A Theory of the VP Case

Why Joe Biden Should Pick Someone that Doesn't Want to Be President.

Let me start with a very important caveat: I don’t know who Joe Biden should pick to be his Vice President[1] and neither does anyone else.

The answer is unknowable. The Vice-Presidential pick is a massive leap of faith. There are too many unknowns. Even the most educated guesses are still just guesses. There is risk in picking a relative unknown untested on the national stage (see Palin, Sarah), but picking someone that has been through the crucible of a Presidential campaign also does not guarantee success (see Edwards, John[2]). Sometimes when the VP pick becomes a national joke, it can damage your electoral prospects (see Palin, Sarah again), other times you go on to win forty states (see Quayle, Dan). Even eschewing politics and choosing based on who would be the best governing partner can end with that person convincing you to invade a country on false pretenses before shooting a man in the face (see Cheney, Dick).[3]

Since, I don’t know the right answer, I am going to offer one theory of the case that I think might be very compelling to a lot of people in Joe Biden’s orbit. I might even convince myself (and you) that it’s the right course before it’s over.

The Political Case for Being Apolitical

There has been a lot of buzz in the last week or so about the prospects of California Congresswoman Karen Bass joining the Biden ticket. Bass is unknown to the vast majority of the country, but among California politicos and Congressional insiders, she has a nearly universal approval rating. She is seen as smart, serious, well-connected, and a team player – all key qualities in a VP pick. One of the more interesting arguments being made in her favor is that she is unlikely to run for President in the future. Initially, I thought the idea of picking someone who wouldn’t run would be a huge mistake. Our party has been living in the era of the Clintons and Obamas since I was in college and we have twice postponed the post-Obama reckoning and realignment.

But the more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became. There is a strong case to make that Biden should pick someone who explicitly rules out running for President in the future. It might be the best way for Joe Biden to win the election this fall and for the Democratic Party to prepare for the future.

To be clear, this is not necessarily an argument for Karen Bass. She has not said she would not run and none of the other contenders have said they would run[4]. There have also been reports of a deeply unfair and very obviously sexist smear campaign against Senator Kamala Harris. To be clear, Kamala would be a great choice under any scenario.

There are three reasons in the short and long term why Biden should select a lame duck Vice President.

First, making an explicitly apolitical choice would be good politics. The political impact of the VP pick is often very overstated. According to polling, the Vice-Presidential nominee has a very limited impact positively or negatively. Even Sarah Palin, who is seen as the most disastrous pick since Thomas Eagleton’s brief tenure on the ticket, barely moved the needle.  The political speculation around potential VP’s often centers around which state they could deliver. But as noted data nerd/election analyst Nate Silver found in 2012:

The vice presidential nominee’s effect on his or her home state is normally quite modest — perhaps two or three percentage points on average, if a little more in some cases and a little less in others.

But the VP pick does matter politically, just not in the ways that most people focus on. A politically smart choice buttresses the political narrative promoted by the campaign and addresses the weaknesses pushed by the opponent. For example, Bill Clinton picked then Tennessee Senator Al Gore in the 1992 campaign – a selections that was seen at the time as a political home run. Gore was Clinton’s age and therefore reinforced the generational change argument that was at the core of Clinton’s message in his race against the much older and more establishment George H.W. Bush. Gore was also known for being the straightest of arrows, which counterbalanced the patina of scandal and dishonesty that surrounded Clinton throughout that campaign.[5]

Joe Biden’s message is that Donald Trump is too focused on himself and his own reelection to do the job the country desperately needs him to do. Biden argues (quite correctly) that he knows how to govern and has the experience that America needs right now. Choosing someone as Vice President with serious governing chops that has no intention of using the office for political gain would double down on that narrative. Such a pick would allow Biden to present a serious, governing team called into service to repair the damage caused by Trump before and after COVID hit. Two people doing very hard jobs out of a sense of patriotism and service without regard for personal advancement is a perfect contrast with Trump.

Trump’s message against Biden is a little hard to discern since Trump is a historically shitty messenger with the discipline and strategic sense of a rabid hyena. However, I think his message boils down to Biden not being mentally fit enough for the task of President.[6] A serious non-political pick would help push back against that message as well.

I am not saying this will deliver Biden the election. The evidence is clear that the Vice Presidential selection only helps on the margin. However, this path has the potential to be more impactful than some of the other political considerations being bandied about by the tweeting class.

Second, choosing someone who doesn’t plan to rack up frequent flyer miles trekking to Iowa and South Carolina will make governing much smoother. The nebulous nature of Biden’s 2024 plans will run smack into the imperatives of his VP to start preparing for possible run in a crowded field. There is just no way that ends well.

The Obama-Biden partnership is held up by many – most notably Joe Biden himself – as the model for how a West Wing should function. The core of that relationship was a foundation of trust between the two men and their staffs. I don’t think Biden ever told Obama that he had no plans to run for President when his tenure was over, but it was the assumption of most of the people around Obama. Over the eight years, Joe Biden never took any concrete steps to prepare for a Presidential run. He didn’t form a PAC to dole out campaign cash and barnstorm the country. He didn’t accept dinner invites in the early primary states or use his office to court endorsers. Biden never gave Obama or his staff any reason to believe that Biden was putting his politics ahead of Obama’s. Even when Biden angered a lot of us by getting ahead of Obama on announcing support for marriage equality, I don’t remember anyone thinking Biden was helping himself at Obama’s expense. If Joe Biden wants his own Joe Biden, he should choose someone that sees the Vice Presidency as a capstone not a steppingstone.

Finally, there is an argument to be made that the best thing for the party would be for Biden to steer clear of the battle for the future of the party. The nomination of Barack Obama’s Vice President means the party has still hasn’t reckoned with its post-Obama future. The 2020 primary was supposed to answer those questions, but the voters had other ideas. The existential threat of another four years of Trump led to the nomination of a figure from the recent past instead of the near future. Democrats still need to wrestle with big questions about our agenda, our message, and our identity. That process and Biden’s presidency will be a lot less messy if one of the combatants isn’t in the West Wing. Think about it this way: if the Vice President is shadow boxing with a gaggle of Senators with Presidential ambitions, every negotiation on Capitol Hill is going to be way more complicated than necessary. Joe Biden and his Vice President can rescue the country, while dozens of others engage in the battle of ideas in Congress, Iowa, and elsewhere[7].

I don’t know if this the right theory of the case. There are plenty of arguments against it, but knowing what I know about Joe Biden and his team, it wouldn’t surprise me if he went in this direction.

[1] Aren’t you glad you subscribed to the Message Box[2] This pick did not age well for many, many reasons. [3] I went to the opening of the George W. Bush Library with Obama and everyone there treated Cheney like someone who might shoot them in the face. Bridges had been burned. [4] Hedging my bets, because I want to take my kid to the White House Easter Egg Roll when we are allowed to leave our homes again. [5] After eight years with Clinton, Gore was forced to pick Joe Lieberman, who was seen as a man of faith and moral voice, as his running mate in 2000 to solve a similar problem. [6] This is like throwing stones from a glass house the size of the Mall of America. [7] And by elsewhere I mean Pod Save America — the gatekeepers to the Democratic nomination, unless you are Joe Biden.