Thanks to the postponement and cancellation of spring Democratic primaries — which has left Joe Biden the uncrowned but generally acknowledged nomination winner — the veepstakes are getting more early attention than usual. And aside from Biden’s own decision to narrow the field to women, the selection process is mostly following the hallowed patterns, as modified by the peculiar conditions of the coronavirus pandemic. In Biden’s camp, there’s private vetting going on (particularly for the prospects who weren’t pre-vetted during their own presidential campaigns); lots of name-dropping to show respect for different party constituencies; and quiet whispering designed to fuel the endless badminton game of chattering-class speculation and evaluation of potential running mates.
Among those quietly auditioning for the gig, you generally see modest demurrals of ambition that stop far short of actual unwillingness to strap on the party harness and see one’s name accompanying Biden’s on bumper stickers and posters everywhere. Just being “mentioned” is a nice career enhancement for most pols, and the sort of thing that even makes it into obituaries. But it’s generally assumed that one does not try to move up the totem pole of veep prospects by publicly lobbying for the honor, on grounds that it puts undue “pressure” on the presidential nominee and interferes with his ritualistic dance of twirling this way and that in search of a soul mate.
There has been a conspicuous exception to all the coyness: former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and mega voting-rights activist Stacey Abrams, who has cheerfully been making the case for herself (and/or for women of color) as Biden’s running mate. Her own explanation (via CNN) of why she’s not playing the usual game is persuasive:
“I try to be straightforward because while we hope the work speaks for itself, sometimes the work needs a hype man,” Abrams said on The View this month. “And I learned early on that if I didn’t speak for myself, I couldn’t tell the story.”
Former Atlanta mayor and Abrams mentor Shirley Franklin put it more bluntly:
“She believes that women are often passed over and that they have to speak up for themselves, so why shouldn’t they,” said Franklin. “And you can’t argue with that. Women have been passed over!”
Abrams isn’t just Everywoman, though. The idea of a Biden-Abrams ticket was bruited about by Biden’s own staff before the former veep even announced his candidacy, as a sort of curtain-raising blockbuster. That trial balloon was shot down not by Biden or his staff, but by Abrams, who sensibly decided against spending over a year “running for second place” at a time when her name was still circulating as a possible contender for the big job. She also made it clear she was by no means ruling out a veep bid once the nominee was decided, assuming it wasn’t herself. So in talking about the vice-presidential nomination openly now, she’s only continuing a discussion begun by Biden’s campaign.
How about the idea that Abrams shouldn’t put “pressure” on Uncle Joe until he’s ready to make up his mind? “Pressure” may well legitimately be part of her purpose. There’s plenty of pressure on Biden to go in a different direction than Abrams or any other woman of color, thanks to the obsession some Democrats have with maximizing the ticket’s appeal to midwestern white, working-class voters, the fear of provoking racists, an old-school pre-Trump preoccupation with résumé power, or the kind of caution that led Hillary Clinton to choose the unoffensive but non-value-adding Tim Kaine as her running mate in 2016. There’s never been a woman of color on a national ticket. It’s not going to happen without “pressure,” and you can be sure that candidates with access to insiders’ back channels are using them aggressively, albeit out of the public eye. The tool of access available to Abrams — which has the advantage of serving as a live audition for a national campaign — is her public voice.
As it happens, Stacey Abrams’s voice is already a regular part of national discourse. She’s already getting plenty of attention as the former Democratic opponent to a Republican governor who is gambling her state’s health and safety in a precipitant relaxation of coronavirus precautions. She’s also a preeminent authority on protecting voting rights at a time when minority voting is probably more threatened than it has been since Jim Crow ended, and a representative of the particular demographic (African-American women) without whose steady support Joe Biden would not be in the position to name a running mate in the first place.
It’s a separate question, of course, whether Abrams sometimes doubts the wisdom of taking on a partnership with Joe Biden in what will inevitably be a subordinate role. She’s a Georgia Democrat and a pragmatist, which means she has plenty of experience in working with politicians whose policy positions and skill levels don’t match her own, and a clear understanding of the Democratic Party as a multiracial and trans-ideological coalition. So running with this old man and all his baggage to rid the country of Donald Trump won’t daunt her.
But as my colleague Rebecca Traister points out, the increasingly strong possibility that allegations against Biden of sexual harassment and even sexual assault will be a regular feature of the general election campaign will represent a heavy cross to bear — or perhaps, as Traister puts it, a “poisoned chalice” — for any woman sharing the ticket with him:
[His] promise to choose a woman ensures that whoever she is, she will be forced to answer — over and over again — for Biden’s treatment of other women, including the serious allegations of assault leveled by Tara Reade.
If Stacey Abrams is ready for that unique challenge, then yes, she should continue to advertise her availability. If she’s chosen and Democrats win in November, she will undoubtedly have earned Joe Biden’s ear for as long as he’s president, and a presumption that she will succeed him once the Trump era and its pathologies have been finally consigned to the dustbin of history.