by George Skelton
Joe Biden made a smart move by promising to choose a woman as his running mate. Next he needs to be smart again and choose the right woman.
Pledging to select a female vice president was smart because it’s the right thing to do. America, supposedly the land of equal opportunity, should have elected a woman president long ago. The veep spot is just one step away.
The right thing isn’t always the smart thing politically. But in this case it was for the Democratic front-runner. Assuming Biden becomes the party’s presidential nominee, the right female running mate should help the ticket appeal to swing-vote suburban women in battleground states he must carry to oust President Trump in November.
Moreover, by promising unequivocally to select a woman, the former vice president will avoid a heap of pressure to do just that leading up to the party’s nominating convention in July. With the issue off the board, it won’t distract him from his main message of anti-Trump, steady-handed, moderate pragmatism.
But it’s vital for Biden that he select a running mate who isn’t a campaign liability or distraction. He needs someone who will help the ticket attract voters, or at least not drive them away.
For more than a year, California Sen. Kamala Harris, 55, has been on the short list of speculators’ VP contenders. But selecting her might not be the smartest play.
Biden commented after Harris gave up her own presidential bid in December that he would consider the senator for “anything she was interested in,” including the vice presidency.
Selecting a woman of color could excite the Democratic base — something Biden, 77, doesn’t do. He has all but clinched the nomination because Democrats consider him the most likely candidate to beat Trump, the quality they deem most important, polls show.
Harris, who is black, would be the first woman of color ever nominated for vice president by a major political party. A Biden-Harris ticket would reflect the growing diversity of Democratic voters.
Those are the upsides. They’re outweighed by downsides.
For starters, Harris’ selection by Biden would look too cynical, too blatantly political to many voters.
Moreover, a running mate should be able to deliver her home state for the ticket. Harris isn’t needed for that. California’s 55 electoral votes — roughly 20% of the total required to win the presidency — are in the bag for any Democrat.
Anyway, she didn’t exhibit much lasting appeal as a presidential candidate, even among voters of color in her own state.
A November poll of likely voters by the Public Policy Institute of California found Harris was the first choice for only 9% of home state Latinos and 9% of other ethnicities, mostly black and Asian voters. Biden was supported by 27% of Latinos and 20% of other non-white voters.
Biden doesn’t need a running mate’s help to win over black voters. They have been his strength.
Harris also didn’t exactly compile a stellar record as state attorney general. She was risk-averse — for example, not taking positions on two ballot propositions to abolish capital punishment and one to speed up executions, despite her professed career-long opposition to the death penalty. The two abolition measures failed and the proposal to expedite executions passed.
Her risk-averse trait carried over onto the presidential campaign trail where she often stumbled, most notably in wavering awkwardly on universal healthcare. This was despite aggressive, prosecutorial rhetoric.
But if Biden did choose Harris and they were elected, it would significantly alter California’s political landscape.
Harris would automatically become a potential president, stymieing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s long-range White House ambitions. But in the short term, Newsom would reap a political bonanza. The governor would choose Harris’ Senate successor.
Whom would he reward? There’s a long list of quality Democratic options: State Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, a former congressman from Los Angeles; U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank, who led the House impeachment of Trump; Secretary of State Alex Padilla; Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis …
Or Newsom could grab the Senate seat himself by resigning and being appointed by the new governor, Kounalakis. It’s doubtful he would do that.
If Newsom named a statewide official, he could also choose that person’s replacement and control a game of musical chairs.
But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves.
Biden has other women of color he could consider, including two Western Latinas: Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, 55, has a résumé similar to Harris’ — she is a former state attorney general and first-term senator. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, 60, is a former U.S. House member.
Stacey Abrams, 46, who is black, narrowly lost a 2018 race for Georgia governor and is frequently mentioned as a potential VP. Get serious. Maybe someday, but so far the highest office she has won is state legislator.
Some other women:
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, 48, is impressive. And she could deliver a vital state that Hillary Clinton lost to Trump four years ago.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 70? Too far left. Not a good fit.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, 59, could have broad appeal in the Midwest and assure victory in her home state, which supported Clinton only narrowly in 2016. Her presidential race never gained traction, but she’s smart, experienced, articulate, upbeat and her moderate ideology would be acceptable in battleground states. She’s in sync with Biden politically.
Right now, Biden’s smartest choice seems to be Klobuchar.
George Skelton is a Political columnist for The LA Times.