Sometimes political observers add two and two and get five. That could be happening with sudden speculation that Joe Biden and Stacey Abrams might form an early presidential–vice-presidential ticket.
Biden did privately meet with Abrams recently. And Biden’s staff has publicly kicked around the idea of their guy shaking things up by (among other things) choosing an early running mate. There’s no particular evidence that the one thing is related to the other. But for the sake of argument, let’s look at the idea and see if it makes any sense for either politician.
When Team Biden first raised the early-ticket idea a year ago, I was skeptical.
This is something no major candidate has actually tried. There’s probably a good reason for that. Setting up a ticket from the get-go, unless it’s just a dazzling no-brainer, is mostly an attention-getting device, and again, Joe Biden doesn’t need that. And it sacrifices the tactical flexibility that can be useful to a putative nominee seeking to unify the party and send a distinct message to the general electorate. If the idea is simply that Biden needs a running mate to counter his age or his ultimate-Washingtonian image, he can make it known he’s inclined to that direction without naming names, and potentially giving himself a dual problem. The age issue means that any Biden running mate will be examined more closely than the usual veep because she or he will be more likely — actuarially — to get the big job than the usual veep. And dumping a veep choice during the campaign itself would be a catastrophe, as the late George McGovern proved.
It’s telling that the only two early running-mate announcements in living memory were by desperate candidates looking for a half-court hook shot at the buzzer: Ronald Reagan in 1976, whose startling choice of moderate Senator Richard Schweiker was designed to shake loose some delegates in Pennsylvania; and Ted Cruz in 2016, who announced Carly Fiorina as a prospective veep only after he had been mathematically eliminated from the nominating contest. Desperation is not a good look for Joe Biden.
What’s happened since then is that Biden has been subjected to a barrage of criticism about his record on racially sensitive issues, from his anti-busing activism in the 1970s to his key role in the passage of anti-crime legislation in the 1990s associated with mass incarceration. This line of attack has endangered a key Biden political asset: his popularity among African-American voters, mostly attributable to his two-term partnership with Barack Obama. Biden’s already vulnerable to a loss of black support with two African-American rivals (Kamala Harris and Cory Booker) in the field. So without question, being closely associated with a celebrity African-American pol would be helpful, if not necessarily a silver bullet.
But would this sort of partnership with Biden make any sense for Stacey Abrams, who at present is among the most widely admired Democratic politicians in the country? Why would she want to take sides in what could become a fractious 2020 nominating contest, unless she decides to run for president herself (as she has hinted is still a possibility)?
Ironically, the key reason she might entertain an early Biden–Abrams ticket is that it would get her off the hook of being incessantly pressured to run for the Senate in Georgia in 2020 — a job she’s sensibly never shown any interest in (she definitely wants to be governor of Georgia, and perhaps president). If Biden loses the nomination or the general election, she can still return to Georgia and run for governor in 2022. And if he wins, well, she’d be at least as well-positioned to run for president herself as Biden is today, and the opportunity might come up in 2024, given Biden’s age. Abrams is only 45. Going from being a former state legislator to the putative vice-president on a ticket with one of the two most likely nominees might seem a reasonable path forward for her, particularly if she believes her presence could give Biden a crucial boost.
Serving as the protector of Biden’s racial flank, on the other hand, might get a little old and a little limiting for someone of Abrams’s enormous talents and potential.
In the end, Biden may not go in this direction (or even run for president, for that matter), and Abrams might not even be interested in it. But until one or the other of them rules it out, the speculation will continue. It really is hard to imagine a better tonic for the things that politically ail Uncle Joe than having Stacey Abrams at his side on the tough road ahead.