Biden’s VP Pick Should Not Determine the Democratic Party’s Future

Only the party’s voters can decide who the nominee will be in four to eight years.

Joe Biden is certainly taking his time picking a running mate. With his decision originally expected by August, the latest news suggests that he will announce the pick around the 10th of this month. Unfortunately, the longer the decision takes, the more acrimony and infighting occurs between the party’s factions and loyalists of the potential choices.

I don’t want to rehash the various rumors, factional disputes, insults and opposition research leaks here. Suffice it to say that one reason for Biden’s slowness and difficulty in selecting a candidate is that no one perfectly checks all the boxes. The perfect candidate must be a woman. She would preferably be a woman of color, especially at this moment. She should ideally be an ideological progressive trusted by the younger, more progressive base least excited by Biden and most in need of a turnout boost. She should be well-liked by both progressives and people of color. She should hopefully have a national profile, known to the American public, without high unfavorables. She should already have faced the wringer of a major campaign, tested on the trail and with no hidden skeletons waiting to be exposed.  She should be ready for the job at a moment’s notice, but not so eager for power as to potentially undermine the president. She should have international chops, as foreign diplomacy is the majority of the vice-president’s actual job.

None of the potential candidates meets all those requirements. Not Harris, not Warren, not Bass, not Susan Rice, not Duckworth, not Abrams. It would be fairly impossible for anyone to do so. So anyone Biden picks will necessarily be a compromise. Each potential candidate’s factional arguments rest, then, on emphasizing some of those criteria over others, which in turn leads to bitter accusations of favoritism and purity tests among backers of the other candidates.

But one thing that all the warring factions should honestly acknowledge is that this fight doesn’t really matter much for the 2020 election. The vice-president matters most for 2024, 2028 and beyond. It’s not about the next 100 days, but about the future direction of the Democratic Party and therefore, hopefully, the country.

In a hyperpolarized environment, available evidence suggests that the choice of vice-president will have a negligible effect on electoral outcomes. In this election, you either hate Trump or you love him. If you hate him, you’ll tolerate almost anyone to get rid of him. If you love him, the opponent’s VP pick won’t change anything. Insofar as the choice does matter at all, it’s likelier that the progressives have the better of the argument: given the enthusiasm gap between Biden supporters and Trump supporters and moderate voters’ deep antipathy to Trump, a progressive choice would help Democratic turnout more than it would harm conservative-leaning moderate crossover.

But there is a strong argument that whoever Biden chooses as vice-president should not automatically be the party’s ideological lodestone for the next twelve to sixteen years. Should Biden defeat Trump and remain in good health, Biden could conceivably be president through 2028. His vice president could theoretically succeed him for four to eight more years thereafter. Twelve to sixteen years is a long time in the rapidly developing world of modern politics. Think of the ideological changes the Democratic party has undergone since John Kerry was the party’s nominee, and then compound that by considering the deep ideological divides between socialist-leaning Dems under 45 and the much more moderate baby boomer and Gen X Democrats. 2032 will be a dramatically different ideological and demographic landscape for the country and the party.

Moreover, the 2020 Democratic primary itself suggests that Biden should not be in the position of deciding the party’s future. The progressive wing of the party led by Sanders and Warren (and arguably Yang and other minor candidates) carried about 40% of Democratic base, and has the very strong loyalty of its voters under 45. Nor was Biden the first choice of most of the party’s older, moderate wing, most of whom preferred Buttigieg or Klobuchar. Even Black voters in the South and in South Carolina specifically were, per public polling, shifting heavily after the first primary contests either toward the progressives or toward Buttigieg/Klobuchar until Congressman Clyburn’s fateful endorsement tipped the scale. Afterward, the moderate faction knew it needed to consolidate if it wanted to stop Sanders: Biden was the only viable choice, Buttigieg and Klobuchar saw the handwriting on the wall, and the rest is history. But Biden was always the fallback candidate, even for most moderate voters.

Biden’s biggest strength is that he has from the beginning of the primary contest polled best in head-to-head matchups against Trump. “Electability” was always the number one issue for most Democratic primary voters desperate to put an end to Trump’s reign, and it should come as no surprise that a Democratic electorate intensely focused on pragmatic viability settled on Biden to give itself the best chance of winning. But that doesn’t mean even older, more moderate Democratic voters want Biden determining the character of the party going forward–much less the younger (and by “younger” that means anyone under the age of 45!) progressive wing winning an increasingly larger share of the party’s internal battles. Biden is a calming caretaker for our democracy, not the face of the Democratic Party’s future. His vice-presidential pick shouldn’t be determining that, either.

In short, an underrated characteristic of Biden’s vice-presidential pick should be that she not necessarily want the job in four to eight years. Not as a knock against anyone he might choose, but because after the immediate danger of Trump is passed, Democratic voters should be at liberty to freely choose the direction of the party over the next decade without being locked into the defensive, electability-driven calculations of the Biden campaign in 2020.

 

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.