And that’s why Biden needs to pick a forward-looking vice president. He should chuck every “electability” calculation and forget about finding a perfect policy match. Biden is electable enough by himself, and no two politicians will agree on everything. So he should choose a running mate who represents the future and can lead on policy after the Biden era.
That person is Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.).
The first goal of a vice presidential choice is to “do no harm,” and Harris clearly wouldn’t. Harris has the political skills for the race: She demonstrated her talent for creating memorable moments during the 2020 presidential debates, including in an attack on Biden himself, and during Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Senate hearings. She hasn’t spent as much time in the Senate as some of her competitors — she won her seat in 2016 — but Barack Obama showed that three years there is enough to become president, so why not vice president? And, unlike some other possible vice presidential picks, she’s from a deep-blue state. Democrats wouldn’t have to worry about holding onto her vacated Senate seat if she became vice president.
If Biden picked Harris, he’d instantly bring demographic balance to the ticket. Harris is an African American and Asian American woman who is 22 years his junior. Biden wouldn’t be the presumptive nominee without the support of African American voters in South Carolina, and he constantly heaps praise on Democratic politicians who are women and people of color. If Biden really cares about representation, he should put his money where his mouth is.
And in the long run, picking Harris would be good for the party.
In the same way that Republicans couldn’t run on Reaganism forever, Democrats can’t indefinitely try to re-create the Obama years. Biden, like George H.W. Bush, might be able to successfully win by invoking his former boss. But by 2024 or 2028, the problems facing the United States and the politics around them will change even more than they already have. Obama’s 2008 template for victory will be obsolete. Democrats will need someone who can write a new political playbook and reimagine policy on the fly — hopefully in a more constructive way than Donald Trump did for the Republicans after Reaganism ran its course.
If Biden picks Harris, she’ll have a head start on this project. Harris, like many talented politicians, can project multiple images to different audiences. She’s the sort of candidate who could hold the party together as it simultaneously becomes more racially diverse, suburban and technocratic. Among the emerging issues Democrats will face in the next two decades are housing supply, privacy, debt (student and otherwise), widening inequality and automation. They’ll need a candidate who can borrow pages from both Bernie Sanders’s and Biden‘s playbooks. Harris is imaginative and practical enough to make that happen. Her ideological flexibility came off as unsteadiness in a primary that was staged as a fierce clash between the party‘s different wings, but it could be an asset as Democrats try to map a very different future.
The Biden-Harris team might feel some internal friction. We all saw what Harris thought of Biden’s past approach to school integration in the first 2020 Democratic primary debate. And Harris might not be a loyal sidekick in the way Biden was for Obama — she’ll want to use the vice presidency to both change policy and set herself up for the presidency.
But that friction can be good. It means that Harris is pushing forward and not accepting Biden-ism as the last word for the Democratic Party. Some vice presidential candidates might be more familiar with the Midwest than Harris is, and others might be better at playing second fiddle. But Harris is prepared for the next era of Democratic politics because she is the new era. And as soon as Biden realizes that, he’ll do the sensible thing and offer her a space on the ticket.