Joe Biden
Credit: Kelly Kline

A recent New York Times article suggested that Joe Biden, were he to enter the 2020 presidential race, would take extraordinary steps to mitigate concerns about his age. At 76, Biden would be one of three septuagenarians running for president. (Donald Trump is 72 and Bernie Sanders is 77.) Elizabeth Warren is 69, already nine years older than when Dwight Eisenhower took the oath of office in 1953 and older than Ronald Reagan at his inauguration in 1981.

One gambit that’s reportedly being considered by Team Biden is to declare that he would serve only one term in office and to name a significantly younger running mate before he secured the nomination. History suggests that’s a misguided strategy.

In 2016, Senator Ted Cruz selected Carly Fiorina, his erstwhile competitor for the Republican presidential nomination, to be his running mate. Instead of injecting new life into Cruz’s bid, it reeked of desperation and was marred by odd mishaps like Fiorina falling off a platform at her introduction and, later, singing a song that she’d made up for Cruz’s two daughters. Cruz got crushed in the Indiana primary, where he tried to end Trump’s juggernaut, and withdrew soon afterward. Fiorina had only been on the “ticket” for seven days.

The most interesting effort to name a vice presidential candidate before securing a major party’s nomination came in 1976, when Ronald Reagan, then the former governor of California, was posing a formidable challenge to President Gerald Ford. The race broke down along ideological lines, with hard-core conservatives generally backing the Gipper and the more moderate standing with the president. As the GOP convention in Kansas City approached, Reagan was still short of the delegates needed to unseat Ford. So he threw a Hail Mary and named Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker, a moderate Republican, to be his running mate. The aim was clear: draw moderates and establishment conservatives away from Ford.

If Reagan was to employ this grab-a-moderate strategy, Schweiker was a good choice. He hailed from a big state where he was quite popular; and save for being opposed to legal abortion, he was a bona fide middle-of-the-roader. But instead of luring Ford supporters into the Reagan camp, it wound up dismaying conservatives. Senator Jesse Helms, the arch conservative from North Carolina, was furious. Part of the reason Ford was unpopular with conservatives was that he had nominated Nelson Rockefeller to be vice president shortly after he assumed the presidency in 1974. Now Reagan was picking his own Rockefeller—one with a great rating from the AFL-CIO, for example. In 1976, Ford dumped Rockefeller and chose Bob Dole as his running mate. (It’s telling that Dole, now considered an old-school pragmatic conservative, was then considered a sop to the right.) Schweiker eventually became Reagan’s first secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

All of this doesn’t mean that Biden would be doomed if he named a charismatic younger figure as his Veep. Were he to pick a woman and/or minority, such as Stacey Abrams, who he seemed to be considering, it would certainly be attention-getting. (For what it’s worth, Abrams suggested on Wednesday that she’s not interested in being his second fiddle in a primary: “I think you don’t run for second place,” she said on The View. “If I’m going to enter a primary, then I’m going to enter a primary.”)

But, theoretically, if Biden’s announcement came at the outset of his campaign, instead of as a last desperate ploy, it might ring better with voters than when Cruz picked Fiorina, who hadn’t won a primary. And unlike Reagan-Schweiker, it wouldn’t be an ideological whipsaw, just a moderate liberal picking a 21st Century woke progressive.

Obviously, the two would have to square their positions on a range of issues, most notably the 1994 crime bill which Biden, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, vocally championed. But Biden is scurrying away from previous positions. Even though he voted against Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination in 1990, Biden’s been pilloried by a generation of liberals angered over how the Judiciary Committee he led treated Anita Hill. Biden defended his role in that process for a long time, before backing off in 2017. Abrams as his running mate would offer an implicit exoneration.

Still, on balance, the gambit underscores Biden’s age at a time when Trump and Sanders aren’t engaging in such pyrotechnics to reassure voters about their actuarial chances. The one-term ploy is rarely used. Rutherford B. Hayes was the last president to pledge one term. Older presidents like Reagan and Ike wisely chose not to concede the ambition and power that comes from seeking a second term. It’s also diminishing to Abrams with its implicit she’s-not-ready-yet message. After all, if she were ready to be president, she ought to run herself. Why be Joe Biden’s trainee?

Also, what would Abrams get Biden? She might prove to be a formidable national candidate, galvanizing minorities, millennials, single and suburban women that are essential to the modern Democratic Party. But in a primary with self-declared democratic socialists, half a dozen women, a counter-hopping Texan, and plenty of interesting others, what could Abrams accomplish as Biden’s junior partner? It’s already a very crowded field. Since Abrams wouldn’t be invited to debates, she’d miss some of the most high-profile moments.

There’s a long history of presidents dumping their VPs as they seek a second term. Franklin Roosevelt dumped two: John Nance Garner and Henry Wallace. Abraham Lincoln jettisoned Hannibal Hamlin for the odious Andrew Johnson to win border states. But those moves have become rare. Ford was the last one to dump his No. 2. (George H.W. Bush stuck with Dan Quayle and Ike stuck with Richard Nixon.) But naming a vice president before getting the nomination is a risky bet, which is why it’s been 42 years since Reagan tried with Schweiker. Biden, who was in his first Senate term in 1976, surely knows that. Which is why, I suspect, he won’t do it.

Biden’s real problem isn’t age. It’s his era. After all, Bernie’s doing well with the young. Biden’s a man of the Senate that was once civil. When Biden came to the chamber in 1973, there were three World War I veterans in the Senate–John Sparkman, Sam Ervin, and William J. Fulbright—and a slew of former segregationists, most all of them Democrats. Left-right coalitions were essential, even if Democrats were in the majority. Biden was and is a liberal who had little in common with crusty Jim Crow era senators. But the Senate led by the likes of Mike Mansfield, the Democratic leader, and Howard Baker, the Republican one, was more genial by nature, where bipartisanship didn’t automatically result in a primary challenge and where ideology was blurrier within the parties. (Vermont was represented by two Republican liberals when Biden got to the Senate.) That atmosphere partly explained why, when Strom Thurmond became the longest-serving senator in 1997, Biden praised his former colleague effusively without skewering the South Carolinian’s segregationist past. It was a different time, Biden’s time. A gimmick won’t change that.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Matthew Cooper

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattizcoop. Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.