NOTE: This story is part of “Together/Alone,” a column from Spectrum News Chief National Political Reporter Josh Robin that explores life during these historic times.
John Adams was our nation’s first Vice President. He also inaugurated the tradition of giving great quotes about how useless he and his successors felt about the job.
“[T]he most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his imagination conceived,” he wrote to his wife Abigail in 1793.
A century and change later, Thomas R. Marshall didn’t feel any better about being President Woodrow Wilson’s #2: "Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea; the other was elected Vice President of the United States. And nothing was heard of either of them again.”
Then John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner, FDR’s first VP, pungently observed the office isn’t worth a bucket of warm… well, hopefully you get the point; if not there’s a whole HBO series you can watch.
And yet, as Joe Biden deliberates over a running mate, observers are reassessing the post; they’re seeing it as much less of a punchline. For one, the responsibilities have grown exponentially since Adams. Biden would also be the oldest president (78 on Inauguration Day); voters may give a longer look at his next-in-line.
Experts say Biden's pick also will be seen through extraordinary current events: a pandemic; economic collapse; massive protests and conversation about race in America; and polls indicating increasingly and overwhelmingly that Americans think the nation is on the wrong track.
"So the context has changed more rapidly and more powerfully than normally is the case,” said Joel Goldstein, Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law Emeritus at Saint Louis University School of Law. He's also author of “The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.”
“I think the context is always important, but here, the political landscape looks very different,” Goldstein said.
Biden has said his choice will be a woman, which would make history should he win.
Some say the protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody have encouraged him to consider racial healing in pickng a candidate.
“A woman of color would represent an enormous change, an enormous move in the direction of trying to bring the country together, to speak for communities that have not felt listened to for four years,” said Kate Andersen Brower. She wrote the book "Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump."
“I think people have been sick of seeing a sea of white, older white men, in the Trump administration. He's been really taken to task for that," Brower said. "There is not the kind of diversity that we were used to seeing in the Obama White House and that people want to see, you know, something reflecting their own communities.”
Biden’s team is vetting candidates, looking no doubt not just at potential conflicts and liabilities, but how well the nominee could debate Vice President Mike Pence, who is considered to have bested Tim Kaine in 2016.
Who Biden wants remains a mystery; he can speak from eight years of experience about what does and doesn’t work. We know that he wants it announced by Aug. 1 and that the former vice president wants someone with whom he’s “simpatico” — and that he sees himself as a "bridge" to a new "generation of leaders." His campaign didn’t comment for this column.
A Trump campaign spokeswoman emailed: “No running mate can fix the Biden Campaign’s biggest problem, Joe Biden. Americans have watched for over three years as President Trump and Vice President Pence have delivered,” adding that Biden’s career pushed “broken liberal policies.”
Press reports, and my own reporting, indicate Biden is looking at a number of candidates: Senator Kamala Harris of California and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, both former rivals for the nomination; Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin; Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois; Representative Val Demings of Florida; New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham; Susan Rice, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
There are others. It looks unlikely that Senator Amy Kloubachar of Minnesota will be picked because of her controversial role as a local prosecutor in her home state.
Obviously, any of Biden’s choices could make history. Two women have been running mates on major tickets — Geraldine Ferraro, who ran with Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in 1984; and Sarah Palin, who ran with Republican nominee John McCain in 2008.
It wasn’t until 1940 that presidential candidates chose their running mates (it was originally the runner-up in the Electoral College). In modern politics, the mystique of the VP search turns into something of a political parlor game (“Can Stacey Abrams deliver Georgia for the Democrats,” “Can Elizabeth Warren deliver the left” etc.).
Because Biden sealed the nomination early, we also have more time to chew over the what-ifs. Some even want him to announce his whole potential cabinet and announce his VP ASAP. There doesn’t seem to be much political upside to this; Biden is polling ahead of Trump in several swing states right now.
Typically, the VP choice isn’t as helpful politically as you may think.
Goldstein, who is considered the go-to expert on all things Vice Presidential, says its impact is “at the margins.”
“But because it shapes the way in which we look at the presidential candidate, it sends messages about the presidential candidate,” Joel Goldstein said.
Palin’s pick is thought to have wounded trust in McCain. In Pence, Trump found a reliable bridge to evangelical Christians.
Brower, who also wrote a book on the vice presidency, says Democrats will be looking for more than one message.
“I think that they are going to want a woman who represents not only women, but also these voices that have been marginalized for so long,” Brower said.
Just because the political impact may be marginal, that doesn’t mean the decision is insignificant, as John Adams suggested.
Not in this extraordinary year, 244 years after the founding.
This summer, we will be absorbing Biden’s biggest message to date, as he stands with her later this summer — even if it’s done virtually.