Whatever you thought of Walter Mondale, his 1984 running-mate selection of Geraldine Ferraro was a big deal. “By choosing an American woman to run for our nation’s second-highest office, you send a powerful signal to all Americans,” Ferraro said in her speech at the Democrats’ nominating convention that July. “There are no doors we cannot unlock. . . . If we can do this, we can do anything.”
Mondale lost in 49 states.
Lately I’ve been slipping into an alternate-history fantasy in which Mondale won. It would mean that we’d already sent this powerful signal, opened this door, accomplished this stupidly basic task, and sent a woman to the White House. We’d be carrying a lot less unnecessary baggage into these veepstakes.
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has said since March that his vice-presidential pick will be a woman. He’s given something close to a promise that he’ll announce his choice next week.
The preview of what we can now expect this to look like has already been migraine-inducing.
For clearly stating she’d love the job, Georgia’s Stacey Abrams was deemed overly self-promotional: “Stacey Abrams feels entitled to power, which is why she shouldn’t get it,” read the headline on a Washington Examiner column. Members of Biden’s own vetting committee recently fretted that Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), often seen as a front-runner, might be too “ambitious,” focused on her own presidential hopes rather than Biden’s administration. (Biden served as Obama’s No. 2 after his own presidential run petered out in 2008; presumably his team does not think that he was too ambitious for a secondary role.)
After the vice-presidential announcement didn’t come last week, when many prognosticators thought it would, some allies started to worry that the process was starting to look “messier than it should be,” as if Biden couldn’t make up his mind. Maybe, though, he’d already made the decision, and the decision was to protect his running mate for as long as possible from the sexist nonsense that awaits her. The veepstakes are always a rodeo, but when female candidates are involved, somehow it’s everyone’s first one:
“She was smiling on TV, something that she doesn’t do all that readily,” former Democratic Party chair Ed Rendell recently told The Washington Post, attempting to praise former U.N. ambassador Susan E. Rice by instead invoking the directive — Smile! — loathed by women everywhere. “She was actually somewhat charming on TV, something that she has not seemed to care about in the past.” (“Does he think this is helpful?” a senior adviser to former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro tweeted in response.)
One would think we’d have gotten better at discussing female candidates over the years. And we have, sort of. Nobody has outright asked any of the Biden contenders whether foreign powers will be able to take them seriously, a question Ferraro was forced to smile through. But part of the problem is that it’s taken America so long to close the deal that we’re in a 250-Year-Old Virgin situation: awkwardness compounded by ineptitude wrapped in bizarre expectations.
If only we were not freaking out over the first but yawning at the 15th. If George Washington’s vice president had been not John but Abigail Adams; if Victoria Woodhull had been grabbed for a mainstream ticket in 1872; if Sarah Palin had been given the chance to see the Russian Embassy from her house at the Naval Observatory; if Ted Cruz had snagged the 2016 nomination and taken along Carly Fiorina, his Hail Mary running mate — then maybe we could let go of all these paralyzing anxieties about how the veep’s smile could affect turnout in Broward County. We could just accept that we’ll have good female vice presidents and bad ones, charming ones and dour ones, ambitious ones and . . . They’ll always be ambitious. Any human running for high office is ambitious.
Just bite the bullet. Book Steve Carell for the chest wax. Get it done.
The tricky factor in all of this is the 2020-ness of it all. A year ago, the primary election featured the most diverse panel of presidential candidates in American history. Six women. Many candidates of color. A vast array of ages and life experiences. It seemed impossible, back then, to think that we’d end up where we ended up: with the elderly, White, male establishment candidate whom America had already rejected in three previous presidential runs.
On Wednesday, Biden posted a tantalizing tweet: “There’s been a lot of talk about my vetting process lately. Here’s an inside look.” But the accompanying link didn’t lead to a thoughtful conversation about what Biden is looking for in a running mate, and what responsibilities he would feel as a White man building a Cabinet in 2020. No, the tweet was a joke: It led to a video of Biden messing around in a Corvette, revving the engine as if he were auditioning for a Cialis commercial, leaning into the idea that he was a man’s man. Hear that, swing voters? A man’s man.
Whoever ends up as his running mate doesn’t get to be a candidate; she has to be a complement. Because Biden is often defensive, she’ll have to be calm; because he’s older, she’ll have to be exciting; because he’d be president, she can’t be too exciting lest she outshine him. She also needs to be ready to lead on Day One — Biden is, after all, 77 — but ideally, she’d also be a “surprising” choice we’ve never heard of. Because if we’ve heard of her, a chunk of the population will have already decided they don’t like her.
In other words, she’ll be expected to perform the tedious emotional support that women have spent the past five to 50 years raising awareness of, responsible for not only her own work, but also the work of making this older White man look good.
In some ways, this is just the job of vice president in any administration. But now it comes with extra baggage. It’s wonderful that Biden has decided to nominate a woman, but by vaguely publicizing gender as his main qualifier, he’s preemptively set his candidate up for pushback. Any time she falters, there will be murmurings of, Well, Biden really wanted a woman. As if there was a better gender-blind (male) candidate out there who wouldn’t have faltered at all.
Choosing a female running mate is no longer historic. It’s happened before. It’s just high stakes. It’s a simple, obvious thing to do that has become fraught because of how many ways America has found to make it difficult and mysterious.
The Geraldine Ferraro fantasy is about wishing we’d figured it out before so we could see how easy it could be to get it right now. It’s about embracing traits such as ambition and confidence in women as well as men. Mostly, it’s about not having to have this conversation, again and again, for 36 more years.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.