Joe Biden’s stealth campaign for President is a bit like the Loch Ness Monster: it rarely appears, is hardly ever captured on film, and when it does rise above the surface, it looks genial and unthreatening… nothing monstrous at all.
Sure, we love Joe Biden, and we will work, donate, and do everything in our power to help him defeat the big stupid orange.
But – true confessions – as we watch him at the helm of his “run silent, run deep” campaign, we may be feeling a whiff of Biden remorse. C’mon, Joe! Time to step it up!!
Indeed, we all remember Biden when he was a younger man, back when everything in America was so different from today. I’m talking February. Then, so long ago, a trailing, frantic, and frenetic Joe Biden would rush headlong into paragraphs, defying grammarians to diagram sentences that cartwheeled across time zones, topics, and tenses. It could get crazy, but it was high-energy Joe.
Now that he is the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party, Joe Biden has reverted to his comfort zone: low-T, uncomfortable stirring controversy, wanting to please everybody, not looking to pick a fight. He has failed to take decisive, aggressive stands that bluntly label Trump’s handling of the coronavirus for the de facto American genocide that it is. He is not actively demanding to be heard as the leader of the opposition. And he still the captain of the good ship Gaffe Spree.
The other day Biden told radio talk show host Charlamagne Tha God that “If you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't black.” Now, I am pretty sure that I know what Biden was trying to say, and I think I even agree with what Biden was trying to say, but anytime an old white guy starts telling African American people when they are and are not behaving in an authentic manner, you cringe viscerally as you watch Instagram light up in real time.
C’mon, Joe! Get it together! We need a big dose of Presidential gravitas, and we want it now.
How about showing us some in how you solve your V.P. selection dilemma, which is slowly beginning to boil as rumors are rampant, one-time favorites recede, and long-shots emerge.
The V.P. selection process is often characterized as the most important decision a Presidential candidate makes. A bad choice can severely damage a candidacy, as happened when John McCain selected Sarah Palin, but a perfectly “good” choice (put Paul Ryan, Tim Kaine, and Jack Kemp in this bucket) does not necessarily help. As such, one would assume that there is a sort of Hippocratic Oath operating, in which the goal should simply be to “do no harm.”
All the more so when you realize that there is never a “perfect candidate” for the V.P. slot, a single person who can simultaneously turn the tide in a big battleground state, aggressively play the role of attack dog so the candidate can sail above the fray, and precisely and sincerely echo the candidate’s every policy goal and philosophical belief. It never happens that way. There is always a compromise to be made.
But this year – simply because of the growing internecine conflict in the Democratic Party – the V.P. choice may be thornier, and riskier, than most. There is substantial pressure coming at Biden from a variety of Democratic constituencies, and it is all real and very consequential. It is the irony of ironies: Biden’s party of unification is splintered among competing interests, while Trump’s party of division is unified.
The party’s progressive wing is once again disappointed and disenfranchised, as neither Bernie Sanders nor Elizabeth Warren earned the party’s nomination. Indeed, they may have noticed that the party raced to consolidate around Joe Biden precisely to deny Bernie the nomination. Some vocal progressives seem to believe that if you represent 35% of the party for two consecutive Presidential cycles, you somehow deserve 70% of the say in who wins. Biden would love to find a way to entice the progressives to his candidacy, and giving the V.P. nod to Elizabeth Warren would seem to be a nifty way to build that bridge.
However, the party’s African American constituency can fairly tell Joe Biden that without James Clyburn’s endorsement and South Carolina’s African American vote, there is no Joe Biden in 2020. Biden owes his nomination entirely to the seismic momentum shift triggered by Clyburn, and many have made clear to Biden that he should nominate an African American as his V.P.
Of course, Biden has already publicly committed to picking a woman as his V.P. While the party has a vast wealth of talented female stars to choose from, Biden’s pledge inherently limits his options.
Still more to chew on: in the age of the coronavirus (which, if you can believe it, came after South Carolina), Biden must carefully consider that his V.P. choice must be fully ready to step into the Presidency if need be. A 76-year-old candidate in the midst of a global pandemic that is particularly toxic for elderly people must be able to look the voters in the eyes and promise that his running mate is ready to be president on the first day of the administration. This has raised the stakes on the level of government experience that will be expected in Biden’s choice.
This last point happens, by the way, to conform to Biden’s own vision of the ideal Vice President, as incarnated by, well, Joe Biden. As V.P. to a young Barack Obama, Biden felt that he added enormous value by virtue of his experience, his network, and his power and influence in Congress. That is Biden’s model for a terrific V.P., and that concept will weigh significantly in his choice.
An added element of intrigue: shortly after Biden secured the nomination, he commented that he envisioned that he would be a “transition candidate," leading to extensive tea-leaf reading exercises in the political press. Did this mean that he would only serve one term? Did it mean that he intended to choose a significantly younger Vice President who would be specifically groomed for the Presidency? In either case, the message appeared to be adding yet another criteria – that his selection for Vice President would represent a true generational change.
As long as we are adding to the specifications, here’s one we hope Joe Biden considers: he needs a V.P. candidate who has the DNA of a velociraptor, someone who savors the role of ripping the opponent to shreds. Indeed, one reason Joe Biden is the candidate is precisely because he lacks a true aggressor’s verve and comfort with a switchblade. He is a nice human being who everyone genuinely likes. This means that he needs a world class attacker on his flank – someone who relishes the job of tearing Donald Trump limb from limb on any and every television camera that is plugged in to a working outlet. I’m thinking bad, bad Leroy Brown meets Rambo First Blood with a dash of Michael Corleone’s chilling disposal of Fredo. The Dems need someone on the ticket who has the guts, fire, and knowledge to prosecute the argument that Donald Trump is not simply the worst President ever, but one of the most toxic, inept, and unqualified fools ever to lead a modern democracy.
Let's not forget the increasingly important matter of personal chemistry. Once upon a time, the Vice President was largely a hood ornament, a purely tactical selection to help win an election, never to be heard from again. But ever since Bill Clinton chose Al Gore, the notion of a close working relationship between President and Vice President has been on the ascent. Joe Biden – who insisted on a real partnership with Barack Obama on all aspects of his Presidency – will care enormously about having a strong personal chemistry with his Vice President.
Finally, there’s a very knotty problem that generally escapes broad scrutiny. Two of the leading candidates for the Vice-Presidency – Warren and Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar – are sitting Senators. If either were to resign to become V.P., it would put a safely Democratic Senate seat at risk at a moment in time when the Democrats are straining, struggling, and desperately stretching to eke out a majority in the Senate, thereby ending the death grip that Mitch McConnell wields over any and every action in the Senate. It is an absolutely crucial issue.
Warren represents a state with a Republican governor. This means that if Warren resigns her Senate seat to become Vice President, the Republican governor has the power to – and most certainly will -- name a Republican to take her place. Dems then have to hope they would win the seat back in a special election. So you think that’s a pretty safe assumption in deep blue Massachusetts? I have two words for you: Scott Brown. In a year in which Democrats must fight tooth and nail to achieve the tiniest sliver of a majority in the Senate, taking a risk by abdicating an existing seat seems exceedingly dangerous.
So there you have it. All Biden needs to do is find a young but deeply experienced African American woman with world class bona fides among progressives with whom Joe Biden feels a strong professional chemistry, and who is not a sitting senator in a state with a Republican Governor.
Woah. Suddenly, that’s a very tall order indeed.
Still, even with these stringent requirements, there are candidates that jump to mind.
Those of you who favor Kamala Harris have plenty of company. She’d be an excellent choice. There are rumors, however, that Jill Biden remains angry at the way Harris kneecapped her husband in an early debate with an orchestrated cheap shot about Biden’s record on busing 45 years ago. (Remember what we said about the importance Biden places on chemistry!) Others would be quick to point out that Harris herself was not a particularly effective candidate, as she was forced to drop out quite early in the race despite bringing major credentials, national standing, a powerful personal narrative, and California’s vast fundraising potential to the task. Final note: the Democrats own California. It is not like Kamala Harris is going to tilt a purple state blue.
Ah, not so easy, is it?
Stacey Abrams is a dynamic, charismatic African American woman from a purple state, but her highest level of government service was her six years as minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives. Tough to characterize that as ready to step into the Oval Office on day one.
It is at this point that people often jump in and say, “Come on! The V.P. candidate does not have to be an African American – I mean, it’s not like the African American community is ever going to vote for Trump!” That argument completely misses the point. The issue is about voter turn-out. In each of the presidential elections of the 21st century other than 2008, roughly 55% of U.S. adults actually vote. In 2008, when Barack Obama’s nomination inspired African American turn-out, that number soared to 58%. There are millions of votes in that 3% -- and that is why is it absolutely vital that the African American population feels heard, respected, and excited by the Biden candidacy. It’s not that African Americans would vote for Trump… it is that they might not bother to vote at all.
Still, though, some may think 3% added voter turn-out is not that big a deal. Think again, about this: sprinkle in just 3% more Democratic voters in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and today Donald Trump would be back in reality television, only this time as star of “the biggest loser.”
Recently, V.P. speculation has shifted to Senator Elizabeth Warren, who could serve as a powerful bridge to the party’s progressive wing, which is estimated to comprise about a third of the Democratic voters… and is a group that feels alienated by a party that has twice rejected their champion, Bernie Sanders. There is a lot to love about Warren, but that means no African American on the ticket, and what may well be the oldest combined age for a major party ticket in American history. Then there is the matter of allowing the Massachusetts Senate seat to go Republican – a huge risk. But if Biden wants a razor sharp, search-and-destroy Rambo as his running mate, there is simply no better choice in the country. If you have any doubts, go take a look at the tread marks all over Michael Bloomberg.
Amy Klobuchar? Appealing, endearing, and she improved as a candidate every day she was on the stump. But the Minnesota Senator is sort of Elizabeth Warren lite – many of the same issues without the offsetting strengths. Yes, she is appealing in the “heartland” states that the Democrats must win back, but popularity in the Rust Belt is supposedly Joe Biden’s wheelhouse. It’s not clear how Klobuchar adds that much to the ticket. Of greatest concern in choosing Klobuchar for any role in the Biden administration: if the Dems give up her Senate seat, there’s absolutely no certainty they will keep it in purple Minnesota.
There are several governors in the mix – notably Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Michelle Grisham of New Mexico -- but the general thinking is that it would be a mistake to take an effective Democratic Governor off the front lines in the midst of the coronavirus.
There are a number of other elected officials on the list, but we are going to cut to the chase: nobody is perfect. Nobody checks all the boxes. No matter who Biden picks, the story is going to be about the constituency that was ignored. Pick Harris, and the progressives will feel ignored yet again. Pick Warren, and the African American community could feel that their vital importance to the Democratic party is being undervalued. Pick someone who is not embraced by either constituency, and the concern about Democratic voter turn out reaches Def Con One.
How’s this, Joe: pick everybody.
Joe, it’s the first rule of debating: if you don’t have a good answer to the question, change the question.
Yes, pick everyone. Joe Biden, don’t just announce your pick for V.P. Start by announcing your choices for Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Attorney General, and Secretary of Health and Human Services. Pick your whole cabinet if you can.
Make an announcement that the nation is in such a disastrous health and economic crisis that you want your team to begin developing solutions now so that you can hit the ground running.
Show that you are going to govern with a team of big name all-stars, not the meek, crooked sycophants who populate Donald Trump’s White House.
Perhaps you start by holding a major press conference to declare that African-American Susan Rice will be your Secretary of State.
A week later, announce that Pete Buttigieg will become the first openly gay cabinet officer as Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Perhaps declare that Texan Julian Castro will be your Secretary of Energy.
Tell the world that you have asked Kamala Harris to be the first female African American Attorney General of the United States, to fill the enormous job of repairing the DoJ after the depravity and disgrace of William Barr.
Hey, Joe, while you are at it, pick a Republican – perhaps Jeff Flake, or Ohio governor Mike DeWine – to take a role in your administration. (Even better, though a tad disingenuous: offer a big post to a Republican Senator from a state with a Democratic Governor!)
Keep going. The more positions you can announce, the more it is clear that you will be governing with the best that a new generation has to offer, drawn from every part of the country, every constituency, and every area of expertise and competence you can bring to bear on repairing our country and our soul after four years of Donald Trump.
Every week, fill out your team as the convention approaches. Each new announcement brings attention and momentum.
Then, and only then, announce your candidate for Vice President.
Maybe you want to roll the dice with Elizabeth Warren’s Senate seat because you feel she would be the perfect Vice President in your administration. Maybe you don’t take that chance, and name Kamala Harris as your Vice President, knowing that Democratic Governor Gavin Newson and massively blue California will keep the Senate seat Democratic.
By then, you’ve already set the table. Lincoln had his team of rivals. You’ve put forward your team of All-Stars.
To be clear: this proposal is not about who fills specific positions. Using the exact same logic, you can lay out a completely different org chart that has big name stars in every cabinet post, coming together to powerfully represent the diversity, opportunity, and equality that the Democratic Party stands for. Need some names? John Kerry. Andrew Yang. Deval Patrick. Beto O’Rourke. Michael Bloomberg. Tom Steyer. Michelle Obama. All are ready to go, without putting a single Senate seat in jeopardy.
That, Joe, is how we solve your VP dilemma.
Don’t have a perfect answer for how to please every constituency with your V.P. pick? Challenge the premise.
From your own experience, you know that V.P. is only one of a handful of jobs in a new administration that shapes its success and failure. Play up the importance of the other jobs. Tell people you think it is more important to announce to the world the full picture of how you plan to lead than to lead with just one story.
It’s time to turn a tough problem into a big opportunity to make a much larger statement about your approach to governing.
Time to get us excited, Joe. Yes, we are with you. But it is your job to create the excitement, dynamism, and energy that turns out the electorate, and will bring out all the “sometimes” voters this November.
Time to show that you are going to bring some fresh ideas to replace conventional political thinking .
Time to remind America that great Presidents assemble great teams of immensely accomplished, powerful leaders… not a clown school of third rate suck-ups.
Time to get moving, Joe. We are ready to fall in line, but we need you to lead.
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I'm leery of ideas that have never been done before ... wondering why such a clear, rational way to show people what the administration would look like has never been done.
H Clinton needed to assure the party she would be able to smooth over the gulf ... why didn't she publicize appointments from the Sanders wing? Obama could have used some economic credibility in 2008 ... why didn't he run out an "all star" team?
And I'd argue making all the Cabinet appointments doesn't help with the ultimate choice of VP. It isn't like the young leaders would serve as a salve if Biden asks the 70 year old Warren to run. It wouldn't be enough to have two or three African Americans on the team as an excuse to not offer the VP to Harris. Klobuchar isn't going to go down more easily as Veep if two Latinx personalities will be in the Cabinet.