vision 2020

The Meaning of Biden’s Promise to Choose a Woman Running Mate

1984 Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro. Photo: Tim Clary/Bettmann Archive

When Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the 2020 presidential race ten days ago, the once-robust possibility that a woman would win the Democratic nomination and finish the glass-ceiling-breaking exercise that Hillary Clinton failed to execute in 2016 formally vanished —assuming, as you should, that Tulsi Gabbard has proven not to be a viable candidate, at least for the Democratic Party. Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar were actually, or potentially, formidable candidates who fell by the wayside earlier, and it’s safe to say that first Harris and then Warren looked to have a clear and realistic path to the nomination over the course of the competition.

But the odds that a woman would at least be placed on the national Democratic ticket for the third time ever went up sharply during the CNN/Univision debate in Washington when Joe Biden firmly and for the first time promised to choose a woman as running mate. Since he is far and away the front-runner for the nomination, Uncle Joe’s pledge (nicely timed to overshadow any mistakes he might make in this debate) is money. But Bernie Sanders did allow that he would “in all likelihood” follow suit, though he may have crushed any vestigial hopes of a Sanders-Klobuchar Great Northern Tier ticket by focusing his consideration on a “progressive woman.” You’d have to guess Sanders will be pushed into a more definitive promise very soon.

To those of us who really wanted 2020 to crush once and for all the poorly documented notion that Clinton lost because of her gender, the willingness of these two men to choose a female running mate was at best a consolation prize. But depending on the circumstances and the identity of the woman in question, it could be a pretty big deal. Given their respective ages, Biden and Sanders are much better than average bets to be one-term presidents if they win in November. That would almost certainly make the vice-president the putative party leader and front-runner for the big job in 2024. And while we all focus on the fact that women have so far been denied the presidency, they’ve been denied the vice-presidency as well. It’s been 36 years since Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman (and so far, the only Democratic woman) to be nominated for vice-president. That Biden and (to a slightly lesser extent) Sanders feel breaking that drought is obligatory this year is a sign of real, if grossly overdue, progress.

Let’s say Biden does go on to win the nomination. Whom is he likely to pick? The big question is whether he feels most inclined to unite the party by choosing someone perceived as being well to his left (most obviously, Elizabeth Warren); by playing to a strength as well as paying off some debts by choosing an African-American (Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams, and Val Demings are all possibilities); or by choosing an ideologically anodyne white (Gretchen Whitmer, Tammy Duckworth, or Sally Yates) or Latino (Michelle Lujan Grisham or Catherine Cortez Masto) woman.

There’s plenty of time for speculation, unless Biden decides to relaunch his campaign before the convention by naming a ticket earlier. For all we know at this point, someone who has distinguished herself in the battle with COVID-19 may suddenly move to the fore. But at least it’s reasonably clear that the era of two Democratic men representing the Donkey Party’s diverse coalition are over.

The Meaning of Biden’s Promise to Choose a Woman as Veep