The biggest choice of Joe Biden’s political life is being made for him – by his own gaffes and the ongoing protests over the murder of George Floyd: It now seems a near-certainty that he will (and should) name a black woman as his vice presidential running mate.
Consider where we are as a country at the moment.
* Floyd’s death has sparked (mostly) peaceful protests around the country, not just about police brutality but also about the deep and abiding racial inequalities present in American society. (Check out these six charts that show the reality of inequality powerfully.)
* Biden angered many in the black community when, in a late May interview with Charlamagne tha God on “The Breakfast Club,” the former vice president said “you ain’t black” if you were undecided on who to vote for in 2020.
* Biden helped to write the 1994 crime bill, a law that has been widely panned – particularly by members of the black community – for its impact on levels of incarceration, among other reverberations.
* Biden owes his status as the presumptive presidential nominee almost entirely to black voters – particularly those in South Carolina. Biden’s campaign was faltering badly – he had finished 4th in Iowa, 5th in New Hampshire and 2nd in Nevada – prior to the February 29 Palmetto State primary. According to exit polling, black voters made up a majority (56%) of the South Carolina primary electorate and went overwhelmingly (61%) for Biden. His victory in the state propelled him to a series of wins on Super Tuesday – just three days later – and, at that point, the nomination was his.
South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement of Biden days before the primary was, without question, the turning point of the race, was asked about Biden choosing a black woman as his running mate on Wednesday morning in a conversation with The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart. “The only thing that’s a must in this process at this time is to win,” Clyburn said. “That’s to win. It will be a plus to have an African American woman. It will be a plus to have a Latino. It will be a plus to have a woman.”
True enough! But there’s a strong case to be made that the best chance of Biden winning the White House is by picking a black woman as his running mate.
Remember that one of the central reasons that Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election to Donald Trump was that black voters dropped as a percentage of the overall electorate from 2012 and she won them less overwhelmingly than had then-President Barack Obama.
For all of the focus on the industrial Midwest and white, non-college educated voters who went with Trump, had Clinton been able to drive black turnout to the level it was during Obama’s two victories, she almost certainly would have won.
Now, simply putting a person of color on the ticket doesn’t mean that you win the votes of black people or ensure they turn out in large numbers. But politics at the presidential level is often about symbolism. And who Biden picks as his vice president will be his best chance to reveal how he views his party, the country and the world – and what he prioritizes amongst the many, many issues facing the US at the moment.
Go back to Biden being picked by Obama in 2008. The concern among voters at the time was that a relatively inexperienced senator – Obama had been in the chamber for just two years when he started running for president – might have too large a learning curve as president. So Obama picked Biden, a man who had spent his entire adult life in politics and Washington, to send a symbolic message that there would be a steady hand at the wheel. George W. Bush made a similar nerve-calming pick with Dick Cheney in 2000. Trump chose Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate as a nod to the party establishment – although, in retrospect, it’s clear that it was just a nod, not an actual attempt to incorporate establishment views and approaches into his presidency.
Biden, if you listened closely to his speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday, seemed to be hinting at the need for major action – and different choices – when it came to addressing the still-smoldering issue of race in the country. Here’s the key part of what he said (bolding is mine):
“It will take more than talk. We’ve had talk before. We’ve had protests before.”
“Let us vow to make this, at last, an era of action to reverse systemic racism with long overdue and concrete changes.
“That action will not be completed in the first 100 days of my Presidency – or even an entire term.
“It is the work of a generation.”
Picking a black woman who is a generation (or more) younger than Biden would send a heck of a signal about how committed he actually is to changing the racial dynamics in this country. (It would be the first time a black woman was a vice presidential nominee for either major party.)
And lucky for Biden, he has a number of African American women who would make excellent choices.
Even before Biden’s “you ain’t black” gaffe and the uprising following George Floyd’s murder, California Sen. Kamala Harris (age 55), who was both the first African American and Indian American elected to the Senate from California, was at the top of my VP rankings. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (50 years old) and Florida Rep. Val Demings (63 years old) were in the Top 6. Now? It’s hard to see three more people more likely to be the pick. (Stay tuned for my new rankings on Thursday!)
Biden has said he hopes to make a decision on his running mate by August 1. In truth, his decision may well have been made – or at least significantly narrowed – by the events of the past 10 days.