White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump’s 2016 women’s vote whisperer, took a more nuanced view when I emailed her: “It is unwise for Biden to have set such an intractable marker,” she wrote. “It feels part contrived, part consolation prize given the high number of women who actually ran against him for President in the primaries.”
But to some degree, her point undermines the conservative trope that the most qualified person, vs. the most qualified woman, should be on the ticket. There’s simply no doubt that there are plenty of women qualified to be vice president. This year, six of them ran for the top job, a historic field, including five sitting members of Congress. “The idea that picking the best qualified person is at odds with picking a woman, if ever true, is not in 2020,” says Martha Coakley, former Massachusetts attorney general. “Women have the experience, savvy and smarts to be a great VP and by extension, the President. Witness the Democratic Primary.”
Biden wants to capture the energy of female voters — something previous major-party female vice-presidential nominees didn’t: In 1984, according to Gallup, the Walter Mondale-Geraldine Ferraro ticket lost women by 10 points; in 2008, the John McCain-Sarah Palin ticket lost women by 14 points. Far from patronizing women, he hopes his ticket will succeed where others failed, in a political era where old memes are being turned on their head.
He isn’t the first to make a similar pledge: Ronald Reagan in 1980 promised to appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court, and in 1981 he indeed made Sandra Day O’Connor the first female justice. Bill Clinton in 1992 vowed to form an administration that “looks like America,” and mostly did. French President Emmanuel Macron has drawn notice for the diversity of his cabinet. Similarly, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed a cabinet that “looks like Canada,” evenly split between men and women.
The principle of reflecting a diverse electorate has held true for American administrations, Republican or Democratic, for decades, according to Karen Beckwith, chair of Case Western Reserve University’s political science department and a co-author of “Cabinets, Ministers, & Gender.” “Since 1985, every initial U.S. cabinet has included at least one woman, and there has not been an all-white cabinet since 1975,” she says. For a position like vice president, choosing a diverse candidate is especially important as “there are no agreed, specific criteria that ‘qualify’ a vice presidential candidate on the basis of ‘merit.’”
What qualifies anyone to be a vice president is hazy, and somewhat subjective. Ferraro, a New York congresswoman and member of House leadership, was criticized when she ran for lacking sufficient experience. Mondale was accused of trying to hoodwink women into voting for the Democratic ticket, which lost 49 states — winning only Mondale’s home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. “We’ll never know: Would he have lost by more votes with a man on a ticket?” says Debbie Walsh, head of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. “Did she help or hurt him? Or did it not matter?”
Vice presidents tend to be chosen as a way of balancing out the weaknesses of the (thus far) men at the top of the ticket. Younger, less experienced candidates often go for veeps with perceived gravitas: witness Barack Obama and Biden, or George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney. Older candidates sometimes go for youth and energy: think John F. Kerry choosing John Edwards in 2004, or McCain plucking then-little-known Palin almost out of thin air.
But in McCain’s case, Palin ended up hurting him. She provided his campaign an initial jolt, but by the end of the race, many voters worried that she was unqualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. “Age was one of the things that hurt McCain with Palin,” Walsh says. “And for Biden, part of the calculus also has to do with age, that someone is in the wings about whom people are excited — and who is qualified — and may run in 2024.”
“Qualified,” here, is key. Unlike with Palin, who was a last-minute pick, made in part out of desperation, Biden’s team has plenty of time to vet his shortlist, and the would-be veeps thus far are well-qualified by any conventional measure — all governors, legislators and, in the case of Yates, a former deputy U.S. Attorney General. All present pros and cons, but none have a surprise factor of being relatively obscure, like Palin, or unused to the prime-time spotlight. “It’s insulting and inaccurate to suggest that there are no ‘meritorious’ women in the U.S. qualified to be vice president,” Beckwith says.
Plus, Trump’s election — from non-office-holding reality-TV star to president — turned the meaning of “qualification” on its head. In that context, it will be harder, in this election, for the criticisms of the kind faced by Ferraro and Palin to stick. In terms of electoral appeal, “the truth is a woman beat Trump by 3 million votes” in the popular vote count, says Karen Finney, who worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and in 2018 for former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, reported to be on Biden’s shortlist and one of the several black women favored by Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking black member of Congress and a key Biden supporter. The discussion, Finney says, “should start from the premise that in 2020, of course, there are many women who are more than qualified.”
But if Ferraro didn’t bring the women’s vote in 1984, nor Palin in 2008, why does Biden believe picking a woman this time around might help him? The push by women’s rights activists to get front-runner Biden, or his primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), to pick a female running mate, feels very much like the atmosphere in 1984, Walsh says. “How can this be that at the end of the day, with such a diverse field, that you’d end up with two elderly white men vying for the Democratic nomination? And again in the general election, two elderly white men?” Walsh says. This time, the VP pick isn’t about picking up swing votes, she says, but about turning out voters who might otherwise stay home. “Choosing between Trump and Biden — it’s not going to be the VP candidate that does it, but will it energize folks who otherwise wouldn’t show.”
In terms of generating enthusiasm among the female electorate, then, an eventual female running mate might be singularly qualified.
If Biden picks Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), a former rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, it’s about turning out the Rust Belt vote, which she did for Biden already: Her endorsement helped propel him to a convincing win in the Minnesota primary earlier this month. Abrams or another former primary rival, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), both could further boost the African American vote for Biden. And a third former rival, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), could help turn out a more progressive segment of the Democratic base. Not to mention that the broad theme of her candidacy — of having “a plan for that,” a detailed policy prescription for nearly every big issue — on top of being a senator, law professor and best-selling author on the topic of personal finance, is, résumé-wise, the very definition of qualified.
“We’ve yet to elect a woman, so it’s far harder for most of us to envision women as leaders,” notes Cynthia Terrell, founder of the advocacy group RepresentWomen. Contrary to his critics, Biden is not doing women a “disservice” or playing, in overused parlance, “identity politics.” By committing to running with a woman, he’s putting down a marker for parity, turning discussion of the Democratic ticket to a weighing only of the contenders’ qualifications.
For years, Conway criticized fellow Republicans’ unwillingness to directly appeal to women. When she and Trump were said to be playing identity politics in 2016 by nakedly appealing to female voters, conspicuously involving his daughters in his campaign, launching a women’s agenda and talking up his wife as a successful entrepreneur, Conway reacted the way she always has, telling me at the time: “It’s not a minority when you make up the majority of the electorate” — slightly over half the electorate is female, so why shouldn’t a major-party ticket include a woman? — “it’s called appealing to the majority, which is common sense.”