Joe Biden’s choice of a running mate is getting more treacherous with each news cycle.
Real-life events — from the outcry over the killing of black men in Minnesota and Georgia, to a mundane request for boating privileges in Michigan — are crashing into his already fraught decision over his No. 2.
Multiple VP contenders with backgrounds in law enforcement are being examined in a new light amid the explosive protests after the death of George Floyd, the African-American man who was pinned under an officer’s knee in Minnesota. That incident came after the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery by a white father and son in Georgia, and a bigoted call to police by a white woman while Christian Cooper tried to spot birds in a New York City park. Other contenders have been forced to fend off embarrassing stories that could stall their chances.
All of the incidents come as the coronavirus had thrust racial and economic disparities to the forefront as Biden weighs his choices — and the ways they might help him address inequality.
The vice-presidential vetting process, typically a closely guarded internal affair, is playing out in plain sight, often live and online as Biden remains sheltered at home during a pandemic that’s stalled in-person campaigning. The lead time Biden has given himself — his VP decision isn’t expected for another two months — is bound to further alter the landscape before he ultimately settles on his pick.
“Because of social media and the explosion of information available, the scrutiny has quadrupled from when I was being vetted,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who ran for president in 2008. “And what it does is, it makes the selection process that much more difficult for any presidential candidate, because the scrutiny focuses more on the negative than the positive.”
Richardson added, “The main criteria should be for the VP who can step in and become president. And now it may be, who can bring to the ticket less damage.”
Biden, along with campaign aides and outside allies, including elected officials and donors, acknowledge that this year’s search — given his advancing age, his own hints that he may serve only a single term, and his No. 2’s ability to shape the direction of the party—has taken on added significance. “It’s more important than I’ve seen it in the last many decades,” Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader and a friend of Biden’s, told POLITICO.
Reid said he expressed as much to Biden in their conversations, including in a recent phone call, and “he didn’t disagree.”
Biden told donors last week that his vetting committee has been working through his shortlist and is deciding who makes the next cut: “Whether or not they really want it. Are they comfortable?” Biden explained. On Thursday, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, one of two Latinas in contention along with Michelle Lujan Grisham, withdrew from consideration for the job.
“Right now, we’re in preliminary stage,” said Reid, who had spoken highly of Cortez Masto.
In the interim, Biden’s own steps — and missteps — are emphasizing deficiencies that a running mate could help cure. His recent quip that black voters who haven’t decided whether to vote for him or President Donald Trump “ain’t black” sparked renewed calls from Democrats for Biden to choose a woman of color.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s record as a prosecutor and lack of outreach to black and Latino communities was coming under intense scrutiny just as Floyd’s death in police custody ignited days of uprisings in her state of Minnesota.
After the “Breakfast Club” interview, a Democratic operative in Minnesota said, “That probably put a nail in the coffin for Amy Klobuchar at that point. He’s going to have to put a black woman on the ticket.” As the protests unfolded this week, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina agreed that it was “tough timing” for the Minnesota senator. (Klobuchar told interviewers that the decision is Biden’s to make, and she trusts he’ll choose wisely.)
“I’m not here for false equivalencies — you have a president who is making not-so-veiled threats of violence at people who are in the middle of uprisings over a murder caught on video,” Rashad Robinson, president of the Color of Change coalition, said of the VP search. “At the same time, Biden should not go into this election thinking that he has black folks, and particularly young black people and black progressives, sewed up.
“He’s going to have to do things to activate that,” Robinson added. “In this moment, he needs to pick a partner that can help him do the heavy lifting of both bringing people together and moving us forward. And that partner has to be someone that has a level of trust and has a connection to the community.”
Klobuchar isn’t the only contender to take heat. At a news conference last week in her pandemic-stricken state of Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had to explain why her husband invoked her to help him get his vessel in the water before the Memorial Day weekend. Then it was Lujan Grisham, the governor of New Mexico, defending her purchase of jewelry during widespread business closures.
“This is unprecedented,” said Ken Martin, chairman of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota. “It does seem that this year we’ve seen a more open vetting process, not only by the campaign itself, but by the candidates who are being vetted.”
Former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who has shared with Biden’s campaign a list of her own preferred picks, said she thinks the vice-presidential nominee should be a woman of color — and that she would be concerned about picking a senator from a state with a Republican governor.
“Right now, we need to heal. We need a healing person,” Boxer said, stressing that Biden’s personal rapport would be the decisive factor. “I think it should be a woman of color. I think that would be an amazingly exciting and unifying pick.”
Along with Sen. Kamala Harris of California, a former prosecutor and state attorney general, and Rep. Val Demings, a former police chief, the list of black vice-presidential contenders includes Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia House Democratic leader who lost a close race for governor in 2018, and Susan Rice, the former Obama administration national security adviser.
In part, the heightened attention on the vice-presidential selection process may be a result of the dearth of other movement in the presidential race, with the coronavirus pandemic putting rallies and other events on hold.
“The vice-presidential thing, that’s the one thing people can write about and talk about,” said Scott Brennan, a Democratic National Committee member from Iowa.