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The vice president used to be a punchline, and you can watch an entire HBO series based on that premise! John Nance Garner, who was one of FDR’s VPs, famously said: “The vice presidency is not worth a bucket of warm piss [later cleaned up to “warm spit”].” Thomas R. Marshall, vice president under President Woodrow Wilson, said, “Once there were two brothers: One ran away to sea, the other was elected vice president. Nothing was ever heard from either of them again.”
You can be sure that Biden’s VP will not feel this way.
The vice presidency is most certainly not a joke anymore. Biden would be the oldest president (78 on Inauguration Day); voters will want to know that there is a capable person waiting in the wings to take over if his health should fail.
Biden’s stated decision to pick a woman is smart because the most energetic wing of the Democratic Party is the more diverse, liberal left. We have had almost four years of a homogenous White House with mostly white men in positions of power. Democrats will want to see a Cabinet and a vice president who is reflective of the party, so bringing in more women and people of color is key. Obama energized young voters, so Biden will want to choose a running mate who can get them to the polls.
Because he was VP for eight years, he knows exactly what he’s looking for. Biden will want someone who he has a close relationship with, as he did with President Obama. He admired Obama’s intellect and calm immensely. An aide who worked for Biden when he was vice president told me, “He was kind of a fanboy, honestly.” Biden is going to be looking for someone who is an admirer of his decades of service in Washington. Sen. Harris was very critical of Biden early on during the primary debates and that could be a factor.
A double standard for women as running mates
ZW: Let’s assume Biden picks a woman (a safe bet!) — she’d be the third woman to be a major-party running mate. Is the process somehow different for women?
KAB: It is incredibly unfair, but the process for women can be more complicated because typically they have husbands who have careers (before the 1950s and ’60s most of the spouses of vice presidential candidates, all of whom were women, did not work outside of the home).
So the key question for any female vice presidential candidate is even trickier: ‘Is there anything you would not want to see on the front page of The Washington Post?’ is the standard catchall when vetting candidates.
For women the question becomes, Is there anything any member of your family has done that you would not want to see on the front page of The Washington Post?
In the age of social media that means any Instagram posts, tweets, etc., posted by a candidate’s child or spouse. And that process for women carries that extra weight of their husband’s finances and career.
When Walter Mondale ran against Ronald Reagan in 1984, he knew he had to make a historic pick if he was to beat the wildly popular sitting president. Tom Bradley, the first African American mayor of Los Angeles, was on Mondale’s shortlist, along with Dianne Feinstein, then the mayor of San Francisco, and New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro.
“We weren’t doing oppo [opposition research] on Tom Bradley’s wife,” Mondale’s campaign manager Joe Trippi explained to me — she was a private person who hosted teas and played the part of the supportive political wife, she was not in charge of a business.
“Therefore why would you be doing oppo on Geraldine Ferraro and Dianne Feinstein’s husbands?”
But after Mondale picked Ferraro, the first woman to ever be the running mate of a major presidential candidate, revelations surfaced about her husband’s business dealings that badly damaged the campaign.
“From that day forward it was proven that you have to go much further than looking at the person themselves,” Trippi said.
The process is evolving
KAB: As more women make it onto the list of vice presidential candidates, the mostly male, white-collar Washington and New York lawyers who do most of the vetting are aware they need to rethink their approach. Instead of asking a man if he’s ever sexually harassed anyone, now the question is tweaked and the woman being vetted is asked whether she has ever been sexually harassed.
One experienced vetting lawyer said that he prefers it when a female colleague sits in the room with him when he is asking such personal questions. Often the most shocking revelations come up in conversations rather than on written questionnaires, because no one wants a paper trail.
Do not procrastinate
KAB: Biden can learn from John McCain and not wait until the last minute to make his decision.
McCain was left scrambling for a running mate. Sarah Palin was not nationally known and had been governor of Alaska for less than two years. She was not even on McCain’s long list of potential candidates. She came to his attention because the other choices were too predictable and not the game changers he and his campaign strategists thought he needed in order to win.
McCain’s vetting lawyers had just 72 hours to vet Palin, who was 44 years old and just six years removed from being mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. It was one of the biggest gambles in modern politics. Biden, of course, has had much more time.
Be honest, be decisive
KAB: The potential running mates Biden is looking at can learn from Palin’s answer to this question, which was posed to her by a member of McCain’s team and showed her strength:
“You’re the acting president, the president just had surgery and the director of intelligence comes in and says they have a confirmed sighting of Bin Laden in the northwest territories of Afghanistan. He tells you that we have a plane overhead ready to take the shot, but there will be multiple civilian casualties. Do you take the shot?”
Palin replied, “Yes, I would take the shot because I’m the President of the United States, this is our archenemy who took the lives of three-thousand-plus Americans. And then I would get down on my knees and ask for forgiveness for the innocent souls whose lives I would be taking.” It is important for women to project strength.
It was decided at that final meeting that what they needed was someone with “safe hands,” as vetting lawyers call it. Someone who would be calm in a crisis; someone who could instill a sense of confidence in the Republican base that remained deeply skeptical of Trump. Most of all, what they needed was someone who could take over the presidency, if necessary.
Melania was keenly aware of the need to balance her husband, who has spent much of his public life — and most of his life was lived clinging to the spotlight— awash in scandal. She wanted to make sure that there were absolutely no skeletons in his running mate’s closet. But one finalist had a closet full of them (still, Donald Jr. backed him until the end), and another contender was so controversial that he would be ousted within the first few weeks of the administration when he served in a different position. Melania’s shrewd instincts proved correct; Mike Pence was by far the least controversial on Trump’s list of vice presidential candidates, and Pence could help Trump win over conservative Republicans.
Pence’s ‘divine appointment’
KAB: Trump was also looking for someone who fit the part, someone who looked like a vice president. “Straight from central casting,” Trump is reported to have said of Pence.
In the end, it was down to two men. Pence, a devout evangelical Christian in his late 50s, won out over former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, the much more controversial finalist, who, like Trump, was in his 70s and had been married three times.
One longtime friend of Pence’s said that Pence considered the vice presidency his “divine appointment.”
There was no specific agreement reached between Pence and Trump about what Pence’s role would be as vice president, but in the end there was very little hesitation on the part of both Mike and Karen Pence.
“They felt called to do this,” Jim Atterholt, who was Pence’s chief of staff when he was governor of Indiana, recalled in an interview with me. “They knew what they were getting into, they knew the history, they knew the challenges, and they accepted that as part of their calling.”
There is no one who can hold the Christian conservative base like Mike Pence.