With Bernie Sanders’s exit from the presidential race Wednesday, Joe Biden’s path to the Democratic nomination has officially been cleared. At age 77, his choice of a running mate is critically important. And not only Biden’s vice president likely take on an outsized role in the administration. Biden has said he will probably only serve one term if elected. He’s also pledged to choose a woman for that role. So whoever he chooses as his number two may be on the fast track to becoming our first female president.
Biden cannot afford to screw this up. A lot of names are already being thrown around; many Biden supporters are pushing Kamala Harris for the role. But it’s become increasingly clear to me that Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar are his best possible choices.
An ideal running mate brings two things to the ticket. First, they give voters confidence that they are ready to step into the job and do it well, should a tragedy befall the president. If the coronavirus pandemic has revealed anything, it’s that having knowledgeable, experienced leaders can save lives. The Trump administration’s slow response to the pandemic, in which they failed to swiftly mobilize to make testing accessible, procure supplies, and encourage social distancing, is one of the reasons America has more cases than any three other countries combined despite having more than a month to prepare. The presidency is simply not a job for a relative newcomer who lacks executive experience, or someone who has not successfully managed crises before. Second, the right vice presidential candidate also helps the presidential nominee win a state—or collection of states—that the party might not otherwise. By that criteria, Whitmer and Klobuchar are the most likely candidate to help Biden defeat Trump.
Whitmer is a seasoned legislator with executive experience. She served in the state legislature for more a decade, including as Senate Minority Leader for four years before being elected governor in 2018. She has shown her mettle during the pandemic, quickly declaring a state of emergency in Michigan on March 10, closing schools, barring large gatherings, and expanding the state’s unemployment benefits. She then put a moratorium on evictions shortly after. She also called out Trump for forcing states to bid against each other for critical equipment. In other words, Whitmer uniquely suited to convince voters that the Trump administration failed when it mattered most.
Most importantly, though, Whitmer can help Biden win. In 2016, Trump narrowly won Michigan by less than one quarter of one percent. Whitmer’s presence on the ticket could help shift the state’s 16 electoral votes to Biden. In a close election, they could be the difference between victory and defeat.
Amy Klobuchar would bring similar strengths to Biden’s ticket. She has been in the Senate for more than a decade and consistently ranks as one of Congress’s most effective legislators. In an era of partisanship and gridlock, Klobuchar may be better equipped than anyone to help Biden push his agenda through Capitol Hill. Furthermore, Klobuchar could virtually guarantee Biden victory in Minnesota—a state Hillary Clinton narrowly won in 2016—which would allow him to devote more resources to other key states. And though Biden’s gain would be the Senate’s loss if he chooses Klobuchar, at least Democrats would not lose that seat to a Republican. Minnesota’s Democratic Governor Tim Walz would appoint her replacement. That gives Klobuchar an edge over Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, whose seat would be filled by special election rather than gubernatorial appointment.
All that said, there are many Democrats who want Biden to choose a more liberal VP—i.e. not a white, moderate Democrat.
Congressman Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement helped Biden win big in South Carolina, has said he would preferan African American woman for Biden. Others want Biden to unify the party by selecting a more progressive candidate like Elizabeth Warren. Although there are points in favor of each argument, none of the other leading options—Harris, Stacey Abrams, or Warren—makes as much sense as Whitmer or Klobuchar.
In my view, Harris hasn’t proven that she is ready for the job. She has been in the national spotlight since becoming California’s attorney general in 2010, but she has only served in the Senate for a little more than three years. Her prosecutorial record has come under intense fire from fellow Democrats, which could become an obstacle shoring up the Bernie base.
More worrisome is that the biggest test or her leadership and organizational skills—her presidential campaign—does not inspire confidence. Although Harris launched her campaign as a top-tier candidate, her campaign burned through money and Harris herself struggled to present a clear, consistent vision to voters. She often seemed to pick her policy positions in the moment, backtracking on eliminating private health insurance and decriminalizing border crossings.
Harris’s staffers described a disorganized campaign with a lack of clear authority between campaign manager Juan Rodriguez and Harris’s sister Maya, who served as the campaign chair. One aide called it a “campaign of id” with “No discipline. No plan. No strategy.” It would be risky to put the candidate who oversaw that campaign in charge of our country’s response to a pandemic or terrorist attack.
She also comes with little political upshot. Biden will win California without her. Of course, skeptics may argue that there’s no assurance that Whitmer will give Biden a victory in Michigan, either. They’re right. Some scholars are skeptical that vice presidential candidates help deliver their home states, while others have found that running mates historically deliver a two to three percentage point bump in their states. At the very least, Whitmer and Klobuchar are more likely to help Biden win Michigan or Minnesota than a junior senator from California.
Stacey Abrams would also be a risky choice. Abrams is even less experienced than Harris, having never held statewide office and Trump would be favored to win Georgia even with Abrams on the ticket. There is a stronger argument for Elizabeth Warren, who is more qualified than Harris or Abrams and has a stronger claim of bringing progressive voters into Biden’s tent. But Democrats would benefit from a younger heir apparent. Equally disconcerting, Warren’s senate seat would be filled by Massachusetts’ Republican governor Charlie Baker.
As smart, appealing, and talented as all these women may be, Whitmer or Klobuchar are the most ready for the job and uniquely suited to help Biden win. Consider the nightmare of having to live with four more years of Donald Trump as president because he carried Michigan or Wisconsin by a few thousand votes (Clinton lost them by razor-thin margins in 201). Choosing Whitmer or Klobuchar is the right move to prevent that nightmare from becoming a reality.