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Letter from Washington: The Veepstakes

Introducing a new newsletter from our US Editor

Welcome to Letter from Washington, a new weekly newsletter in which I’ll bring you the latest on the big, beautiful mess that is democracy in America.

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Covering these three areas — high politics, the anxieties of the American people, and the battle over how best to address those concerns — means covering the things that will determine what America looks like in five, ten and twenty-five years’ time. The range of possible outcomes could hardly be wider.

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Amid all the weirdness of the Covid-affected 2020 race, so far a pale digital imitation of previous campaigns, I want to devote my first letter to one the few reassuringly familiar features: the Veepstakes.

The quadrennial vice-presidential courtship has generally been a behind-the-scenes affair. But Joe Biden has been conducting an unusually public search.

First, the presumptive Democratic nominee committed to picking a female candidate (and did so without really explaining why). Then some of the party’s senior women threw their hats into the ring more openly than convention dictates. In the New York Times, Mark Leibovich calls the end of the phoney bashfulness about wanting your name on the ticket “progress, a win for the notion of saying what you want and advocating yourself”. It’s certainly a more honest way of doing things, but do the most ambitious men and women in American politics — hardly a meek bunch  — need another opportunity for public self-promotion?

Not only are things more out in the open this time around. They’re also more important. Biden is 77. His right-hand woman must be ready for the top job, and while he so far hasn’t pledged to step aside after one term, he has said that he sees himself as a “bridge” to a new “generation of leaders”.  However long the Biden presidency were to last, his veep would be seen as the frontrunner to succeed him.

But before Democrats get too excited about the next generation, they have more pressing business: defeating Trump. In the crowded field offering to help Biden do so, three heavyweight senators stand out. Amy Klobuchar, 59, from Minnesota, Kamala Harris, 55, from California and Elizabeth Warren, 70, from Massachusetts. Biden’s erstwhile primary opponents offer contrasting theories of how Democrats maximise their chances of victory in November.

To choose Klobuchar would be to double down on the core argument for the Biden candidacy: that the case to prosecute against Trump is about character, decency and public service, and that building an anti-Trump majority is best done not with a slate of radical policy proposals but by emphasising moderation and compromise.

As a primary candidate, Klobuchar sold herself as a centrist who can win over swing voters and understands the legislative jujitsu necessary to pass laws in Washington. She has racked up big numbers in senate elections in a battleground state that Hillary Clinton won by a 1.5-point margin. Perhaps most importantly, Klobuchar is — how can I put this? —boring. I think that is a huge plus in a race against Trump, a master of pantomime politics with a talent for villainising his opponents. It is difficult to paint Klobuchar as extreme or part of an out of touch elite, neutralising the go-to red-on-blue lines of attack. The biggest blots in her copybook are her reputation as a difficult boss and the (admittedly troubling) fact that she once ate a salad with a comb. Other American politicians have got away with worse.

Picking Klobuchar would therefore be a decision not to rock the boat by a campaign confident that sending Trump packing is motivation enough for the disparate Democratic coalition to stick together.

Both Warren and Harris, by contrast, would be picks designed to shore up parts of the party’s base and indicate that the Biden team see this election as a turnout competition: who can persuade their team to pitch up in greater numbers on the day. Warren, who this week effectively conceded defeat in the healthcare debate that dominated much of the primary, would nonetheless help neutralise the claim that there is nothing substantive about Biden’s presidential bid. Having positioned herself as a progressive wonk with a plan for everything, Warren would certainly excite a Democratic constituency and is a powerful voice within the party.

But one of the lessons of the primary is that there is a tendency to overstate the appetite for Warren’s very coastal mix of technocratic populism. And how important is it for Biden strut his progressive stuff when he is running to the left of Barack Obama and, as Perry Bacon Jr argues on FiveThirtyEight, could end up being the most liberal president in modern US history?

(I suspect that the Massachusetts senator is who Trump would most relish being on the ticket. She has taken his bait in the past, when she was goaded into a DNA test that backfired badly, and he would surely succeed in winding her up again.)

To pick Harris would be to subscribe to the view that an all-white ticket risks alienating a core part of the Democratic voter coalition. South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement of Biden was a turning point in the primary race, is one particularly influential exponent of that view. Biden’s claim in a radio interview this week that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black” will only increase the pressure to pick a non-white running-mate.

Harris, the daughter of an Indian-born mother and Jamaican-born father, ticks the demographic, age and experience boxes. She is also something of an ideological chameleon (don’t confuse this strength for a weakness) and has the political talents needed to do the heavy lifting on the campaign trail.

There are, of course, more than three names on the list. Others include Val Demmings, a centrist African-American congresswoman from Florida, the country’s biggest battleground state; Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (Strengths: butted heads with Trump over the coronavirus, swing state. Weakness: inexperienced); Stacey Abrams (Strengths: Cult hero of the party’s left wing, African-American. Weakness: has never won a state-wide election); and Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth (Strengths: Iraq vet, Asian-American, progressive. Weakness: progressive).

As you can see, the further down the list you go, the more it becomes a reductive game of veep top trumps, with candidates given scores for age, race, experience and political inclination.

But it is important to remember the incalculable human factor, especially when it comes to Biden. The presumptive Democratic nominee is a sentimental politician who prides himself on going with his gut and will likely place great value on who he clicks with. And so, for all the very public canvassing, Biden’s VP pick could end up being an unusually personal choice.

Recommended reading:

Rich Lowry, National Review: ‘Where does Ron DeSantis go to get his apology?’
Tom McTague, The Atlantic: ‘The Faucis of the world’
Halie Craig, Clark Packard and others, The Bulwark: ‘Josh Hawley’s new Smoot-Hawley’

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