Biden’s choice

When Joe Biden announced that he would select a woman as his running mate, we could guess those on his shortlist. How to choose among them?

Two questions, gender neutral, grow out of my work long ago in a vice president’s office and in his campaigns.

First, among the possible selections, is there one who will bring crucial votes to the ticket that would not come without her? Second, if she has an aggressively held agenda, can she function in a subsidiary role as candidate and vice president?

A vice president may be president tomorrow but must be a parrot today — without programmatic independence or any degree of separation from the president.

For most of our history, the office has been a pit stop on the road to oblivion. Indeed, President Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice president, John Nance Garner, described it, in Texas eloquence, as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.”

Having worked with two Minnesota senators, Hubert Humphrey and (in an unofficial capacity) Walter Mondale, who also served as vice president, I have had time to think seriously about the job and what anyone can do in such a subsidiary role. 

Humphrey and Mondale functioned in very different ways for very different presidents. Even so, there is something to be learned about what was the same amid the differences — and what implications there may be for Biden now.

Both Humphrey and Mondale were far better public servants than the men who won. Integrity and intelligence should have made them both winners. They had played quite dissimilar roles as vice president, and that is relevant and instructive today as Biden selects a politically compatible running mate.

President Lyndon Johnson was irascible, demanding and abusive. He tolerated no independence in Humphrey and never really sought his counsel on anything.

During Humphrey’s first year, he saw Johnson about once a week, sometimes not for two, and rarely alone. Humphrey was excluded from discussions of Vietnam, the central issue facing the nation, because he had described the futility of the war in his first National Security Council meeting. Dissent, even if thoughtful and behind closed doors, meant exile.

He ultimately worked back into a limited role by becoming a cheerleader for the war in public and almost mute inside the West Wing when he was invited over. Echo was acceptance, a delicate whisper of dissent was not.

President Jimmy Carter invited his vice president, Mondale, to discuss policy differences where they existed or just to talk about the weather. Mondale’s office was just down the hall from the Oval Office. He visited Carter daily; he did not have to be invited.

Humphrey’s office, by contrast, was across the street from the White House in the Old Executive Office Building. He said that it could have been in Baltimore.

What every reasonable president tolerates is private discussion. What he or she doesn’t need is a separate agenda nearby. A benign and reflective Biden and an angry and rigid Johnson are no different in that condition.

But before policy, there is politics.

Since I first volunteered in the 1948 presidential election, I don’t think the vice presidential nominee has made a definitive, or predictable, electoral difference, although Johnson in 1960 probably carried John Kennedy to victory in Texas.

Hamilton Jordan, the Carter chief of staff, thought Mondale probably made a percent or two difference in some places without certain electoral impact.

Would Humphrey have won with someone other than Ed Muskie, a senator from a small state? Should Mondale have chosen someone other than Geraldine Ferraro? Did Spiro Agnew really add a vote to Nixon’s win? Was Dan Quayle worth anything to George H.W. Bush? Each of them may have been valuable here and there, but so would their possible replacements.

Today, as Biden moves toward the Democratic nomination, he will be urged to choose someone to his left to entice millennials and find a running mate with a dramatically different agenda to capture “Bernie” sycophants.

Fiery Sanders die-hards are much like the anti-Vietnam war protesters, young and old, who disdained Humphrey as “a killer of babies.” They were for Bobby Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern and “never Humphrey.” He came out of the brutal, chaotic convention 18 points behind, but most critics, some of whom had been beaten by the police, came home. After Humphrey finally spoke out about the war, he lost by half a point. The ultimate need to choose between Humphrey and Nixon made “never” go away.

What Biden needs is a woman who shares common policy goals, understands there can be only one president at a time, speaks the same political language and is not running for president on inauguration day.

Biden — and whomever he chooses — should seek a partnership like Carter and Mondale, not equals but two people with common political goals.

Norman Sherman was Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s press secretary, including during the 1968 convention and campaign. He edited Humphrey’s autobiography. During his decades in Washington, he worked in the House, Senate and Executive agencies. He has managed political campaigns in his home state of Minnesota. He held a chair at Louisiana State University as Professor of Political Communication. He is the author of “From Nowhere to Somewhere: My Political Journey,” a memoir covering his various work — paid and otherwise — for Minnesota politicians Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, Wendy Anderson and Don Fraser.

Tags 2020 election Biden 2020 campaign Geraldine Ferraro Hubert Humphrey Jimmy Carter Joe Biden John Kennedy Vice President of the United States vice president search Walter Mondale

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