vision 2020

Joe Biden’s VP Search Is Turning Into an Open Audition

Biden and one of his leading contenders. Photo: Anthony Lanzilote/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The background checks, interviews, and vetting are unfolding behind closed doors in Washington and Wilmington, and on secured Zoom calls. But Joe Biden’s invitation-only search for a running mate is starting to look like an open audition with an audience of 300 million.

Stuck at home staring at his basement camera and iPhone, Biden has kept his cards close, refusing to express any preference for any of the dozen or so women he’s considering to join his ticket. That hasn’t stopped just about everyone who has his number from flooding him with advice since he effectively wrapped up the Democratic presidential nomination in March. And ever since he named a committee to lead the formal selection process last month, that group has been inundated with recommendations from just about everyone else — including via unsolicited texts from a handful of lawmakers promoting their friends as viable contenders, and searching for gossip, after word leaked among some House members in mid-May that Biden’s team had started asking candidates for references.

Formally, the committee members — former senator and lobbyist Chris Dodd, Delaware congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, and former Biden aide and Apple government affairs head Cynthia Hogan — have quietly been seeking the counsel of high-ranking elected officials, labor leaders, and people close to Barack Obama, who has spoken with Biden himself extensively about the process. They’re looking for the pros and cons of the individual contenders, people familiar with the conversations tell New York, but also for information about what various party constituencies are interested in and concerned about. “It’s the first time that I’ve ever actually had real conversations with a presidential nominee about who their vice-presidential candidate should be, including [in 2016, when] we were very close to Hillary and we were not asked our opinion,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the powerful American Federation of Teachers union.

Meanwhile, the pols widely thought to be in contention are also making their ambitions known and maneuvering for Biden’s attention — and doing so more publicly than Democratic insiders, who are accustomed to a typically secretive process peppered with denials of interest, have ever seen before.

Stacey Abrams’s push for the job is by far the most public, to a degree that’s amazed some traditionalist Biden allies. The former Georgia statehouse minority leader is the only candidate openly campaigning for it, sitting for a range of interviews about why she would be “an excellent running mate,” while also aiming to bulk up some of the weaker spots on her résumé: She may have little international experience, but this month she published an essay in Foreign Affairs outlining her view of American leadership.

Still, many people close to Biden are convinced he will ultimately choose among Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar — and many game their chances in roughly that order, though the ranking has shifted a few times in recent weeks, in their view, and likely will again. Publicly, Harris has been focused on pandemic-era voting rights and the coronavirus’s unequal effect on minority communities, topics she’s discussed in virtual events for Biden’s campaign. But she’s pitched in behind the scenes, too, handing Biden access to her donor network in a handful of fundraisers. And after her disorganized campaign crumbled last year, she’s slimmed down her roster of political advisers — an encouraging sign to Biden allies — while in mid-May, Biden hired her former political director to advise him on Latino voters. Warren, meanwhile, has recently emphasized protections for essential workers and the need for oversight of Trump’s stimulus spending. She’s discussed those priorities repeatedly with Biden, leading to a joint op-ed they published in a chain of swing-state newspapers early this month. Though the progressive and the centrist have clashed in the past, Biden has, increasingly, been calling Warren for policy advice. And people who’ve spoken with him say Biden noted it with interest when Obama said privately last year that he’d been impressed with Warren’s campaign. Biden and Warren have spoken at least four times since the senator left the race in March, including after her brother died of the virus last month.

Biden called Klobuchar, too, when her husband was diagnosed with COVID-19, and they spoke when he recovered. The Minnesotan, whose election-protection and voting-rights work Biden has followed, has been eager to feature in his campaign events ever since she first endorsed him in March and, soon after, slipped by telling a Michigan crowd she couldn’t think of a better way to end her campaign “than to join the ticket,” before correcting herself: “I was going to say, than to join the terrific campaign of Joe Biden.” Since then, she has headlined a handful of events alone, like a virtual letter-to-the-editor-writing workshop for Colorado educators, and joined Biden for others. In April, she appeared on his new podcast to discuss their shared prioritization of bipartisanship and esteem for John McCain, as well as the importance of compassion and empathy in the White House.

Some of the longer shots have gotten in on the action, too. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, whom Biden made a co-chair of his campaign in early March, also joined his podcast in early April to talk about her state’s coronavirus response and the federal government’s failures. And Florida congresswoman Val Demings, a former police chief and Donald Trump impeachment manager, has made a point of stepping up her presence on cable news shows, and she recently joined Biden for a virtual campaign event aimed at Orlando voters.

Even with all that activity, it’s not clear whether the various influence campaigns will have much effect on Biden or his committee. Some of the party’s most powerful figures have, for now, refrained from pressuring Biden one way or another. “The names that we’re hearing, we are friends with all of those folks, and we are going to rely upon his judgment,” Lee Saunders, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees president, told me. He’s in frequent touch with Biden and his camp about workers’ needs during the pandemic, he said, and that remains his priority: “We aren’t going to sit down and talk to him about who we want.” Bernie Sanders hasn’t offered his thoughts, either, even as some of his closest allies — like California congressman Ro Khanna, one of his campaign chairs, and Our Revolution, his affiliated political group — advocate for Warren.

Still, a wide range Democratic influencers have decided to give it a shot. Some labor leaders, like Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants, have made cases for Warren, as has pollster Stan Greenberg, who presented supportive polling data to Biden’s inner circle. Harold Schaitberger, the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters —the first union to endorse Biden — has told him he favors someone with both legislative and executive government experience. (Schaitberger wouldn’t tell me who he’d recommended, but this could describe Harris or Whitmer, and possibly Nevada senator Catherine Cortez Masto or New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, too.)

The melee extends to top party fundraisers, who’ve argued for both Harris and Klobuchar, while a network of women donors commissioned a survey showing Abrams would be his best bet. A handful of Latino advocacy groups are ramping up the pressure to choose a Hispanic lawmaker, specifically Cortez Masto or Lujan Grisham, while VoteVets, a group backing veteran candidates, is pushing Illinois senator Tammy Duckworth. And a number of black lawmakers and operatives have made clear to Biden that he should choose a black woman, after he relied heavily on African-American votes in the primary. This includes Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina congressman credited with saving Biden’s campaign in February, and Al Sharpton, who initially planned to back Abrams, but who now praises Harris too.

Meanwhile Chuck Schumer, wary of losing ground in the Senate, has privately talked up Harris — whose California seat would stay safely in Democratic hands if she vacated it — as well as Whitmer and Demings, whose selections would have no effect on the chamber. And Harry Reid, Schumer’s predecessor as the party’s Senate leader, is now encouraging Biden to pick Cortez Masto, even after he encouraged Clinton to pick Warren in 2016, and then encouraged Warren to run for president.

Got all that?

Back in 2007, when Biden was slogging his way to a one percent finish in the Iowa caucuses, he would privately muse about announcing his vice-presidential pick far earlier than candidates usually do. It would create a jolt of attention and project his priorities clearly, he’d insist to aides. He’s returned to the idea over time. When Biden was considering running in 2015, he told Warren he wanted to choose her, and shortly before he announced he was running in 2019, he weighed naming Abrams on day one. But now, in candid moments, Biden allows that actually making a decision will probably take more time than the political world seems to expect, so his timing is likely to be conventional. The background-check process, which began in late April, could by itself take up to two months.

The selection is still a persistent concern for him. When friends ask what he’s looking for he repeats his public criteria: He wants to feel comfortable with the person, she must be prepared to step into the job immediately, the pair must be mostly ideologically aligned, and — as Obama has encouraged in their now-frequent calls — she should have strengths complementary to Biden’s.

“Some of the characteristics that we were instructed to look for are characteristics the committee is looking for now,” former Attorney General Eric Holder, a close Obama friend who helped run the 2008 VP selection, told me. In recent weeks he and others involved in that selection have spoken with Biden’s committee about their process structure, and offered advice. “If there are differences, you have to figure out what they mean in terms of their worldview,” said Holder. “Are they compatible? The person has to realize that as important as you are as vice-president, you’re number two. You’re part of the team.”

Still, Biden often talks about being a transitional president who can empower a new generation of Democratic leaders — a necessity given his age, even if no one around him will admit out loud that he’s unlikely to run for a second term. He’s been considering what kind of message he wants to send about the future of the country and the party with his pick.

The omnipresent devastation of the pandemic has helped clarify the choice among at least some of the people around Biden. For one, multiple informal advisers cast doubt on the idea that he could choose a governor, since it’s unclear if she would have time to devote herself to campaigning amid the outbreak. “If you listen to Fauci, this is spiking in the fall, and if it spikes badly, Whitmer can’t be on the campaign trail,” warned Ed Rendell, a Biden friend and a former Pennsylvania governor and DNC chairman.

The imperative of finding someone who can seamlessly step into an executive disaster-management role in January has also dimmed the prospects of potential contenders who haven’t yet been elected to statewide office — like Abrams and Demings — in the eyes of some Biden whisperers. It’s increasingly likely, they say, that the tradition-bound Biden will keep a trend going: The party’s last six vice-presidential nominees — and 14 of its last 16 — were senators.

Yet as the pandemic has expanded Biden’s own view of what he’ll need to accomplish as president, it also appears to have broadened the scope of one of his most important criterias: that his choice be ideologically simpatico with him. This is no longer read by Biden allies as a clear knock against Warren, as the pair has grown closer over the last two months.

Warren may be the contender whose policy priorities seem most out of step with Biden’s long-held M.O,. Rendell allowed, “but those differences, in the end, are not differences in what the goals should be, but how to reach the goals.” In a crisis moment like this one, he continued, that kind of disagreement is largely beside the point. Biden, after all, has recently described his own onetime differences with Obama in similar terms. “The person who probably reflects Joe Biden’s views on things most is Amy Klobuchar, but there’s not that much of a difference between what Amy would do and what Elizabeth would do,” said Rendell, who briefly backed Klobuchar before the former vice-president entered the race last year. The longtime Biden ally, who has previously been skeptical of Warren, returned to the electoral map. “It’s a tougher-than-all-get-out choice, because if he’s comfortable with all of them — that all of them are competent to be president — then you gotta make a political consideration. And I don’t know what’s best, to be honest. I think it’s a crap shoot.” If he were in Biden’s shoes, Rendell said, he would choose Klobuchar, but would be happy with any of the three former candidates. “Politically, the question is: Do you need an African-American woman to get good African-American turnout?,” he continued, referring to Harris. “Do they need to make peace with the progressives? They can’t afford to lose 15 percent of Bernie’s voters,” he said, pointing to Warren. Or, nodding toward Klobuchar, “Do you need someone who’s going to appeal to the Midwest?”

This is, basically, the conventional wisdom view of Biden’s political quandary. But some party machers, including a smattering who remain close to Obama, have recently come around to another one: that Trump’s presence on the ballot will ensure maximum turnout among all constituencies, no matter what. That means Biden might as well leave short-term politics out of his decision, which keeps bringing him back to the vetting process he knows best: his own.

“In some ways there are a lot of similarities” to 2008, said Holder. “You’re dealing with — although it wasn’t as clear when we were doing the search — an economic crisis. You’re also going to be dealing with a health crisis. But what was clear back then, as was expressed by then-Senator Obama, was you’re looking for somebody who could help him govern. It wasn’t about political calculations — who could help us win one state or another.” So Biden is looking for his Biden. “He has a sense that he was an influential, consequential vice-president, and that was largely a function of his relationship with President Obama.”

Not that any of this really clears anything up quite yet. Ever since the formal process actually began last month, Biden himself has been uncharacteristically tight-lipped about his preferences, and absent in-person campaign events to showcase his chemistry with the contenders, that’s left even some of the people closest to him parsing his every statement about possible choices.

They’ve been searching for hints in the transcripts of his podcast episode with Whitmer (minimal) and a recent joint MSNBC interview he did with Abrams (ditto), and looking for patterns in his tweets about Warren’s oversight work (nada). They’ve tried deciphering whatever scraps trickle out from his frequent fundraisers, too. Some moderate hearts beat a bit faster after Biden smiled when a donor told him he and Klobuchar “look really great together” during a private event they tag-teamed earlier this month.

But the close-readers’ consensus is that the nearest Biden’s gotten to tipping his hand may have been on a video call with supporters one Wednesday afternoon in early April. Roughly 50 high-powered backers, including Norman Lear, Dee Dee Myers, and a former ambassador to Germany looked on as Biden thanked Harris for her support. “The idea, Kamala, that you ran a hell of a race and endorsed me — it means a lot. It’s not an easy thing to do, but, you know, thanks for making the time and for being so loyal,” he said. “And I’m so lucky to have you as part of this, this partnership going forward, because I think we’re going together we can make a — we can make a great deal of difference, and the biggest thing we can do is make Donald Trump a one-term president. So I’m coming for you, kid.”

Joe Biden’s VP Search Is Turning Into an Open Audition