic debates that she is effective at making direct attacks at her political opponents.

Some argue Harris did too poor a job in the primary to live up to her reputation as a dazzling campaigner. But she didn’t fail because of her stump skills. Where she struggled—as did all the candidates who weren’t men in their 70s with preexisting bases of support—was with carving out a distinct ideological profile. She wrongly calculated, in the initial stages of the campaign, that she needed to lean further left than she was comfortable doing. Toward the end of her bid, she let her inner pragmatist shine. She will have no problem echoing Biden’s themes.

A Biden-Harris ticket could aggressively pursue the Upper Midwest, the Southeast and the Southwest, from Maine to Montana, from Arizona to South Carolina. A thorough vetting process may discover problems that aren’t publicly known. And Biden will, at the end of the day, need to pick someone he feels will be a governing partner, not just a political asset. But the smart money is on Kamala, and no drama.