Aug 2, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Joe Biden's painstaking path to the VP choice

Illustration of a pattern of checkboxes filled with checkmarks, with a hand that's about to fill an empty checkbox

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Joe Biden's process for selecting a running mate highlights a fundamental difference between his campaign and the president's re-election effort: Biden is deliberative, while President Trump goes with his gut.

Why it matters: The way Biden is searching for a vice president suggests a careful and methodical approach, the opposite of Trump's style. But it also reveals a strong fear of the consequences of making the wrong choice.

The big picture: Biden's methodical approach to picking a running mate is driven by caution, governed by a top campaign priority: make sure the running mate doesn't hurt him.

  • The Biden campaign is determined not to blow his chances by using the wrong metrics — dictated by the controversy du jour or the loudest Democrats on Twitter — to pick his VP.
  • "I've had enough of those calls to realize they’re being pretty methodical, pretty consistent and pretty fair," said one source familiar with the questions Biden's search committee has been asking.

Behind the scenes: According to sources familiar with the process, Biden is relying on three questions to help him arrive at his decision:

  1. Can she do the job?
  2. Can Biden work with her?
  3. Will she be a liability or an asset under the glare of a presidential campaign?

Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Biden whisperer who helped engineer his nomination win, distilled Biden's thinking into three words:

  • "The decision will be based upon three things and three things only: vetting, polling and, as Joe Biden would put it, who's 'simpatico' with him," he said.

The source who has been on calls with Biden's search committee said none of the interviewers brought up any names of specific women on their own, in order to remain unbiased.

  • Instead, Biden's search committee asked: Who do you know on the list? Would you like to tell us anything — good, bad, or otherwise — about them? What do we need to look out for? Are there any names you haven't heard floated that we should be aware of?

By contrast, Trump's White House is defined by the absence of process. Aides may deliberate certain policy proposals or campaign strategies, but they will almost all acknowledge that Trump's ego is the driving force of his presidency.

  • He proved that once again last week with his tweet calling for a delay in the election — which, unlike many of the ideas he's floated, Republicans immediately shot down.
  • After Defense Department officials laid out strategic reasons for withdrawing some 12,000 troops from Germany, Trump undercut them by telling reporters: "We’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bills."

Between the lines: The message Biden's team took from the primary is that Democrats just want to win. (Don't forget Biden's pledge to "beat him like a drum" in the election.)

  • The Biden campaign's internal polling shows voters aren't hyper-enthusiastic about Biden as a candidate, but they are highly motivated to vote Trump out of office, per a source who was briefed on the results.
  • If the base is as motivated as the campaign assumes it is, it relieves pressure to pick a darling of the progressive movement, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, according to several Democratic strategists.
  • Instead, the thinking goes, Biden could pick someone who's lesser-known but could help him win and isn't easily branded by the Trump campaign.
  • Also cutting against Warren: Democrats would (temporarily) lose her Massachusetts Senate seat, since Republican Gov. Charlie Baker would appoint her replacement.

Where it stands: Biden has said there are at least four Black women on his shortlist. But Sen. Kamala Harris — who was described as a front-runner by several sources familiar with the process — has been facing public and private questions, including over whether she might be too focused on succeeding Biden someday. 

  • Some top Democratic operatives are pushing back against those doubts — including a comment by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell to CNN that Harris "can rub some people the wrong way" — suggesting they reek of sexism.
  • "In my experience, women w/ ambition 'rub people the wrong way,'” former Hillary Clinton adviser Jennifer Palmieri tweeted.
  • And Biden's campaign manager, Jen O'Malley Dillon, suggested on Twitter that ambition is a nonissue: "Our campaign is full of ambitious women going all out for Joe Biden. He will make this decision, and this is clear: whoever he chooses from the very qualified options to help him win & unite the country, she'll be one too."
  • But there are clearly internal doubts. Former Sen. Chris Dodd, who's leading Biden's search committee, reportedly said that Harris showed "no remorse" about criticizing Biden in an early Democratic primary debate, per Politico.

Two Democratic sources familiar with internal dynamics told Axios that some members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been privately lobbying for Rep. Karen Bass, the caucus chair, to be Biden's running mate instead of Harris.

  • But the New York Times reported that Biden's team is pressing Bass about her visits to Cuba as a young adult during Fidel Castro's reign, and she's already trying to do public cleanup on that issue.
  • Bass acknowledged to Chuck Todd on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday that she may have been naive. And she suggested she regrets calling Castro "comandante en jefe" after his death: "Lesson learned. Wouldn't do that again."

What to watch: Despite the expectations Biden raised by saying he'll make a decision the first week of August, an announcement is unlikely to happen before the second week of August, per another source familiar with the campaign's thinking.

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