On the one hand, Joe Biden — who is running as the candidate who promises to make the presidency boring again — made the most obvious — that is, boring — selection for his running mate on the Democratic ticket.
California’s Kamala Harris was the logical choice all along — a nationally known senator from a big state who had run for president and acquitted herself well, even though she dropped out early. That speaks well of Biden. Logical selections are the ones that have performed well over time.
On the other hand? The fact that Harris — who is Black and South Asian — was the safe choice based on normal criteria is, let’s not forget, astonishing. She’s only the second Black woman in the Senate (after Carol Moseley Braun) and the first ever female senator of South Asian ancestry.
Yet she fits all the things that the Democratic Party in 2020 would look for in a running mate for Joe Biden. Unlike Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008, Harris is already a national figure.
Yes, she’s only had four years in the Senate along with a career in local and state government. But the magic of running for president, and her obvious comfort level during that campaign, means she’s apt to have far fewer questions about her qualifications — far fewer people unable to imagine her as president-if-necessary — than Ferraro, Palin, Dan Quayle and some other previously obscure choices had to overcome. At least I think that will be the case, and if it’s correct then that’s a sign of some real national progress.
Her selection also tells us a lot about the Democratic Party, especially if we think of these decisions — as we should — at least as much as the party’s choice as the nominee’s. Biden may have made the call to narrow the field down to women, a decision that probably handed it to Harris from the start, whether he realized it or not. But in making that choice, Biden was doing what Biden always does: finding the middle of the Democratic Party and sitting squarely in wherever that is. And the big energy in the party ever since November 2016 has been from women.
That’s why Democrats have nominated record numbers of women at all levels in 2018 and 2020, and why many more women ran for the Democratic nomination than had run for major-party nominations combined up through 2016. From the very beginning of the election cycle, most observers assumed that Democrats would not nominate an all-male ticket.
To be clear: All these nominations are not a case of the party catering to women. It’s a case where party actors, many of whom are women and almost all of whom support politically empowering women, nominate people they support.
And the same is true of the ethnic diversity Harris represents. Biden was never as certain to embrace ethnic diversity as he was certain to pick a woman, but again that’s where a lot of the energy in the party is. And that meant many of his potential choices were Black or Latina or Asian-American.
This is not about voter choice or even voter turnout. There’s not a lot of evidence that running mates do anything about that. It’s about demonstrating who the party is right now. All of this is an enormous change from what the Democratic Party was as late as the 1990s, when the party at best made very little effort to diversify its politicians.
Now we’ll see how these things hold up through a fall campaign. In a normal cycle, and barring scandal, vice-presidential picks tend to dominate the news right up to when they are selected and then disappear rapidly after their convention acceptance speech. Even those political scientists who find some indirect effects from the selection don’t think it amounts to much, and there’s almost no evidence that people vote for the bottom of the ticket and not the top. (Indeed, as I’ll keep arguing, when there’s an incumbent president on the ballot, even the out-party presidential nominee doesn’t have much impact on a voter’s choice, let alone the running mate.)
Could it be different this time? Perhaps. Many in the media may believe that the first Black woman on a national ticket is such a big story that it drives coverage in a way that most running mates don’t. Donald Trump has often seemed particularly eager to attack women and Black people, especially Black women. Since he’s found little success running against Biden so far, he may choose to spend more time attacking the vice-presidential candidate than would typically be the case — even if it’s counterproductive for him.
It’s also possible that Biden’s advanced age will make the media more focused on the second slot (although that didn’t happen in 2016, when both nominees at the top of the ticket were unusually old, and it doesn’t appear to be happening with Trump now). And the oddities of electioneering during the pandemic might throw off all sorts of media norms.
Of course, it’s always possible that some scandal will turn up that everyone missed during Harris’s earlier presidential run and that Biden’s vetting team also missed. But the advantage of selecting someone who has already been in the race makes surprises less likely.
So my bet is that Biden has successfully made a solid, boring selection. She’s qualified for the presidency if necessary, and she’s unlikely to harm his chances at winning. And she reminds us again that Biden is, above all, a mainstream Democrat. Whatever that is at the moment.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.