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VP selections aren’t taken seriously enough
Kamala Harris is the rule not the exception
Two new profiles of Kamala Harris — one by Astead Herndon in the New York Times, the other by Elaina Plott Calabro in The Atlantic — both add a lot of texture and detail to a pretty well understood situation.
Harris has a job, Vice President of the United States, that essentially everyone who ever gets it ends up finding awkward and unrewarding. But her awkward and unrewarding version of it is unusually high-profile because her boss is unpopular and she is even more unpopular. To make matters worse, he is very old so there is more attention on her than there normally would be, and while she’s a pretty good politician, she’s not a great politician who electrifies every room she steps into. And, crucially, her team is caught between a conviction that many of her struggles are rooted in sexism and racism and a profound desire to avoid the conclusion that this means only white men should be nominated for office.
It’s a sticky situation.
I have, in the past, offered my thoughts on what she should do about it. But reflecting on these pieces, I’m struck by how fundamentally ordinary the problem facing the Biden-Harris administration is.
Joe Biden selected a likely future leader of the Democratic Party, but he did so without ever saying explicitly “I am picking ____ because I believe ____ would be a good future leader of the Democratic Party.” That’s an irresponsible error of judgment on his part, but it’s an extremely common one. In fact, the whole reason he is president is that Barack Obama picked him to be VP because Obama thought Biden wouldn’t run for president in the future.
Because time and again, we see presidents make VP selections for unimportant short-term reasons that underplay the real stakes of the choice.
VP selections matter a lot
There have only been 46 presidents, and nine of them (nearly 20 percent!) took office due to the death or resignation of a predecessor.
Over and above the fateful nine, there are also the cases of John Adams, Martin Van Buren, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and Joe Biden — VPs who used the national platform afforded them by the vice presidency to win election on their own terms.
And then there is the Al Gore / Walter Mondale / Nixon 1960 model where the vice presidency lofts you to a major party nomination but you lose anyway.
The point is that even though the day to day work of vice president is kind of a weird nothing job, the vice presidency is a genuinely huge political prize. And this seems to be more true in contemporary times than it was historically because the more “open” presidential nominating process has in practice advantaged candidates who are already well-known. A Gilded Age nomination process might have looked at Joe Biden and said to themselves “everything you are saying is totally correct and that’s why we’re picking Steve Bullock.” But voters had no idea who Steve Bullock was. Biden, as a former VP, just dominated the brand of “normal Democrat who wins to win and not be too left-wing.” It’s hard to beat the Veep.
That means that picking a vice president is a choice that presidential candidates ought to take very seriously.
Candidates ought to play to win. But I think even the cynical among us (like me) still believe candidates should pay attention to the real world consequences of the things they say and do. And the VP selection has very large real world consequences. What’s more, there’s almost no evidence that a VP pick has ever helped anyone win. You can certainly hurt yourself by doing something bizarre like the John McCain choice of Sarah Palin. But VP selections have minimal upside, so you might as well pick the right person. Unfortunately, this is not how anyone approaches it.
All the wrong reasons
The Herndon profile in particular is really clear on two things:
Biden was facing a lot of pressure from various inside party actors to select a Black woman, which in practice meant Harris.
Despite this, nobody was telling Biden that selecting Harris had significant electoral benefits. There was no polling or data or demographic analysis that suggested this “you should pick a Black woman” vibe was correct.
Here’s how Herndon describes the final showdown between Harris and Gretchen Whitmer:
After Whitmer impressed Biden during an in-person meeting in the veepstakes’ final stages, one question rose to the top: Could two white Democrats win?
Campaign research said yes — Biden could win with any of the four. Klain argued for Harris specifically. Obama played the role of sounding board, weighing the pros and cons of Biden’s options rather than backing anyone, including Harris, according to a person familiar with the conversation. But Harris was the only candidate who had the full complement of qualifications: She had won statewide, was a familiar name with voters because of her presidential run and enjoyed a personal connection with the Biden family, having been a close working partner of Biden’s son, Beau, when he served as attorney general of Delaware.
And she was Black, meaning the announcement would be met with enthusiasm rather than controversy. On Aug. 11, the day the campaign announced Harris as the running mate, it raised $26 million in 24 hours.
None of this is wrong, exactly. But note that in his telling, there is not a point in the process where Biden stops and thinks “who will be the best candidate in 2028?” or “if I die, who will be the best person to take over?” But note that even leaving Biden’s age out of it, the base rate for presidential death or resignation is nearly one in five!
Instead the decisive characteristic was that Harris would generate more enthusiasm.
And here I do think I should be clear about what I think this meant in practice: Picking Harris minimized short-term complaining. Plenty of people would have been thrilled with Whitmer and plenty of people were not thrilled with Harris. But as a rare person who criticized the Harris selection at the time, I know that given the atmosphere prevailing in the summer of 2020, that made me a kind of un-fun skunk at the party. By contrast, Harris proponents would have felt empowered to complain about a Whitmer selection. And to be clear, in Harris’ defense, she really is a properly qualified choice. The discourse around her has gotten so mean you’d think this was the greatest debacle in VP selection history when it’s not even close.
The problem is that this kind of fuzzy, short-term thinking is extremely common.
Again, the core absurdity of Democrats’ current Old President problem is that if you go back to the 2008 coverage of the Obama/Biden ticket, he was picked precisely because he was too old:
The choice by Mr. Obama in some ways mirrors the choice by Mr. Bush of Dick Cheney as his running mate in 2000; at his age, it appears unlikely that Mr. Biden would be in a position to run for president should Mr. Obama win and serve two terms. Shorn of any remaining ambition to run for president on his own, he could find himself in a less complex political relationship with Mr. Obama than most vice presidents have with their presidents.
But, of course, there are many worse screwups than this. If you go back to the fateful election of 1840, the Whigs put John Tyler on the ticket because he didn’t like Andrew Johnson without checking to see if Tyler was on board with Whig policies. William Henry Harrison died after 40 days in office, Tyler became president, and it turned out that — oops! — he did not agree with those policies. Abraham Lincoln made Andrew Johnson VP to try to get an electoral boost in the border states and ended up wrecking Reconstruction. Probably the funniest VP fuckup of all time is when Republican Party bosses were so annoyed by Teddy Roosevelt’s conduct as Governor of New York that they decided it would be clever to get him to be William McKinley’s Vice President, thereby trapping him in a powerless office. Except McKinley got shot by an anarchist and Teddy became president. Oops again!
In the scheme of things, Harris is actually a totally fine choice. She is in line with the party mainstream on policy and ideology and is of appropriate age to take over, which sounds like a low bar to pass but is actually impressive in comparative terms.
The perverse thing is that even though a dynamic, popular VP would in some sense be good for Biden, there’s another sense in which that’s not true.
If he’d put Gretchen Whitmer on the ticket, after all, the odds are good that he would have faced loud calls to step aside in 2024 in her favor. And if he didn’t step aside, the mere existence of those calls would have tempted some other Democrats into the race. Harris’ weakness induced party actors to rally around Biden as the only really reliable stop-Harris strategy. So the fact that nobody thinks she would be a good party leader turned out to be good for Biden.
By the same token, if you go back to Bill Clinton surviving the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998, you have to imagine he was glad that Al Gore isn’t a very charismatic figure. But for all the reasons that Democrats might have preferred Clinton to Gore, Gore ended up being a relatively weak standard-bearer in 2000.
Obama, too, was in some sense trying to tank the party’s future in order to make life easier for himself. He thought a VP who was “too old” to run for president would simplify his own situation. But instead we ended up with mainstream party leadership that is sub-optimally old. All of which is to say that one reason presidential nominees keep making bad choices about future party leadership is that they have almost uniquely weak incentives to make the right choice. By the time it’s relevant, they will be dead or retired and a politically unappealing VP tends to help them and make them look better.
The Harris rebuild
In summary, while I do think Harris was sort of a bad choice, we should understand that bad choices are actually the norm here.
What’s more, compared to a lot of previous bad choices, she really wasn’t so bad!
I believe that in part because I continue to think there is a pretty obvious way for her to get her mojo back. The basic reality is that Americans of all kinds put a good deal of stock into the personal identity of our political figures. And progressive Americans put even more stock into it than average Americans. You can see plain as day that as people fight about Israel/Palestine, that Jewish leftists condemning Israeli government overreach is seen as particularly valuable spokespeople, as are Arab condemnations of Hamas. Having the right identity can inoculate you against certain charges in a way that can make your voice uniquely valuable.
By the same token, there are certain things that Harris as a Black woman “can” say that Joe Biden as a white man “can’t” say — i.e., things that are moderate-coded about race and gender matters.
As I noted at the top, there’s something a little paradoxical about simultaneously believing that racism and misogyny are big forces in politics and also insisting that it’s important to nominate a diverse slate of candidates. A little paradoxical — but it’s not unresolvable. Harris would have the flexibility to speak some “tough truths” or otherwise cut a reassuring posture with swing voters while maintaining credibility with the base. That’s the kind of move that would make huge swathes of the party glad she was elevated, and that would set her up for a plausible message as a presidential candidate in her own right. Ideally, that message would be delivered by someone who’s also an incredibly charismatic public speaker. That said, nobody is great at everything, and Harris seems a little bit weirdly reluctant to deploy her advantages to maximum upside, which just isn’t how you do politics.
It would be very challenging for Harris to suddenly start convincing people she’s a once-in-a-generation political talent, but I sincerely don’t think it would be all that hard for her to remind people why they thought it was a good idea to elevate her in the first place. Many past VPs have been picked for much worse reasons.