Yes, President Trump still has time to stage a comeback but the new state of the race suggests that Joe Biden is free to shift from a tactical to a strategic approach in choosing his running mate. Biden’s longstanding prerequisite —a “strong” vice president who is “ready to be president on Day One”—should now be more than a platitude.
Biden would still be well-advised to choose a woman of color; two whites atop the ticket is a bad look for Democrats in 2020. Among Black women candidates, he should focus on which one can best help him face an overwhelmingly difficult governing challenge next year. There’s no time to build a relationship and no room to risk selecting a dud who can’t shoulder a big load.
By that standard, Susan Rice is his best option. He already knows and trusts her (their offices were next door in the West Wing during Obama’s second term) and she possesses a cool, commanding gaffe-free public presence that can fairly be called “presidential.”
Trump has alienated America’s friends and emboldened its enemies, and the clean-up operation—while a long-term project—needs to begin immediately. Pinned down at home by COVID-19 and too old for extensive travel, Biden must be represented by someone extremely knowledgeable about the world. The challenges posed by China and Russia alone could dominate his presidency. He needs someone who can confront not just Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping but Jair Bolsonaro, whose rapid destruction of the Amazon rain forest may be the single biggest threat the world faces. Biden’s secretary of state can help but will have his or her hands full rescuing the State Department, which is in tatters. Rice, a former ambassador to the UN and national security adviser under President Obama, is by far the best qualified VP candidate for this enormous task.
At home, the next vice-president will need to play enforcer with the White House staff and the agencies Trump gutted, compensating for Biden, who is by several accounts too nice a guy to run a tight ship by himself. Again, Rice is the only candidate with critically important experience in the executive branch. Those who worked with her under Obama said she was tough but also possessed an affable, collegial temperament. What’s more, Capitol Hill experience will be less important next year because of Biden’s own deep relationships there.
There are, essentially, three arguments against putting Rice on the Democratic ticket. None bear scrutiny. The first is Benghazi. In 2012, after the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in a terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Rice went on CBS News’ Face the Nation and inaccurately reported that the attack was a spontaneous response to a hateful video. After an exhaustive inquiry, the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee found that Rice was working off of CIA talking points and had not intentionally misled the public.
How many Americans voters will think, “Oh, I was planning to vote for Biden over Trump until I found out about that Face the Nation interview”? Benghazi is not only a dead end for Trump; the brief back-and-forth on it (before Republicans realize it’s old and useless) is potentially a positive for Biden. Every day Trump shouts “Benghazi!” is a day he won’t have for something more potent. Meanwhile, Rice would attack Trump for ignoring the pandemic playbook she prepared while at the NSC and for looking the other way when the Russians offered bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan.
The second objection to Rice is that she has never run for elective office. But experience on the campaign trail giving rousing speeches and working rope lines is irrelevant in this strange election year. Rice has plenty of experience facing hard questions on television, which is where the fall campaign will be fought. Besides, being a non-politician is refreshing for many voters, as it was in 2016 with Trump.
Finally, some Democrats are unhappy that Rice’s son, John Rice-Cameron, is president of Stanford Republicans and helped organize a demonstration celebrating Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. But it’s hard to imagine this would keep them from voting against Trump. And it reinforces that—unlike Trump— Biden would be the president of all Americans, however much they disagree. Many voters with friends and relatives who are Trump supporters may find Rice’s situation with her son human and relatable.
When I interviewed Rice recently, she would not discuss the vice presidency. She did note that she had “a proven ability to throw a punch as well as take one”—a critical requirement for a VP candidate. Calling herself a “pragmatic progressive,” she described her politics as “very close to where Joe Biden is.” She explained that “our adversaries have come to see us as suckers and incompetent” and argued how important it is “to rebuild the confidence of our allies.”
This is exactly where Biden is—deeply worried about how to restore America’s leadership in the world. He knows the repair job must begin on January 21. Susan Rice by Biden’s side can help him do it. And that would let the rest of us sleep easier should anything happen to him.