Over the last few days, there've been a few brief moments when you could almost ignore the cotton mask pulling on your ears or the four claustrophobic walls of your quarantine hideaway and pretend that 2020 was the normal, presidential-election-obsessed year we were promised way back in a gray winter when Mayor Pete was still a thing, Bernie was a front-runner and overconfident Trumpists were turning Wildwood, New Jersey, into their Woodstock.
In a silly season of cardboard fans and fake cheering, the mini-frenzy over this week's looming pick by presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden of a woman running mate -- the intense tracking of private jets into Wilmington, Delaware, the overreaction around a cryptic remark to a Fox News reporter, the anonymous leaks and the backstabbing -- is the closest we've come to political normalcy since early March. So is the never-ending confirmation of the joke that Will Rogers uttered way back in the 1930s, that he didn't belong to an organized political party because he's a Democrat.
The VP selection process -- still a mess of American exceptionalism after 231 years -- is super important, but only occasionally for its stated main purpose of choosing a president-in-waiting in case of emergency. For every Lyndon Johnson (or Spiro Agnew, the petty crook who nearly became POTUS), there are several Paul Ryans or Tim Kaines -- the latter so unmemorable that The New York Times' Maureen Dowd completely forgot about Hillary Clinton picking him in 2016 in a column last weekend about gender dynamics in presidential tickets.
Yet I'd argue that the Kaine pick was consequential for what it told us about Clinton's doomed candidacy -- bland, overly cautious and failing to grasp the dangerous reality-show appeal of Donald Trump. Likewise, even without yet knowing whom he's going to select, Biden's drawn-out and not always pretty VP deliberations have told us a lot about how the would-be 46th president would govern and it's ... not great.
Aside from his No. 1 attribute that he's not Trump. Biden has shown us over the last 14 months his best features: His empathy, which is the polar opposite of the current occupant, and his ability to listen even to his sometimes rivals like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and adjust his policies on the key issues like climate change or restoring America's middle class, are what offers hope that the country can start moving in a forward direction again.
But forward at what speed? Frankly, the Delawarean's veep derby -- ignoring pleas for an early pick to go with a traditional, drawn-out process that becomes more vicious and backbiting the longer it drags on, with hints of indecision and a factionalized party racing to fill the void -- has spotlighted the potential fears about a Biden administration. Especially in a someday-post-coronavirus America that screams for bold, radical solutions.
At its worst, Team Biden looks like a country for old men. OK, to be more accurate: Old white men. Biden's flexibility on ideas -- his shift from 1970s Anti-Busing Guy to hero of gay marriage in the 2010s -- is balanced by his rigid loyalty to friendships forged in times very different from our current moment. It's gob-smacking that the search for a woman who will finally break the glass ceiling of holding national office is led by the 76-year-old lobbyist and ex-Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd. Biden may have complete faith in his old friend, but Dodd should have lost the confidence of anyone who read about his 20th-century exploits with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, which publicized the regrettable term "waitress sandwich" and was arguably criminal.
The involvement of old-timers like Dodd may explain the irony of a search for a woman vice president infected by structural sexism. How else to explain the painful trope that the seeming front-runner, California Sen. Kamala Harris, appears too "ambitious" (because now we want unambitious people a heartbeat from the presidency?). Why did Philly's own Ed Rendell -- a 76-year-old white man ... I'm sensing a trend -- tell CNN that Harris "can rub people the wrong way?" Does the Biden Amtrak club car of septuagenarian advisers even know how bad this sounds?
The infighting has smudged a solid list of world-class women who are reported to be the finalists. Harris, former national security adviser Susan Rice, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Duckworth, Rep. Karen Bass and several others all bring different strengths but each is far better qualified than the artificial piety of obsequious bootlicker Mike Pence to become the American president.
Of that list, I continue to think that Harris is both the most likely pick and, arguably, the best one because of her skills as a political attack dog and her Oval Office-ready resume -- and that was before her Black and South Asian background got zapped by 2020's zeitgeist. Plus, the crusade to replace Trump with Biden has been all about doing the obvious things, like a Harris pick. I think Whitmer would be the riskiest choice because there's a real danger of alienating Black voters. And I think Warren must be Biden's policy Svengali, a more important job than vice president.
But the main thing I think is that we've learned, both from the events of the last decade and also from Biden's 2020 campaign, that while who's in the West Wing is important, what matters more is who will be outside in Lafayette Square, demanding real change and holding the feet of Biden -- and whomever he picks for VP -- to the proverbial fire.
A Biden presidency -- allow me to suspend our collective fears about Trump's likely November shenanigans -- could potentially be borne back ceaselessly into the past, weighed down by the gravity of "That '70s Show" of gray-haired advisers. After all, Biden has already been in the White House -- as newly sworn-in vice president in 2009 -- when a new administration gave too much power to corporate Democrats and the caution that has corrupted the party since the Reagan years, and when a right-wing tea party filled a void while Barack Obama's voters were out at brunch.
It's great that Biden talks to Warren on bankruptcy law now, and listens to Bernie Sanders on climate, but at the end of the day the Biden campaign is run by veteran lobbyists like Steve Ricchetti, with past ties to the health care industry and continued work for AT&T while working for Biden, and by other corporate consultants. A President Biden is going to listen to those folks -- unless the voice of the people is louder.
We can't allow 2021 to become a repeat of 2009. The energy of the George Floyd protest movements -- the electricity that's been so lacking in Biden's what-else-are-you-gonna-do slog to the White House -- can't stop on Nov. 4, 2020, or Jan. 21, 2021, and certainly not for the 2022 midterms and, yes, another presidential election in 2024.
The inherent initial promise of Biden's candidacy, to set the clock back to 2015, was never good enough. The Democratic standard-bearer has already moved closer to universal health care and the goals of the Green New Deal than many had expected -- but only because the voters are now demanding these things. The fundamental brokenness of America exposed by the coronavirus won't get fixed unless people stay in the streets and fight. And progressives can't yield ground to a tea party II that already exists in the minds of Tucker Carlson and Sen. Tom Cotton.
The bold leadership that will drive America forward in 2021, '22, '23 and '24 is much more likely to come from a new squad of radical change agents on Capitol Hill -- like current Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, or likely frosh Congress members Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman -- than from whatever highly qualified woman Biden picks to be his No. 2.
In fact, I know this probably isn't a particularly popular idea in this fraught moment of the 2020 election, but I hope progressive Democrats will start thinking -- not now, but sooner rather than later -- about how one of their own can win the 2024 presidential election, regardless of whatever machinations might occur involving Biden and his vice president. That's a tough but necessary step if we're serious about ending structural racism, structural sexism and gross inequality in American society -- the only politics that matters.
About The Writer
Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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