In the history of political campaigns, no topic has a higher ratio of punditry to significance as the choice of running mates. It provides a refreshing break after the long race for the presidential nomination; it typically features many possible contenders; and it fills airtime on news and talk shows.
For all the attention it gets, the decision usually makes no difference. Paul Ryan was the dream 2012 running mate for Mitt Romney, for all the good it did him. Dick Cheney added zero political value, which didn’t stop George W. Bush from winning in 2000. Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, Geraldine Ferraro — none of them mattered at the polls.
But some vice presidents do matter in office. Mike Pence ran the coronavirus task force with slightly more competence than we have come to expect from this administration. Joe Biden spurred Barack Obama to endorse same-sex marriage. Cheney pushed relentlessly to invade Iraq.
The choice of a running mate is important, though, for what it reveals about the presidential nominee. When John McCain chose the abysmally unqualified Sarah Palin, he contradicted his slogan: Country First. When Bush picked Cheney, it showed that he valued substance more than anything else.
Biden has a harder decision, because his options are more limited. First, recognizing the political and historic importance of ending the male monopoly on our highest offices, he promised to choose a woman. Second, with the sudden national focus on racial equity, he is under heavy pressure to make it someone of color.
His decision is critical, if only because Biden, who will turn 78 in November, would be the oldest person ever to become president. He carries an outsized risk of dying or becoming incapacitated in office.
He can’t have great confidence that his No. 2 would remain in the spare-tire compartment. So Biden ought to give the highest priority to finding someone equipped to take over the presidency at any moment.
There is only one contender who meets that standard: Susan Rice, whose preparation puts her in a different league from anyone else in the running. During the Clinton administration, she worked on the National Security Council and served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs. She was Barack Obama’s U.N. ambassador and national security adviser.
Her background is a crucial asset in the area where a president has the greatest power, and where deep knowledge is the best safeguard against catastrophe. Rice would not need an education in dealing with Iran, North Korea, Russia, China, Israel or our NATO allies. She’s not only better equipped in foreign and defense affairs than the other vice presidential prospects; she’s better equipped than any president since Richard Nixon.
I say this though I often strongly disagree with her — as when she supported the Iraq war and our intervention in Libya. But her high-level experience is some protection against unnecessary risks. Any mistakes she would make would not be mistakes of ignorance or naiveté.
Rice’s resume is skimpy only on domestic matters, where the president has both less control and less risk of fatal mistakes. No one can doubt that, with her abundance of brainpower (Phi Beta Kappa at Stanford, Rhodes Scholar), she would soon master that part of the job.
For all their talents, the other contenders look minor league next to her. Sen. Kamala Harris, a former district attorney and California attorney general, has spent most of her career in the narrow world of law and law enforcement. Likewise with Rep. Val Demings, a second-term House member who was chief of the Orlando Police Department.
Stacey Abrams’ highest office was as minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has worked only at the local level. Rep. Karen Bass of California has 15 years as a state and federal legislator but no executive experience. Any of these women might make a good president eventually — but none is adequately prepared today.
Rice’s chief handicap is political: Republicans pilloried her for giving inaccurate answers about the 2012 attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya. But her role was minor. Getting voters to elevate that episode above the coronavirus pandemic, the battered economy and Donald Trump’s racism would be next to impossible. For Republicans to pound the drum on Benghazi would be advertising their own irrelevance.
Death, Biden knows all too well, can come like a thief in the night. If it comes to him as president, a successor who is ready would be his priceless bequest to the nation.
Steve Chapman blogs at www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at facebook.com/stevechapman13.