If you’ve kept half an eye on the ‘who will it be?’ story that is the Democratic party’s vice-presidential nomination, you’ll have heard commentators suggesting that Biden will pick a ‘do no harm’ candidate.
In other words, Biden should play it safe: given his lead in the polls, he can only slip up, so boring is better than original; boring is better than exciting; uninspiring beats edgy. Do no harm — it’s become journalistic shorthand for boring.
The trouble is, there is no such thing as a harmless Veep pick. A candidate who has obviously been picked because of his or, in this case, her inability to excite will damage Biden’s campaign. She will fall flat.
Just look at what happened four years ago. Hillary Clinton chose Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia precisely because he seemed the least risky choice. Kaine may have been dastardly handsome in his youth and Clinton’s number crunchers reckoned he’d help her win over Scots-Irish Catholic voters in the rust belt because, well, Kaine is a Scots-Irish Catholic. But to say he didn’t lift any souls, or set hearts fluttering, would be an understatement.
It’s hard to say what impact Kaine had on the 2016 election. He certainly didn’t help Clinton bridge the ‘enthusiasm gap’ between her fans and Trump’s new MAGA army.
Trump himself had made an at the time surprisingly unelectrifying vice-presidential choice in Mike Pence. But that made sense, since Pence, with his stolid Republican persona, brought an element of balance to an otherwise amateurish and often downright crazy campaign.
The Pence vs Kaine debate turned out to be the least watched vice-presidential showdown since 2000; it attracted an audience of 37.2 million. Compare that to Sarah Palin vs Joe Biden, which got 70 million; or Paul Ryan vs Biden, which got 51 million. In a year of intense political excitement, Kaine just put people off.
Making her announcement a week after Trump, Clinton could have changed tack and gone for a vivid contrast to Pence; another woman, like Elizabeth Warren, for instance; or a Latino like Julián Castro who, for all his faults, would have drawn Hispanic voters. But Clinton went for forgettable. And she lost.
The ‘do no harm’ possibilities in 2020 are different. Given that Joe is old and white, and that he’s promised he will appoint a woman, and that Amy Klobuchar ruled herself out because she is white, Biden is widely expected to choose an African American. Everybody knows that, however, so the prospect of a black woman being ‘one heartbeat away’ from the presidency will be far less of a positive news bomb than it could have been.
Historic, yes. Important, no doubt. But Kamala Harris or Susan Rice, the leading names on Biden’s shortlist (we are told), will do little to energize Biden’s campaign, which is bad news for a campaign that has started to flag in recent weeks.
Harris ticks all the right boxes in terms of look and backstory, but her presidential campaign has already proved she doesn’t attract voters. Rice is a Washington operator, not a campaigner. She is arguably the most establishment black woman in America; it will be hard to portray her as a great leap forward.
Which might be why Team Biden has been stalling on its decision. They know that, in trying to ‘do no harm’, their vice-presidential nomination could end up shooting their campaign in the foot.