Washington – Joe Biden, now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is in the earliest stages of choosing a running mate who can help him defeat President Donald Trump in November, a decision complicated by the effects of the coronavirus crisis on the country and the campaign.
Biden, who is far behind Trump in fund-raising and hamstrung by social distancing rules, is preparing to begin his vetting process in the coming days, according to a person familiar with the plans. Yet alongside the usual political considerations, he will have to add a new factor: Who can best address the challenges of the COVID-19 era?
High profile senators — and former presidential candidates — Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren are all sure to get consideration. Yet the crisis has also raised the profile of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who Biden has said he was watching closely even before the pandemic struck.
Some outsiders have speculated about Biden picking New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has been widely praised for his stewardship during the crisis, but the former vice president is unlikely to stray from his commitment to pick a woman as his running mate.
Biden’s pledge to choose a woman eased the Democrats’ hand-wringing that came when, despite a large and diverse candidate field, they eventually chose a 77-year-old white man and Washington insider as their nominee. All the other usual factors will be considered, too — who can help him win a region or a demographic, who doesn’t have a scandal lurking in her past, and who is, in his words, “simpatico” with him and his style of governing.
Biden faces this choice in a vastly different political landscape than when he entered the race, or even since his decisive win in South Carolina catapulted him to front-runner status. The markets have taken a beating, tens of millions of people are out of work and voters fear another wave of the virus in the fall, before election day.
“He knows exactly what it will feel like to have a partner, not just a running mate, not someone who is politically convenient or would make for a good profile but someone who he can trust,” said Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, Biden’s home state, and a close ally.
“He’s looking for someone who is soulful, whip-smart, capable, compatible and who will really be able to step in and play that right-hand partner role from day one.”
The vetting process has traditionally begun with lawyers combing through publicly available information about a large group of candidates. A smaller group are then asked to provide private records and most move on to interview with the candidate.
In 2016, about 20 people began the process in April, 10 made it to the next round in June, and nominee Hillary Clinton interviewed several finalists before selecting Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate. Washington lawyer James Hamilton has led the process for every Democratic nominee since Al Gore in 2000.
“He should consider who helps make the best team that sends the message to the American people that this is the team that can get us back on track, this is the team that’s going to give us competence versus the incompetence of Trump and Pence,” said Democratic strategist Karen Finney, who was Kaine’s communications director in 2016.
The new calculations have put a lot of attention on Whitmer, 48, who has been one of the most visible governors during the crisis. Michigan is a crucial swing state that Trump won by 0.23 percent in 2016, and when she fought for more federal assistance last month, she was dismissed by the president as “that woman from Michigan.” That rallied Biden and other national Democrats to her defense.
A test of her rapport with Biden came in a 20-minute podcast conversation between the two earlier this week. In it, Biden described her as “one of the most talented people in the country in my view” and asked her about things they have in common, including a willingness to work with Republicans. Without in-person events for the foreseeable future, virtual interactions such as the podcast are the Biden campaign’s best shot at testing his chemistry with potential running mates.
A Michigan Democrat who is close to Whitmer and requested anonymity to speak candidly about the process said Whitmer would be a strong running mate but questions whether she would be selected if the pandemic is still wreaking havoc on her state and demanding her attention.
Even before the crisis, Biden made clear he would pick a running mate who could immediately step into the presidency should his good health suddenly turn or, as he’s suggested, if he gets struck by lightning. The threat of an infectious disease around the world only amplifies the importance of his choice.
“Everybody will mouth that you have to be able to step into the job and I think Biden will take that particularly seriously because of his age,” said John Podesta, who, as Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman, helped her pick Kaine.
Biden has suggested that the problems he would inherit in January 2021 could be worse than those Franklin D. Roosevelt faced in 1933. Therefore, his vice president is likely to be given a large workload that will require significant trust and independence from the president, just as Biden got from President Barack Obama in 2009 to oversee the automobile industry bailout and the distribution of stimulus money after the 2008 financial crisis.
“His experience in 2009 will be really fresh in his mind as he thinks about finding a partner who could take on that kind of work,” said Liz Allen, a former White House communications aide who traveled with Biden to construction sites and firehouses across the country as the recovery act was implemented. Although he and Obama didn’t know each other particularly well at the start of the administration, “trust and transparency were already there between them,” she said.
In this moment, “executive experience and particularly crisis experience is probably something that the public would gravitate to,” Podesta said, which is likely to help the prospects of any governors or other executives he considers. Despite his desire to find a running mate with whom he’d have the same close personal and professional relationship he had with Obama over eight years, electoral considerations will still be at play, Podesta added.
“He will have a unique perspective having been vice president and will be thinking about working in the White House with this person but that does not mean that the number one criteria won’t be who would help me get elected and who will hurt me in my quest to get elected,” Podesta said.
Biden also faces significant pressure to choose a woman of color from prominent supporters and activists, like Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, whose endorsement just before his state’s primary breathed new life into the campaign, and civil rights icon and Georgia Rep. John Lewis.
Harris, just the second black female U.S. senator, is seen as a top contender. When she joined Biden at a video fundraiser on Wednesday, he alluded to bringing her into his administration. “I’m so lucky to have you as part of this partnership going forward because I think working together we can make a great deal of difference and the biggest thing we can do is making Donald Trump a one term president,” he said.
But some in Biden’s orbit, including his wife, Jill, are wary of Harris after her debate-stage attack last summer on Biden’s record on school busing and because Harris’s team was aggressive in trying to place negative stories about him in the press. Biden has said he’s moved on, but Jill Biden was still talking about it in public as recently as March, when she described Harris’ words as a “punch to the gut,” in part because Harris was close with Biden’s late son Beau.
If Biden doesn’t choose a woman of color, he must remind voters of his commitment to diversity other ways, Finney said. “He’ll need to stress that regardless of who he picks, he will have an administration that reflects the broad diversity of our country,” including his pledge to appoint the first black woman to the Supreme Court.
A number of women remain in the mix for the No. 2 spot. Klobuchar has made no secret of her interest in the job. Her chances could be helped by a bit of misfortune — her husband was hospitalized in March with the coronavirus but has since recovered — that could help her connect with other affected families.
Other senators likely to get a close look include Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, and Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen both of New Hampshire. Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House of Representatives minority leader will also be on his list. And Biden has said that he would consider Sally Yates, the former deputy attorney general fired by Trump.