Although the nation’s response to COVID-19 understandably dominated much of the discussion during last night’s Democratic primary debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, a few minutes were devoted to another important subject: whom would the nominee pick for his running mate?
Biden announced that he would choose a woman: “I commit that I will, in fact, appoint a woman to be vice president,” he said. “There are a number of women qualified to be president tomorrow.” Sanders initially hedged, but then said that “in all likelihood” he would choose a woman and that “my very strong tendency is to move in that direction.”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. As John Harris noted in Politico, “The assumption that there is no practical way the Democratic Party can put forward a presidential ticket with two white men has become so widely accepted in journalistic and political circles that a major development at Sunday night’s debate was greeted in some quarters with something of a shrug.” Both candidates also paid obeisance to the progressive left’s demands that their cabinets “look like America,” and Biden volunteered that he would put an African-American woman on the U.S. Supreme Court (although he neglected to preface his remark with the courtesy phrase, “if a vacancy opens,” which gave his declaration the whiff of a death watch).
Predictable identity politics pandering aside, for a number of reasons, the question of who should be chosen as the Democratic nominee’s running mate is more pressing than usual this election year. The final two Democratic contenders for the nomination are old: Biden is 77 and Sanders, who has already suffered a major heart attack, is 78. Both are considered at high-risk for developing serious complications if they contract the COVID virus. Not to be grim, but from an actuarial perspective, whoever Biden or Sanders chooses as a running mate potentially has a much more direct path to the Oval Office than any previous running mate in the post-war era.
Neither Biden nor Sanders gave any clues as to whom they might be considering. Biden gave a few shout-outs to Elizabeth Warren during the debate, but for a number of reasons, including her age (she’s 70 years old) she might not be an ideal choice.
Although some observers have questioned the conventional wisdom, it usually holds that in choosing a running ate, a presidential candidate should select someone from a crucial swing state. Warren couldn’t even win her own reliably Democratic home state of Massachusetts on Super Tuesday, but Sen. Amy Klobuchar is a strong contender—she’s from Minnesota, a state she delivered for Biden on Super Tuesday after dropping out of the race and endorsing him. Her sensibility leans more toward Biden than Sanders, and she is a comparatively spry 59 years old.
Other names in the mix include Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Val Demings of Florida. And last fall, Biden floated the names of former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, among others. Failed Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams should just take out an advertisement for herself for the job; it would be more subtle than what she’s done thus far. In August, she said on on SiriusXM that “if the question is, would I like the job? I’m not going to be coy and say no. Of course I would love that opportunity.” She repeated her availability for the job to the New York Times and suggested that “the phenotype of our candidates” should expand.
Progressive activists strongly agree; many expressed anger when Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race after Super Tuesday and insisted that she (or another progressive woman) be guaranteed the number-two space on the ticket. “The demand for a female vice-presidential running mate is born out of frustration,” The Washington Post noted.
Many activists insist it cannot merely be a woman, but be a woman of color like Abrams. Democratic strategist Leah Daughtry told the Post that her party must “make this margin cheatproof with anything that is going to help energize the base,” and argued that “there are any number of qualified African American women who should be considered and who would be viable options.” Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio was more blunt: Choosing a black woman is “the only chance the Democratic Party has to win the presidency and to win down ballot,” she said.
Back in August, Biden sounded less decisive about satisfying the demands of identity (or is it phenotype?) politics when it came to choosing a running mate. He told a group of African-American journalists, “Whomever I pick, preferably it will be someone who was of color and/or a different gender, but I’m not making that commitment until I know that the person I’m dealing with I can completely and thoroughly trust as authentic and on the same page.”
As Americans remain focused on the pandemic, not politics, the choice of a presidential running mate might not seem like a priority. But given the seriousness of the current public health crisis—and the age of either of the Democratic party’s likely nominees— it’s a choice that should prompt a great deal more scrutiny from voters. If Trump loses the election, whomever Biden or Sanders chooses now might very well be making decisions for all of us in the near future. And Trump is no spring chicken either, by the way.