The pick is in: presumptive Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden has selected U.S. Senator (CA) Kamala Harris to be his running mate. Those who think that having a nonwhite non-male person as VP is particularly important are dancing in the streets. Those politically right of center are cringing at the possibility that this San Francisco progressive will be calling the shots if the rapidly-declining Biden is elected president. Others are excited that Harris will inject energy into what thus far has been one of the most listless campaigns in modern history, and others yet are underwhelmed with the Harris pick, noting that running mates are rarely game-changers and that Harris’ presidential run did not catch much traction, even with big boosts from the mainstream media. As for me, I think Biden would have done himself far more good by choosing a Biden-type of running mate, but realistically he is in no position to do so.
Here’s what I mean: in 2008, Barack Obama, then a relatively little-known U.S. Senator from Illinois, was running for president. He had just finished off heavy favorite Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, and although I knew he’d be a cinch to beat Republican John McCain in the general election, there was understandable concern. After all, Obama is a black man with an exotic name, a Kenyan-born father, and the middle name Hussein (for those born in the 1990s and beyond, think ‘Saddam’), running to lead a country where afrophobia and xenophobia are far from extinct. Many pundits had yet to recognize Obama’s elite-level talent for captivating audiences, and so questions about his electability remained. As for McCain, although I realized that candidates whose “turn” it is to be nominated usually don’t fare very well (think Mondale, Dole, Gore, and hopefully Biden), he had somewhat of a puncher’s chance, and his running mate pick of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was such a wild card, because while she seemed woefully out of place in non-Alaska politics, she also had more charisma than anyone in the GOP since Ronald Reagan. For all of those reasons, Obama’s VP decision could have put him over the top if the election had been close.
If Palin injected “oomph” into McCain’s campaign, Biden siphoned it out of Obama’s. Nonetheless, I remember thinking at the time that if Obama picked Biden, I would have respect for his decision making skills and it would help me decide to vote for him (ultimately, I did, in 2008 but not 2012, when I voted third party, certainly not for that charlatan, Mitt Romney).
Biden didn’t resonate with the all-important female demographic the way that Palin and Hillary did, and the latter might have prompted some of her supporters, disheartened by her primary loss, not to stay home on Election Day. While Hillary as a frontrunner didn’t attract enough voters, her role as number two to Obama might have made for a rather unbeatable ticket.
Yet, there were reasons why choosing Hillary might have won Obama the presidency but cause him to lose some credibility. Presidential candidates want to win, but Americans care more about political character, if not personal. Presidents can be philanderers, swear like sailors, and even renege on campaign pledges, but if they dare shrug their shoulders and say: “that’s politics,” that’s entirely unacceptable. Primary winners at times resort to selecting rivals from the campaign trail or otherwise for practical reasons: John Kennedy got away with it when he picked Lyndon Johnson to be his running mate in 1960; 20 years later, Reagan did the same by choosing the elder George Bush. Heck, even Republican Abraham Lincoln did it in 1964 by putting Democrat Andrew Johnson on the ticket, and look at how horribly that turned out.
By picking Biden over Clinton, Obama’s victory was more legitimate. He didn’t “sell out.” He went with an unremarkable presidential campaigner from a tiny state, but who could be counted on if he ever had to grab hold of the presidential reins. No one said: “you need Joe Biden on the ticket to win this thing,” which is exactly why having chosen Biden was so impressive.
Fast forward a dozen years to the present, and now-nominee Biden’s pick of Harris unquestionably falls into that “you need her on the ticket” category. Biden painted himself into a corner early on by pledging that he would choose a woman as a running mate. Later, he strongly hinted if not overtly stated it would be a woman of color. Though the Jamaican-Indian Harris is no more the progeny of African-American slaves than is the Kenyan-British descending Obama, she fits the minority demographic checkbox quite nicely. But if Biden cannot complete all or even part of his term – and Lord knows there’s good reason for that – is Harris really the best choice to step in? There were numerous better choices; Amy Klobuchar readily comes to mind.
If pressed to explain how they reconciled their differences, Biden and Harris can point to Bush having called Reagan’s platform “voodoo economics” and then landed a spot on the ticket. But the Biden of 2020 (or of any year, really), in terms of electability, is not the Reagan of 1980 – he doesn’t have nearly as big a comfort zone for error.
Earlier this summer, I wrote a piece titled 2020 Election is between Donald Trump and Karl Marx (July 18), in which I argued that this is not a choice between Trump and Biden, but rather between Trump and open borders, defund the police, slogans replacing surnames on athletes’ jerseys, and the tearing down of Mt. Rushmore. Biden doesn’t want that, but he no longer has the strength and energy to stop it. Harris does, but she probably doesn’t want to.