In the next few months, Joe Biden will make the most important decision of his political career.
This year, more than most years, the pick for vice president is expected to impact the presidential race in ways past vice presidents haven’t. For decades, vice presidential picks have been almost an afterthought. There are jokes in D.C. about how meaningless the job is — and about how little voters care about who is running on the ticket alongside the presidential candidate.
But that’s not the case anymore. In 2016, Donald Trump successfully drew in evangelical voters who helped him over the finish line with the selection of Mike Pence. That same year, Hillary Clinton chose Virginia Senator Tim Kaine — a pick that almost certainly contributed to the lack of far-left, progressive enthusiasm around her campaign.
Vice presidents are a fascinating part of politics. Sometimes they’re chosen because they have an identical set of views as the person running for president, to create the least friction. Sometimes they’re chosen because they are popular in an important state to win during the election. Sometimes they’re ordained, chosen because they waited their turn and the powers of the party have pushed them into the position.
This year, though, Biden is trying to do two things: 1) He’s trying to pick someone to win. Pollster Rachel Bitecofer, who did an interview with Tangle as she exploded onto the national scene, has popularized a theory that Biden’s pick for vice president could swing the election. Right now, Biden is crushing Trump everywhere that matters — and he both needs to make a pick that doesn’t reverse that trend and make a pick that will keep advance numbers in the swing states, because if election history tells us anything it’s that those numbers will move back and forth a few more times before November.
And 2) His pick is more than just winning over a state or giving someone the spot in an administration they earned — it’s a unifying pick that could very well be his successor. If he wins, Biden will be the oldest president to take office ever, and his health has already become a major question mark throughout his campaign. He’s also alluded to the possibility that he steps down after one term. Most people believe Biden has to find someone the country will trust to replace him, should that become necessary.
As a result, the needle he has to thread is seemingly impossible. He’s already pledged to pick a woman, which will be historic, and which pretty much everyone agreed was a necessary decision. Not just because it’s long overdue, or because there are countless qualified women to pick from, but because it’s smart politics: Donald Trump is underwater with American women, and energizing them with the right choice could throw the election firmly in Biden’s favor.
His pick also has to address the progressive wing of the party. Trump won across Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by 77,000 combined votes in 2016. Many of those votes were cast for third-party candidates, write-ins, or far-left candidates like Jill Stein. This year, Biden is attempting to bring in the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren wing of the party that partly abandoned Hillary in 2016. That means he needs to both appease the furthest left Democrats and appeal to the urban, white college liberals.
Of course, his pick also has to meet the moment we’re living in. Police brutality, racial injustice and the impact of COVID-19 are suddenly the kind of “kitchen table talk” pollsters try to key in on across the country. Right now, five months out from the election, we’re in a unique spot where the kitchen table talk isn’t about the usual economic issues or health care issues. There are clear, distinct national conversations happening all across the country — in every town, city and county. And they’re about COVID-19, racial injustice and the police.
Below, I’m going to rank the top five candidates for vice president, in ascending order, based on two criteria: who is the most qualified, and who would most improve his chances of winning the election. Of course, much of this is conjecture based on my own experience, my own reporting and my own sources. And, of course, I’ll also include my thoughts on the most curious matter at hand: who is the most likely to be selected?
Joe Biden (right) swears in Kamala Harris (left) to the U.S. Senate. Photo: Kamala Harris Senate office
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5. Stacey Abrams
Abrams is a politician, voting rights activist and trained lawyer. She served the Georgia House of Representatives from 2007 to 2017 and ran for governor in 2018, losing to Brian Kemp in an election that she alleged was stolen via voter suppression. In 2019, Abrams delivered the response to Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address, becoming the first African-American woman to deliver the response in U.S. history.
Pros: In many ways, one could argue that Abrams meets this moment more than any other candidate. She’s a brilliant orator, an outspoken voting rights activist, and has centered her career around a push to abolish cash bail, abolish the death penalty, decriminalize marijuana and make it easier for everyone to vote. The issues at the center of the protests happening across the country are right in Abrams’ wheelhouse. She also happens to be, by all measures, brilliant. She has graduated from Yale law school, written best-selling romantic novels, worked as a tax attorney, co-founded a beverage company and has been working in government since she interned at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a freshman in college. She was endorsed by both Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Our Revolution campaign during her run for governor in 2018.
Cons: Despite her lengthy resume, she’s rather inexperienced for a cabinet position. Abrams has never held federal office, and the thing she is most known for is a failed bid as Georgia governor. She has never worked in Congress, never passed a piece of federal legislation, and never participated in a debate in front of millions of people — something she’ll have to do if she runs for vice president. Her most shining political achievement — the Fair Fight Action voting rights nonprofit — has also come under increased scrutiny. Several news outlets have reported on the nonprofit as a potential vulnerability, alleging that the nonprofit spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on political ads for Abrams, which would be illegal. The tone on her has also had a marked change recently, perhaps best exemplified by this Boston Herald op-ed, calling her attempt to become vice president “so brazenly absurd that it’s hard to think of precedents.”
Likelihood: A few months ago, Abrams was everyone’s favorite odds-on pick for VP. But it seems like she may have peaked too soon, and — in a paradoxical way — her outspoken desire to be vice president has almost sullied the narrative about her as a rising star. I think she is still firmly in the mix, but at this point I would be pretty shocked if she were the pick. Ultimately, I think her inexperience as a legislator and politician is a dealbreaker for the party, especially with so many other viable, qualified options to choose from.
4. Tammy Duckworth.
Duckworth is a U.S. senator from Illinois, a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot and colonel, a former House representative from 2013 to 2017, and a former Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the V.A. She’s the first Thai-American woman ever elected to Congress, the first person born in Thailand ever elected to Congress, and the first person with a disability ever elected to Congress — she’s a double amputee, having lost both her legs after being shot down from a helicopter while fighting in the Iraq War.
Pros: From a pure optics perspective, it’s hard to think of anyone that would stymie Trump more. Duckworth has been a relentless critic of the president, dubbing him “Cadet Bone Spurs” as a mockery of his avoiding the draft several times during the Vietnam War. She’s experienced, having served both on the front lines of America’s wars and in the U.S. Senate for one of the most politically diverse states in the country. Take this recent New York Times interview:
“I can say, ‘Listen, that American flag is the same flag that would drape my father’s coffin, my coffin, my husband’s coffin and my brother’s.’ It has draped them for generations,” Duckworth said. “No one respects that flag more than I have. But I will respect the right to protest it, too.”
She’s cut from a similar political cloth as Barack Obama, who — as she told me in a 2018 interview — is the reason she ran for office in the first place. From her military experience, she’s taken a staunchly anti-war stance, she has progressive bonafides and she’s widely revered inside the Democratic party. On paper, from the identity politics perspective, she kills it: she’s a progressive, minority woman who lost both her legs serving her country abroad, has cast votes with her infant child in her arms on the floor of Congress and has become a voice that’s distinctly anti-war and pro-health care expansion.
Cons: From a pure policy perspective, she doesn’t add very much. She’s center-left, lining up almost exactly with Biden on the issues that will drive the election. Again: she’s a Barack Obama Democrat, which is both a gift and a curse heading into 2020. It’s tough to imagine an Army veteran with center-left politics appeasing anyone who isn’t already in Biden’s camp: the Sanders bloc, the Warren bloc, or the young Americans of color who are pining for a revolution against our justice system and against racism more generally. Aside from her military service, she hasn’t truly defined her political identity outside of being a proud mother and an outspoken critic of Trump. When people think of Abrams, they think voting rights. When people think of Bernie Sanders, they think health care for all or minimum wage increases. When people think of Elizabeth Warren, they think of policy wizardry. When people think of Duckworth, they think of her military service. I’m not sure that is a broad enough appeal on the left to truly help Biden.
Likelihood: When I started writing this piece earlier in the week, I had Duckworth as a dark horse, low odds possibility. The only reason I really considered her was because of my past interviews with her, and how intimately I know her career, and how close I know she is to the Biden and Obama circles. She was going to be my unique “wildcard” choice that you didn’t see anywhere else. But then, yesterday, The New York Times blew that all up by publishing this rather friendly profile of her, and included some reporting I was seeing for the first time: “Two people with knowledge of the vetting process say that Ms. Duckworth’s early interviews with the Biden campaign were impressive enough to make her a contender.” Take that as you will. I still think the odds are low, but she’s definitely in the conversation.
3. Kamala Harris
Sen. Kamala Harris is a former lawyer and junior senator from California. She served as Attorney General of California for six years and was elected to the California Senate in 2017. She’s the first female Senator from California of Jamaican or Indian descent and ran for president in 2020, frequently sparring with Joe Biden on the campaign trail over his record on criminal justice reform and race. At 55, she’s known in D.C. for being a relentless investigator on the floor of Congress, for sharp and witty questioning, and for confident public speaking. She sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee which oversees the Department of Justice.
Pros: If Joe Biden is the bumbling old white guy losing his marbles on his way to the presidency, Kamala Harris is the razor-sharp Black woman unafraid and unwilling to back down from a fight. On stage, she’s relentless, and she buried Biden repeatedly during the Democratic debates. So much of politics and elections are optics, and she’s held the most powerful Republicans’ feet to the fire in the Senate as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, delivering some of the toughest questioning in recent memory to liberal villains like Attorney General William Barr. She isn’t just sharp and smart and relentless — she’s experienced. She’s overseen the justice system of the most populous state in America, one that has a bigger economy than all but four countries in the entire world.
On an identity politics level, she’s a woman of color who speaks powerfully about her experience as a Black woman in America. Polls suggest she’d help solidify the Black vote for Biden and stands as the top pick for people who voted in the Democratic primary. In the most shallow and basic sense, she’s also just likable. Which matters. She’s good at being genuine on stage, interacting with voters and sounds — often times — like a normal American who can speak honestly off-script. It’s tough to put a price on that, but anecdotally speaking, I’ve heard from a lot of Americans who want her as VP.
Cons: Of all the potential picks, Harris’s record poses the biggest threat. In a word, it’s horrendous. As the top prosecutor in California, she repeatedly turned down urges from progressives to embrace reform. Sometimes, she opposed them vigorously. As Lara Bazelon wrote in The New York Times, Harris “fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.”
Her record is so bad that many progressives dubbed her “Kamala the cop” on the campaign trail. It’s tough to imagine a worse label for this moment, given the conversation happening on the left and across the country. It’s not yet household info, but any political reporter is by now familiar with the tales of Harris championing legislation that would imprison parents whose students were habitually absent from school, or the way she laughed when asked if she’d support the legalization of marijuana in 2014. If and when those stories become common knowledge on the campaign trail, or are told in ads, you can expect some serious blowback.
Likelihood: Bovada oddsmakers have Harris as the favorite. Polls show, consistently, that she is the top pick of folks who voted in the Democratic primary. She’d almost certainly lock up the Democratic base and — on paper — it’s tough to imagine a better fit for Biden. Given how contentious they were with each other on the campaign trail, picking Harris would have all the optics of a reach across the aisle. She’s the odds-on favorite today, and if Biden goes in a different direction it’ll be out of little more than political instinct and having the pulse of the progressive base he is trying to court. The data supports choosing Harris — and points to her as being the most likely pick.
2. Elizabeth Warren
At this point, Warren needs no introduction. She’s a Senator from Massachusetts, a high profile presidential candidate, a former Republican turned lefty progressive, and perhaps the most qualified of anyone under consideration. At 71 years old, the Oklahoma native is legendary for her former career as a law professor specializing in economic issues like bankruptcy and the social safety net. Her progressive bonafides are pristine: she’s fluent in everything from intersectional feminism to health care expansion, and she’s got a long and storied record of holding the powerful accountable.
Pros: When it comes to policy, it’s tough to imagine anyone that would unite the party more than Warren. She’s left of Biden on basically every issue, but unlike Sen. Bernie Sanders she’s taken a lot more seriously by her colleagues in Congress. That’s largely because Warren “has a plan for that.” She’s fleshed out her image of the future of America and how to transform the country via law. On the campaign trail, Biden could credibly hold Warren up as proof he’s dedicated to including progressive politics in the future of his administration. She’d also be a reliable replacement or successor, and — for many influential progressives — would be a preferred alternative to Biden.
Recent polls show Warren is the top choice for college Americans, which — if they were energized and excited and turned out to vote — could almost certainly lock up the election for Biden. Above all else, Warren has a record she can stand by. She’s been vetted relentlessly already, and it’s unlikely that opposition research would turn up anything we don’t already know about her. As far as meeting the moment, Warren isn’t the loudest voice in the room on social issues and structural racism, but she’s willing to move with the furthest left reaches of the base. And she lost her brother to COVID-19, giving her a powerful position from which to speak about the Trump administration’s failures during the pandemic.
Cons: America didn’t have much interest in her. When Warren launched her campaign for president, she was considered a favorite by the pundits and talking class. But her momentum never truly materialized, and she never really got close to Biden or Sanders. There’s something to be said for presidential races being popularity contests, and the polls on Warren tell a stark truth: she doesn’t exactly rally the troops. It’s tough to pinpoint why.
It could be sexism, a lack of the “X-factor,” or perhaps a quaint-sounding political oration during a revolutionary and anger-filled moment, maybe a combination of all three. Whatever it is, Warren has struggled to add to her caucus of support outside of typically white, wealthy, college-educated liberals. That may be well and good given the support from Black voters and moderates that Biden has, but her far-left politics could scare off the moderates and Blue Dog Democrats Biden’s campaign thinks he needs in states like Pennsylvania. There’s also the fact many “Bernie Bros” soured on Warren late in the game, accusing her of being a snake and a dirty politician for accusing Sanders, one of her most staunch progressive allies, of sexism in front of the country. The two camps got surprisingly nasty with each other late in the primaries and it’s no guarantee Warren would be a unifier for the progressive left now.
Likelihood: I’d say she’s the second most likely pick for Biden. They’ve been colleagues for a long time, and despite their disagreements, they seem to know each other well. It’s impossible to know who is whispering in Biden’s ear, but Warren is absolutely one of the top choices for his campaign. If Biden wants to get things done, if he wants to legislate, if he wants to “restore decency” to the country, Warren would be a heckuva pick. His campaign also feels comfortable with the base of support they’ve developed in the states that matter, and bringing on someone who would almost guarantee the support of suburban women and college-educated young liberals is a powerful incentive. It’s hard to imagine how to say “no” to a woman like Warren.
1. Val Demings
Rep. Val Demings is on the rise. The Florida congresswoman played a prominent role in the impeachment of Donald Trump, and before she was in Congress she was the first woman to lead Orlando’s police force. As a Black woman and the child of a janitor and a maid in the south, Demings has a powerful personal story to tell the country. She’s now a leading voice on police reform, speaking about it from the perspective of a former officer and advocating for many of the policy changes progressive, lefty Americans are hoping to see.
Pros: It’d give the Biden campaign a chance to own the narrative. Every other candidate on this list, save Duckworth, has already enjoyed a significant national profile. Demings is still relatively unknown to most of the country, which means she gets to tell her story to the country. And it’s a good one. She was born in 1957 in the Jim Crow South of Jacksonville, Florida. She was poor, one of seven children living in a two-bedroom apartment. Despite that, she “climbed out,” got a degree in criminology from Florida State University, then became a social worker, then got a master’s in public administration before becoming a cop. She climbed the ranks of the force and then took over Orlando’s police department in 2007, becoming the first woman to ever lead the force.
Then, she jumped into politics hoping to make a change. She ran in Florida’s coveted 10th Congressional district in 2012, lost, then tried again after the district was re-drawn and won. By December of 2019, she had built such strength in the party that Nancy Pelosi tapped her as one of the seven impeachment managers for Donald Trump’s trial. She’s popular in Florida, where Democrats haven’t had success for years, and if she helped Biden bring home the Sunshine State the election would almost certainly be won in a landslide.
Cons: If “Kamala the cop” is a bad nickname, how bad is it to actually be a former cop? There will be plenty of bad oppo stories on Demings that come to light if she’s chosen. Orlando’s police department was accused of excessive force at higher rates under her leadership than nearby Florida cities, and victims were predominantly black. She once had her 9mm handgun stolen from her unlocked vehicle and it was never recovered. In one particularly ugly story, an 84-year-old man sued the Orlando PD after an officer threw him to the ground and broke his neck.
Demings has written about these stories, once saying “Looking for a negative story in a police department is like looking for a prayer at church.” That kind of language could win over progressives, and it’s possible the narrative of a cop advocating police reforms would be powerful enough to win hearts and minds. But there’s serious risk in bringing Demings on, and if the campaign loses control of the narrative they could quickly be framed as blowing an opportunity to address police reform at a moment when it’s being called for across the country.
Likelihood: Word on the street is this race is down to three people: Sen. Warren, Sen. Harris and Val Demings. Demings has been writing in the Washington Post, appearing on national TV and is deep in the vetting process with the campaign. Some sources I have on the Hill say it’s already between her and Harris. Two months ago, the prospect of Demings was absurd — but her voice as a former police officer vouching for major policing overhauls is powerful. She’s in the mix, and if things went right she’d be a fantastic pick who could push Florida to the left and be a death knell for Trump’s campaign.
What do you think? Who would you pick? If you’re a Republican voter who is sour on Trump, who do you want to see Biden choose? If you’re a liberal voter sour on Biden, who do you want to see Biden choose? I’m curious to hear your thoughts!