Before the first votes were even cast in the primaries, the dream ticket for many Democrats was Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The fiery senator from California would diversify and energize Biden’s last hurrah, carrying the torch for a new generation.
Then came her ill-fated broadside against Biden over busing and a campaign rife with in-fighting before she exited the field with mixed reviews. Yet here she is, atop the field of contenders, the most likely choice for vice president—but with some static.
“A lot of people are looking to shove that knife in her back,” says a Democrat affiliated with the Biden campaign but not directly involved in the vice-presidential pick. “Some of it is among people who don’t want to see her as Biden’s successor. It’s coming from a lot of different angles.”
The knock against Harris has been that she’s too ambitious, a charge that would never be levied against a man and that’s being brought now by emissaries of those with personal ambitions of their own. Biden’s promise to name a woman as vice president took on added importance after the protests following George Floyd’s death, when Biden said several Black women were on his list.
With his announcement just days away, there are two questions: Why did he take so long? And will he choose a Black woman?
First, it’s not unusual to wait this long. Until Bill Clinton and Al Gore in ’92, the veep choice was saved until the convention. It was the only news left in what had become a scripted television show. The abbreviated public scrutiny produced some unwanted bombshells, notably baby boomer Dan Quayle’s deer-in-the headlights look when reporters asked him about his draft avoidance, and Geraldine Ferraro’s husband’s tax records, which blew up into a major scandal after she’d been unveiled in 1984 as the first woman named to a national political ticket.
“You know how Italian men are,” Ferraro said, explaining why her husband was refusing to release his tax returns. Critics pounced, saying if she can’t stand up to her husband, how could she stand up to foreign leaders?
Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, too, might have benefited from some media exposure before John McCain anointed her as his running mate after meeting her only once. She was a huge success at the GOP convention, wowing the crowd with her one-liners (“What’s the difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom? Lipstick”), but the glow faded quickly after an interview with reporter Katie Couric revealed how little Palin knew.
Asked how she got her information, what newspapers she read, Palin said, “uh, all of them.” Her expertise on Russia, she said, was based on the country’s proximity to Alaska, which became a Saturday Night Live spoof: “I can see Russia from my window.”
Now, Biden — who’s leading in the polls and thus doesn’t need a surprise pick to shake up the race — is taking his time because he can, and because none of his apparent finalists is without drawbacks. Better to see how the attacks surfacing now on his top choices play out, than risk damaging revelations later.
That’s especially true of Karen Bass, a member of the House from California and a late entry into the vice-presidential sweepstakes, pushed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The case for Bass, who chairs the Black Caucus, is that she would be the governing partner and legislative mechanic Biden needs to make the most of what could be the most productive Congress since the Great Society.
Stylistically, it would be different. There wouldn’t be two smiling couples (Bass is divorced) and politically it might be more broadly acceptable to some voters to have a Black woman as vice president that the party isn’t necessarily committed to as its standard bearer in four or eight years.
Polls suggest Biden is a sure winner, so he’s focused on who will be the best governing partner—a female version of himself with Obama. And when Obama picked him, the expectation was that his presidential ambitions would be burned out in eight years—or non-existent, like Karen Bass.
Bass’ stock rose, boosted in part by a bench of ambitious Democrats happy to see a placeholder. But then comments she made about the death of Fidel Castro in 2016, lamenting the loss of “Comandante en jefe,” gave Democrats pause, along with new coverage of her trips to Cuba in the 1970s as an organizer for the Venceremos Brigade.
“The Cuban thing is not so minor,” says Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Biden is better positioned to win Florida than any recent Democratic nominee. There is no path to 270 for Trump without Florida. Has the Cuban vote in Florida evolved enough that Bass’ favorable comments about Castro won’t impact Biden’s vote in the state? “They should be rigorously investigating that,” says Galston.
Bass this week was also fending off criticism about remarks she made, first reported by The Daily Caller, at a groundbreaking ceremony in Hollywood for a church of Scientology when she was speaker of the California assembly. Bass was preceded at the podium by the then-sheriff of Los Angeles county, and she viewed her remarks as part of her job to commemorate the occasion. Others may not be so forgiving. One Democratic consultant told The Daily Beast he found her appearance at the event “skin-crawlingly creepy.”
South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, whose endorsement gave Biden the boost he needed to win the nomination, says naming a Black woman to the ticket is “a plus—not a must.” Some analysts read that as giving Biden permission to do otherwise, but Roy Neel, a longtime Washington insider who served as Al Gore’s chief of staff, believes Biden is “totally boxed in” on naming a Black woman.
“Clyburn is a smart politician and an ally, that was a gentlemanly way not to openly further box Biden in,” says Neel. “If Biden calls him, he’s probably going to say the same thing: You will get a whole lot of credit from Black folks” if he picks a Black woman. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to get the message.
Former U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, another of Biden’s finalists, took a big hit from Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank. He focused on her well-known penchant for dropping f-bombs and warned that choosing her would be one long and miserable trip down Benghazi lane. “Should Biden win, he would be wise to make good use of Rice’s great brain in his administration. But not as vice president. Biden’s greatest appeal is the hope of relief he offers from government-by-insult and rule-by-rage. He shouldn’t squander it.”
Finally, there’s the case for Elizabeth Warren as the most broadly acceptable choice within the party and among progressives. In the year of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, an all-white Democratic ticket doesn’t seem likely. If he does choose Warren, Biden could couple the announcement with a reminder that his first Supreme Court appointment will be a Black woman—and he could present Kamala Harris as his choice for Attorney General, a job she’s well suited for, and Susan Rice as his choice for Secretary of State.
When George W. Bush ran in 2000, he regularly touted Colin Powell as someone who would be in his Cabinet, seeing that as a plus to win over Democrats and Independents. In the politics of 2020, Democrats fear that filling out a Cabinet prematurely would just offer Republicans more lines of attack.
With the caveat that only Biden knows who he is about to name as his running mate, the consensus seems to be it’s Harris. It’s always been Harris. If Chris Dodd’s account is correct that she laughed and said, “That’s politics” when he asked her about that ill-fated attack on Biden, that is not disqualifying. That’s truth-telling.