Joe Biden's Very Normal VP Process

No Need to Panic...Yet

There is a long tradition of political reporters and pundits losing their mind in August. Typically, there are fewer newsworthy events[1] yet the same amount of news coverage, so the political conversation gets more than a little hyperbolic.[2]

On Monday, the Washington Post announced the advent of the silly season with a story about growing concern among Democrats about “delays” in Biden’s process for choosing a Vice President.

Even some longtime Biden allies worry the process has become “messier than it should be,” pitting women, especially Black women, against one another …
Several people interviewed said the delay has intensified currents, many of them sexist, that have been swirling for weeks. The resulting backbiting risks inflaming divisions within the party that complicated the 2016 campaign.

It wasn’t just the Washington Post. Axios headlined a story “Joe Biden’s Painstaking Path to the VP Choice.” Politico declared that “Biden’s VP Shortlist Comes Up Short.” And it’s not just the media, one can feel a palpable sense of political panic gripping many Democratic activists and elected officials. A sentiment this group self-destructively insists on sharing with every reporter that will take their calls.[3]

Sounds like a giant mess, right?

Not really.

I have been involved in the selection and roll out of two Vice Presidential nominees[4] and recently studied most of the picks since 1972 for That’s the Ticket, the Pod Save America miniseries on the Vice Presidential selection process I co-hosted with Alyssa Mastromonaco.  None of this unprecedented or even unusual.

“Worry about everything, panic about nothing” is my 2020 motto. I adopted this approach because as some of you might remember,[5] I spent most of 2016 telling people not to worry. I do not want to make that mistake again. So I am hesitant to tell everyone to “chill the fuck out,” but everyone needs to take a deep breath and relax. The process always looks a little messy and there is nothing that indicates that Biden’s process is any messier or any different than previous ones.

Let me address the various concerns that are causing so much consternation and confusion:

What is Taking Biden So Long?

Some Democrats are very concerned that Biden hasn’t announced his VP yet. Is he waiting too long?

Short answer: No

The VP announcement almost always comes a few days before the start of the national party convention. This timing is designed to build momentum heading into the convention and dominate the national political conversation for more than a week. Biden’s current timing is perfectly consistent with past practice. All but one pick this century was made within a few days of the start of the convention. The Democratic National Convention starts on Monday, August 17th.

Some strategists have called for Biden to make an early VP announcement because it would double his messaging and fundraising firepower. There is some merit in that approach.  However, Biden deciding not to make an early announcement is not the same thing as Biden making a late announcement.

Did Biden Delay his Announcement?

There has been a lot of confusion about the timing of Biden’s announcement. At a fundraiser in late July, Biden told donors:

“I’m going to have a choice in the first week in August and I promise I’ll let you know when I do.”

This comment led every media outlet to report that Biden would make his announcement in the first week of August. This is not an unreasonable interpretation. Biden’s remarks were somewhat imprecise. However, making a decision and announcing a decision are two different things. If Biden does make a decision this week, he is under no obligation to announce it this week. In fact, a smart campaign will time the announcement to the specific day that offers the best opportunity to maximize press coverage and leverage the announcement for fundraising and volunteer recruitment.

Even if Biden did delay his announcement, that in and of itself is not a cause for major (or minor) concern. All of this is happening during a pandemic that makes it very hard for people to safely do even the most basic things. Vetting and interviewing potential VPs under a cloak of secrecy is a massive logistical challenge even in the best of times.

These are not the best of times.

What About Dodd?

Presidential candidates typically put together a committee of friends, advisors, and party officials to oversee the Vice-Presidential selection process. This committee oversees a team of vetting attorneys, accountants, researchers, and political aides. The members of these committees take a vow of silence. They are supposed to do their work with the utmost discretion.

Joe Biden’s version of this committee includes among others:

  • Delaware Congresswoman Lisa Blunt-Rochester;

  • Former Senator Chris Dodd;

  • Longtime Biden Advisor and former Senator Ted Kauffman;

  • Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; and

  • Former Biden aide Cynthia Hogan.

Dodd committed the cardinal sin of making news when Politico reported an exchange he had with a donor about Senator Kamala Harris. According to the report:

When former Sen. Chris Dodd, a member of Joe Biden’s vice presidential search committee, recently asked Kamala Harris about her ambush on Biden in the first Democratic debate, Dodd was stunned by her response. “She laughed and said, ‘that’s politics.’ She had no remorse.” Dodd told a longtime Biden supporter and donor, who relayed the exchange to POLITICO on condition of anonymity.

This report led to a lot legitimate questions about Dodd’s presence on the committee. Chris Dodd is an odd choice. He has no executive branch experience, he has been out of politics for a decade, he is a former lobbyist for the movie industry, and was never known as a model of discretion. There is no evidence that Dodd has a great feel for modern politics or the Democratic Party of 2020. His comments about Kamala Harris are troubling. Presumably, Biden chose Dodd, because they are longtime friends, were Senate colleagues for decades, and he trusts him.

The concerns about Dodd and his comments are legitimate. Putting him on the committee was an error in judgement in my opinion. However, the Biden team quickly and publicly distanced themselves from the comments. We need to wait and see how much influence Dodd has on the final decision.

Is Biden’s Process Particularly Leaky?

No.

One of the rules of understanding the VP selection process is that the people saying the most know the least. I would wager that within Biden’s campaign the vast majority of his senior aides and spokespeople known little to nothing about the state of the process. I was Barack Obama’s communications director in 2008 and I was almost entirely in the dark. The day of the announcement, we were preparing for three different potential choices including drafting press releases and writing speeches.

Covering the VP selection process and potentially breaking the news of the choice is a media obsession. When you combine mass ignorance with massive interest, things get really messy really quickly. The slightest scrap of information can lead to a piranha-like feeding frenzy.

The process hasn’t been airtight. A Biden aide proactively called Jonathan Martin of the New York Times to tell him that Biden’s staff did not like Kamala Harris. This is sloppy and counterproductive. But, once again, not unusual. In 2008, Obama’s VP Committee sat down with a Senator who then proceeded to read the entire meeting out to the media. Every twist and turn of Trump’s process leaked.

When reading the coverage of Biden’s process, I would advise great skepticism around the anonymous quotes from “people close to Biden campaign.” There is a 99.9 percent chance they have little to no actual knowledge of the process and are offering educated guesses. I don’t see a lot of evidence that the Biden inner-circle is talking to reporters about the process.

What Does it All Mean?

No one really knows.

The truth is very few of the people talking, tweeting, or reporting on the process have any real insight into what is happening inside the Zoom where the decision is being made.

Biden’s decision may be the most politically and substantively consequential VP pick in American history. The Trump campaign is already salivating at the prospect of attacking this individual. There are reasons to worry about who Biden picks and how she is received by the public (and treated by the media.) But…there is nothing unusual or particularly concerning about the process thus far.

So, feel free to worry about something else for a little bit. I promise there is plenty.

[1] That excuse is unavailable in the middle of a pandemic in the middle of a Presidential election, but the gravitational pull of the trivial remains strong. [2] After one particularly terrible August in Obama’s first term, I asked him whether he had the power to eliminate the month from the calendar. I swear he briefly considered it before laughing at what he thought was a joke (it wasn’t). [3] I have said it before. [4] Don’t blame me for Joe Lieberman. I was a 24yo mid-level press aide on that campaign. [5] And often remind me, just in case I am ever able to forget.