The dynamic threatens to undermine Biden’s effort to use the vice-presidential search to spotlight some of the party’s brightest female stars during the highly public vetting process. And it’s already providing President Trump’s campaign an opening to dig up dirt and launch attacks on potential rivals.
“It’s been relentless. It’s been unfortunate. But I must say it’s been predictable,” said Donna Brazile, a former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee. “It’s extremely disappointing, because many of these attacks . . . are being made by Democratic men who should know better.”
“I would hope that in this selection process, we are mindful that Black women — and women of color — deserve respect,” she added.
The increasing nastiness is fueled by a sense, even among Biden’s closest advisers, that Biden is entering the final phase of the search without a clear favorite. Rather than a traditional “shortlist” of three candidates, people close to the process expect him to interview five or six finalists for the position.
Several people interviewed said the delay has intensified currents, many of them sexist, that have been swirling for weeks. The resulting backbiting risks inflaming divisions within the party that complicated the 2016 campaign — but that Biden has worked to coalesce since locking down the nomination in the spring.
In recent days a Politico report surfaced that former senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who is on Biden’s vice-presidential vetting panel, told donors that Sen. Kamala D. Harris “had no remorse” for her attacks on Biden while on a debate stage. One donor implied to CNBC that Harris has too much “ambition.” And former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a longtime Biden friend, told CNN that Harris can “rub people the wrong way.”
Some of the comments are being made by high-ranking Democrats pushing alternative candidates such as Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) and more recently Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), making some worry that women of color are being forced to kneecap one another.
“It bugs me that people want to pit these two Black women against the other,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a key Biden confidant, referring to the burgeoning Bass vs. Harris narrative. “Nobody is trying to pit Sen. Elizabeth Warren against [Michigan Gov. Gretchen] Whitmer. And both of their names are being mentioned every day as being in the search.”
“It is messier than it should be because somebody is trying to create a story,” Clyburn added.
In recent days the negative attention has focused on Bass, who has gone out of her way to stress that she is unable to “envision” herself as president. In 2008, former president Barack Obama told Biden to view the vice presidency as the “capstone” of his career, and Biden has said that he sees his relationship with Obama as a model.
The Daily Caller published a piece about a 2010 speech Bass gave at the ribbon cutting for a new Scientology facility that opened in Los Angeles, in which she seemed to praise the organization. The Atlantic published a lengthy article examining her past visits to Cuba and warm words for former leader Fidel Castro, and how it could cost votes in the key state of Florida.
The Trump campaign immediately seized on Bass’s history with Cuba. “Joe Biden and Karen Bass Would Invite Castro’s Communism into America,” read a headline on a Trump campaign news release. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), in a press call with reporters, warned that if selected she’d be “the highest-ranking Castro sympathizer in the history of the United States government.”
Bass went on NBC News’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday to show how she’d address those accusations, saying “I don’t consider myself a Castro sympathizer” and she characterized her position on Cuba as “really no different than the position of the Obama administration.”
She’s also pushed back on the notion that she and Harris should be compared with one another. Bass and Harris spoke privately at a memorial service for the late congressman John Lewis last week. “It was good,” Bass said of the conversation during a Friday interview on “The Breakfast Club.” “She said ‘We ain’t doing that.’ It was fine.” Bass added: “I’m not the anti-Kamala.”
Biden’s decision to eliminate men from the selection process has meant that many of the candidates who would traditionally be considered for this role, like Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), are off the table. There’s been no speculation about Andrew M. Cuomo, even as the New York governor’s star rose during his daily coronavirus briefings. Vanquished contenders like former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee or former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg have also faded from the national conversation as the spotlight shifted to women.
And many noted that the competition to become the second-most-powerful person in the country is always going to be fierce. “It’s natural that it’s competitive,” said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) “It’s historic regardless of who he chooses, so that probably adds to the intensity of it.”
For her part, Harris allies have been lobbying the Biden team in public and in private. Top racial justice lawyer Ben Crump, who represents the family of George Floyd, penned an op-ed for CNN supporting her candidacy. Behind the scenes, powerful allies like Glenda Baskin Glover, the head of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and president of Tennessee State University, wrote to Biden’s vetting team urging them to select Harris — a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.
And Harris attempted to use the attacks on her “ambition” as a weapon.
“There will be a resistance to your ambition,” she said Friday during Black Girls Lead 2020, a virtual conference for young Black women. “There will be people who say to you, ‘You are out of your lane,’ because they are burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be. But don’t you let that burden you.”
She also received an assist from Biden campaign manager Jennifer O’Malley Dillon that came soon after Dodd’s comment. “Ambitious women make history, change the world, and win,” O’Malley Dillon said in a social media post.
Biden’s timeline for picking a vice president has slipped significantly. He initially said he would make the decision by Aug. 1, then said it would be the first week of August. Now the campaign is signaling that it will likely wait until the second week of August.
In an interview, Clyburn said Biden has only told him that he will make up his mind “before the convention.” In 2008 and 2012, vice presidential candidates were announced just days before the convention.
Clyburn also said he believes it would be a “plus” for Biden to select a Black woman, but added the former vice president does not like being told what to do — and he provided some hint that he can’t endorse one of the candidates.
“Of the 12 names out there, with one exception, I know all of them,” Clyburn said in an interview with The Post. “There’s one person that I don’t know.” Clyburn declined to say who on the list is unknown to him. (He made a similar comment on MSNBC last week, leading to speculation that he was throwing shade at former national security adviser Susan E. Rice, but Clyburn balked at that interpretation. “I know Susan Rice very, very well,” Clyburn said.)
He said that he’s trying to approach Biden carefully with his advice.
“Ultimatums are not good,” Clyburn said. “I’m not going to tell the vice president what he must do.” He warned that pushing Biden too hard can backfire. “Nobody wants to be forced,” Clyburn said.
Others are taking a far different approach in the final days. The Rev. William Barber, a leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, and roughly 50 other leading Black clergy members sent an open letter to Biden’s campaign Friday “insisting” that he select a Black woman.
“We are writing to caution the Democratic party that it takes Black enthusiasm, the key determinant for turnout, for granted at its own peril” according to the letter, which predicts that a Democratic ticket that includes a Black woman will result in Black turnout that exceeds Obama’s numbers in that community.
The decision will automatically elevate whichever woman is selected, either making history by installing her as the first female vice president or giving her a head start for the 2024 campaign should the ticket fail — which is a key reason that the stakes are so high.
The Biden campaign has been tight-lipped about its contenders. But that hasn’t stopped allies and friends from speculating.
“If I had to bet my life on who would be the candidate, I’d still bet Harris,” said Rendell, who is raising money for Biden and frequently talks to his top campaign officials. “She has the least negatives, she’s the most polished. She’s the person who can take on [Vice President] Pence in a campaign debate.”
But he also made it clear how volatile the process has been. “The buzz the in the last three weeks — not this week — but the last few weeks, the buzz was Susan Rice,” Rendell said last Thursday.
Her demeanor on television fueled the speculation, he said. “She was smiling on TV, something that she doesn’t do all that readily,” Rendell said. “She was actually somewhat charming on TV, something that she has not seemed to care about in the past.”
The interview process for these women has been unusually public. Nearly all of the women in contention have headlined a fundraiser with Biden and appeared during at least one virtual event with his wife, Jill — a strong signal that Biden will closely consult his wife as he makes his decision.
The exchanges give each potential vice president some time to develop a rapport with Biden. On Friday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) headlined a grass-roots fundraiser for him and at one point Biden apologized for going on too long.
“No! Don’t be sorry,” Warren said. “I love everything you had to say.”