With presumptive Democratic nominee for President Joe Biden prepared to announce his running mate as soon as this weekend, it should be widely considered who presidential contenders from previous years have selected for the No. 2 job in the United States, and why. Answering these fundamental questions can guide Americans through the secretive selection process for Vice President, and illuminate the public as to who Biden, a former Vice President himself, will choose to serve with him in the White House if elected this November.
Biden has already taken many steps to make public certain aspects of his running mate selection process. He has publicly named potential running mates, from Kamala Harris to Susan Rice, to Stacey Abrams. Biden has also told people at a fundraising event held on May 27, alongside Pete Buttigieg, that Biden planned to announce his vice presidential pick around August 1, according to CNN. With that benchmark rapidly approaching, it is worth a look at the facts of previous selection processes to determine who Biden will likely choose.
Without a doubt, the most important insight Biden has given to the process came on March 15, when, during a CNN-Univision debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders, Biden announced a woman would be his Vice President, saying “If I am elected President, my cabinet, my administration will look like the country. I commit that I will, in fact, pick a woman to be Vice President. There are a number of women who are qualified to be President tomorrow. I would pick a woman to be my Vice President.“
Biden’s shortlist for Vice President (at least, that of it made public already), aligns perfectly with his March 15 pledge. Media speculation has revolved tightly around a number of women who loom large in national politics, including Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Fmr. National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Biden’s pledge to designate an experienced woman to be Vice President would not be the first motivational prerequisite in a selection process for the job. In fact, clear motivations have been present in all eight selections since 2000, and they may shed light on Biden’s own motivations.
In 2000, Vice President Al Gore easily won the Democratic nomination for President, with minimal opposition. In the prior two years, incumbent President Bill Clinton, with whom Al Gore was closely associated, had undergone impeachment and trial from the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The impeachment was sparked by allegations of perjury against Clinton when it came to light that he engaged in an extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Between the beginning of Clinton’s second term in 1997 and 2000, Clinton’s approval rating nationally had dropped roughly 10%. To disassociate himself with Clinton, Gore selected Joe Lieberman, a moderate senator from Connecticut who, according to The New York Times, had an open record of anti-Clinton sentiments in the past. Gore and Lieberman went on to lose the election very narrowly to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
George W. Bush, a relatively young Governor of Texas, won the Republican nomination in 2000, with his only political experience to that point being his governorship of five years. Bush, despite having connections to his father, former President George H.W. Bush, who had extensive foreign policy experience, did not have much himself. Bush’s relative lack of experience and lack of knowledge of foreign policy compared to his opponent, Al Gore, spurred him to select for Vice President Dick Cheney, a former congressman, chief of staff, and Secretary of Defense. Bush reportedly saw Cheney’s readiness for the presidency as much more important than any influence he may have on swing states in any region. The Bush/Cheney ticket went on to narrowly win in 2000 and 2004.
In 2004, incumbent President George W. Bush faced Sen. John Kerry (Mass.). Kerry had won the Democratic nomination relatively easily, with over 60% of the vote. Kerry was undeniably part of the Democratic establishment and faced a tough race against an incumbent wartime President. For Vice President, Kerry went on to select Sen. John Edwards (N.C.). Edwards was the first choice of voters for the job, according to polling, and had high name recognition, as he was the runner up to the Democratic nomination that Kerry won. Above all else, the electoral college was prioritized in the selection. Every Democratic ticket that won an election since 1960 up to that point had included a Vice President from a swing state. North Carolina, which has been very narrow in previous elections, was Edwards’s home. The ticket narrowly lost the 2004 election to Bush/Cheney…
In 2008, a young, African-American senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, narrowly beat out Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Obama, who was just elected senator four years prior, had won the Democratic nomination with his charisma, rather than his wealth of experience. Therefore, Obama needed to select a running mate that had the foreign-policy knowledge he lacked, the wealth of experience he did not possess, and the Caucasian racial makeup that would reassure voters made uneasy by Obama’s race. That pick was Sen. Joe Biden (Del.). The ticket would go on to win the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.
In 2008, the Republicans chose Vietnam War hero and Senator from Arizona John McCain to be their presidential nominee. McCain was very old compared to Obama, being 72 years old in 2008. McCain had decades of a strong military, domestic, and foreign policy experience, yet his strongest deficit lied in his lack of energy and charisma compared to Sen. Obama. McCain, therefore, made an unconventional choice to be his running mate: Gov. Sarah Palin (Alaska). Palin was a young, dynamic conservative. Age 44, she had only been Governor for a year and a half. The choice of Palin was meant to steal from Sen. Obama the notion of changing Washington, which Obama heavily relied on. McCain/Palin would go on to lose 2008 in a landslide.
Four years later, in 2012, Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) went on to win the Republican nomination to challenge incumbent Barack Obama. Romney was very wealthy due to his connections to investment firm Bain Capital. Romney was portrayed as an establishment politician without relatability to the average American by Obama. To counteract this, Romney chose Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) to be his running mate. Ryan, who was only 42 at a time, was from a key swing state and had massive working-class appeal, offsetting Romney’s extreme wealth. The ticket went on to lose to Obama/Biden in November 2012.
In 2016, both presidential nominees emerged from contentious primaries. On the Democratic side, Sec. Hillary Clinton, a moderate, establishment Democrat from New York, won her party’s nomination. She went on to select Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.) to be her running mate. Kaine’s fluency in Spanish was seen as potentially helpful with Hispanic voters, and his experience as both a governor and a senator from a key swing state showed he had the experience to take over on day one. On the Republican side, businessman Donald Trump emerged from an explosive primary. Trump, who had a long record of derogatory comments towards minorities and women, and who had had many wives and affairs, was seen as a potential poison pill for evangelical conservatives. Trump, to offset his apparent lack of religiosity and political experience, chose Gov. Mike Pence (Ind.), a strongly religious conservative, to be his running mate. Trump/Pence went on to narrowly defeat Clinton/Kaine.
Looking back at previous vice presidential selections, it is clear that the top priority of a running mate is to make up for political or personal perceived deficits in the presidential nominee. This has been true for each and every ticket for two decades. For Joe Biden, the primary criticisms he tends to receive revolve around his advanced age and lack of racial diversity. For Biden, he would likely be aided by a running mate who is a young woman of color who is prepared with experience to become President if the need arises.
The top name that has been floated around amongst Biden supporters and the press for Biden’s running mate is Sen. Kamala Harris. Harris performed fairly well in the Democratic primary until she suspended her campaign in December 2019. Harris has both executive and legislative experience in both state and federal governments. Harris is relatively young, in her early 50s, and is African-American and Indian-American. She, however, is just one of many choices.
Whoever Biden chooses to be his running mate will have a strong chance at becoming the 49th Vice President of the United States on January 20, 2021. With Biden’s potential to be the oldest President in American history, the choice of Vice President is more crucial than ever before. History dictates that to win a presidential election, every base must be covered. History dictates that to defeat the opposition in a presidential election, a ticket must fight from all fronts and cover each other’s flaws. There are numerous options that secure strength in light of Biden’s many deficiencies, but only one will answer the crucial question: who will he pick?
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