In choosing a running mate, the best rule for Joe Biden to follow above all is to do no harm. I am going to handicap the top seven in reverse.
7. Kamala Harris — Senator Harris ran a high profile campaign for President and was in the top tier for a while. Indeed she brings some strength to a national ticket. She has not lost an election (having dropped out of the Presidential race before anyone voted). She has been a tough prosecutor in San Francisco, a high profile attorney general in California, and a tough questioner in highly publicized hearings in the US Senate. In an election where identity politics matters for some very vocal interest groups within the Democratic Party, she is a woman (the sine qua non for this choice), an African American (Jamaican father) and an Asian American (Indian mother). She is also a skilled debater. But that is where the positives end. If Mr. Biden wins this race it will be because of him — his experience, stability, and his empathy. Ms. Harris is not an empathic character. In California she refused to allow for new trials for death row inmates whose DNA could have exonerated them; she promoted cheap prison labor, and she actually called for the prosecution of parents of truant children. President Donald Trump will definitely go after Mr. Biden’s support for the controversial crime bill of 1994 contrasting it with his own reduction of sentences for minor offenses and for prison reform. Ms. Harris on the ticket will only give Mr. Trump more ammunition on that score. After her first Democratic debate with Mr. Biden, Ms. Harris went after the former Vice President for not supporting school busing five decades ago. It backfired on her and she has supplied powerful anti-Biden sound bites that the Trump is sure to use.
6. Elizabeth Warren — Senator Warren is a powerful brand name within the party. She is the second most recognizable progressive among Democrats, a powerful debater who single-handedly withered Michael Bloomberg, and is the chief spokesperson for the important issue of Medicare for All. But she came in a distant third in her own state’s primary and is 70 years old. The latter does not mean she cannot be effective, it only means that with Mr. Biden’s age definitely a factor, he best not feed the beast of ageism in a nationwide campaign. Mr. Trump will not let up on calling Ms. Warren “Pocahontas”, but there is some unfortunate fire in this smoke. When Harvard Law hired her to a tenure-track faculty position, they announced her as the “first woman of color” on their tenured faculty. Ouch. There is a sense of inauthenticity to that and it not only draws attention away from the Presidential nominee, but it will also detract from his effort to present himself as an authentic working-class non-elitist.
5. Catherine Cortez Masto — Senator Masto like Senator Harris, was a successful prosecutor and attorney general before joining the US Senate. She is admired well enough to have been selected to lead the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and would be the first Latina to be on a national ticket. She has no significant limitations that I know of except that she simply does not have a sufficient national profile that uniquely qualifies her as being a heartbeat away from the Presidency. Harry Truman had headed a high profile investigation of war profiteering and Lyndon Johnson has been the longtime Senate majority leader before ascending to the Vice Presidency and on to succeed their predecessors.
4. Amy Klobuchar — Senator Klobuchar ran an effective campaign, was a skilled debater and is well remembered for her tough and patient inquisition of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. She is a skilled legislator and perhaps the most successful Democratic legislator of this decade. Her employee’s past and present have horror stories to tell about her allegedly abusive behavior as a boss but Presidential campaigns are not beanbag. She lives and talks Midwestern and demonstrated how important her endorsement can be in her own state — and perhaps in key battleground states like Michigan and Wisconsin. The GOP will come after her with guns blazing and that itself can be a sideshow Mr. Biden does not need.
3. Stacey Abrams — State Senator Abrams has everything going for her except her elective position and title. She is Yale-educated, a longtime activist especially on the issue of voter registration represents an extreme issue of voter suppression among African Americans, and has legislative experience. Importantly, having lost her gubernatorial race in Georgia by a whisker (and perhaps through voter suppression), she could help turn a reliably red state into a blue state. But she did lose, she has little national experience, and she has only been a backbench state official.
2. Tammy Duckworth — Senator Duckworth is a moderate/liberal from a safely blue Midwest state. She is a former administrator of Veterans Affairs, is 50 years old, a double-amputee from the Gulf War, and is Asian American (Thai). While head of Veterans Affairs in Illinois she was accused of retaliatory behavior but it was settled for only $26,000. Above all, her tough persona and wartime experience also represent character that has persisted against personal tragedy. She is also a Mom of a new baby, born while she has been in the Senate.
1. Gretchen Whitmer –The Michigan governor brings in all the right stuff. She has strong legislative experience and is a governor of a state that has voted Democratic in every election since 1992 — except in 2016. Democrats need Michigan’s 16 electoral votes and Ms. Whitmer’s presence on the national ticket can help secure Wisconsin, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. President Trump has tried to demean her (“that young woman in Michigan”) and well-organized right-wing protests have taken her to task for shutting down the state. But she has not flinched and is winning plaudits not only for her leadership (57% approve of her handling of the Coronavirus crisis to only 44% who approve of Mr. Trump) but also for her persistence against the GOP. She is still popular in Michigan. She is 48 years old — in contrast to Mr. Biden, thirty years her senior. A fellow moderate with Biden, there will be criticism that she does not meet the identity standards of being a woman of color. But she is the real deal who can deliver a state, if not help bring in a region.
There is currently a full-court press for selection among supporters of Sens. Harris, Klobuchar, and Abrams. Prominent African American leaders are pushing for the selection of either Abrams or Harris. Traditionalists want someone who can win a state like Whitmer. Mr. Biden will have to be very careful lest he falls into the same trap that befell John Kerry in 2004 when he chose Senator John Edwards over Rep. Richard Gephardt and former VP Walter Mondale who selected Rep. Geraldine Ferraro at the bidding of a powerful interest group. There could very well be blowback from some African American and progressive leaders, but the greatest respect Mr. Biden can show to all Democratic constituencies is to above all win.