Joe Biden’s running-mate decision will infuse his campaign with some qualities he lacks. It could also have major repercussions in Democratic politics for many years to come. I spoke with Jonathan Chait about how things might shake out.
Ben: Joe Biden shocked the world — sorry, I meant shocked no one — by picking Kamala Harris as his running mate on Tuesday. We’ve had a lot of time to digest this very likely selection, but now that it has finally happened: Do you think it was a smart call, and will it do anything to actually change this race with less than three months to go?
Jon: I don’t think the decision will have much effect on the race. I think it should be seen primarily for its significance in setting up Harris as Biden’s successor. When you account for both the probability that Biden wins and the likelihood he only serves one term, there’s probably never been a VP that was as likely to become president since Harry Truman in 1944.
As I’ve said before, my concern is the haphazard campaign she ran. I would hope Biden satisfied himself that she has analyzed that campaign and is capable of running a better operation in the future. But I do think her ceiling is very high.
Ben: Putting aside her possible presidential future for a minute: Do you think she’ll do well at the traditional vice-presidential tasks? Which is to say: counterbalancing the ticket and acting as something of an attack dog against the opposition. Is she a good match against Mike Pence, whom she’ll debate in October, and who can be hard to pin down?
Jon: She’s a fantastic, incredible attacker. I think she’ll dismantle Trump. But that job also requires defending the nominee, and she was shaky when put on the defense. So it will be interesting to see how she does.
Ben: Is there a specific niche you think Biden needs her to fill? Something lacking in his campaign that she could bring to it, beyond just the obvious differences between her and the nominee?
Jon: Obviously she balances the ticket demographically in perfect fashion. That’s sort of an old-fashioned idea of a vice-president, back when the candidates were always white men, but the identities were northern/southern or Protestant/Catholic.
Ben: Our colleague Ed Kilgore wrote that “if it’s unclear which, if any, voters Harris will bring to the ticket, it’s clear that, unless she makes some unforced errors, she shouldn’t lose many, either.” It sounds like you agree with that assessment.
Jon: That’s right. Historically, vice-presidents make little difference, and the main exception is Palin, who probably hurt McCain a lot (a lot being a couple points).
Ben: You said this pick positions her as the front-runner to be the next Democratic president if Biden wins, and it does. But are people overplaying just how much of a front-runner she’d be? If Biden does prevail, it seems to be that in 2024 we could still see a very competitive primary — and of course Biden might very well run again.
Jon: Gosh, I have trouble seeing Biden run again. He’s already so old.
Ben: Maybe the office will be his fountain of youth.
Jon: And I think Harris would be the prohibitive favorite, unless she does something to badly screw it up, which is hard for a veep! Even if Biden has a craterlike disaster of a presidency, Harris can position herself as the alternative who would have made all the right decisions. (When liberals were angry with Obama, they projected this onto Biden, or sometimes Hillary Clinton.) So, yeah, I think Harris as the sitting VP will dominate the Black vote, which is a key to winning, and also do well among white college-educated liberals, especially women. I think she will be the 2024 nominee. Perhaps even unchallenged.
Ben: There hasn’t been much evidence yet that Black voters — at least outside California — are very invested in her. You think incumbency will change that? (The way it did for Biden?) And I’m fully aware that we’re still talking hypotheticals here …
Jon: Incumbent Democratic officeholders have the chance to build relationships with Black elected officials, churches, and institutions.
Ben: Any other thoughts?
Jon: I think it’s easy for people who follow this professionally to be bored by a pick like Harris, since we expected it, but for people who don’t and haven’t priced it in, it can be a pretty exciting moment. And Harris is an unusually interesting pol to me because the range between her best and worst performance levels is so vast.
Ben: Yes, I was talking to a non-journalist today who was excited, and I had that same thought. It is both kinda boring and historic.