Saturday, August 01, 2020

A Few Thoughts on the 2020 Democratic Veepstakes

We've had a series of reports this week about the state of the internal deliberations over Joe Biden's selection of running mate, including from the New York Times, Politico, Politico again, Bloomberg News, and CNBC. These various accounts are consistent in some but not all respects; in particular, some suggest that Kamala Harris remains the clear favorite while others imply that her chances are fading. Here are the main points that I've taken away from the reporting so far:

1. The Biden campaign doesn't seem to be doing much to dispel the assumption that the final leading candidates are Harris, Susan Rice, and Karen Bass, with Val Demings and Tammy Duckworth still in the mix but as less probable alternatives. Of course, campaigns sometimes try to fake out reporters in advance in order to make a bigger splash when the announcement comes. But it would be an uncharacteristically risky move for the Biden team to leave the impression that they were probably going to select a black woman and then not do so.

2. There is real opposition to Harris within the party and to some extent within Biden's own orbit. This opposition is primarily personal, not based on strategic or ideological considerations. The criticism offered to the press this week that she was too "ambitious" landed badly because of its sexist overtones, but it also seemed like an intended euphemism for something more serious—selfishness? untrustworthiness?—that would have been too explosive an accusation to make without some additional evidence or corroboration.

3. But if Harris is not the final choice, Biden will need an explanation for why he preferred somebody else that can be made publicly to activists and voters, not just on background to journalists. This explanation doesn't need to be critical of Harris, but it does need to cite distinctive virtues of the alternative candidate that citizens can be expected to find duly impressive. Of the other apparent remaining contenders, Duckworth already comes with a readymade case for her selection, but the rest do not. While personal loyalty and collegiality are indeed valuable qualities in a running mate, the Biden camp would need a stronger justification than that for reaching down into the House rank-and-file or outside elective office, and one hasn't really been made so far.

4. Of all the "veepstakes" episodes in my memory, this one has been the least dominated by speculation about who might deliver a particular battleground state or key voting bloc to the national ticket and the most dominated by discussions about who might be the best vice president once the election is over. This is probably due in large part to Biden's steady lead in the polls—a rare luxury for a non-incumbent—but it is still a positive development. Whatever one might think about the way Harris or any of the other candidates have been treated, it is much better for the parties and the entire political system if leaders focus on the running mate as a potential governing partner and political successor, not as a mere tool of campaign strategy.

5. Many people seem to be operating under the assumption that Joe Biden, if elected, would not seek re-election in 2024. But it isn't very clear whether Joe Biden is one of those people.