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Joe, just pick the best woman for VP

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden made it perfectly clear more than once that he will pick a woman as his VP running mate. Then it got interesting. Now the demand was not just to pick a woman VP, but a black woman VP. A short list of names is bandied about; former Georgia Rep. Stacey Abrams and California Sen. Kamala Harris top the list.

The gender and race mandate for Joe’s VP is rife with symbolism, importance and peril. Biden does not need a woman on the ticket to get most Democratic women to vote for him. He does not need a black woman to get most blacks to vote for him. Conversely, Trump, with his load of gender baggage and a male Mike Pence as his VP pick, still managed to get a significant number of women to back him. Gender and feminism didn’t mean a hoot to them.

Biden tacked onto his VP requirement two other requirements: that his VP pick be able to hit the ground running if he is incapacitated or unable to perform his duties, and that she has the requisite administrative and political experience and savvy to do the job.

I’ll add one more: that Biden’s VP help him win the Oval Office in a tough, no-holds-barred contest with a guy and a party that will pull out all stops to make sure he doesn’t.

This tosses a hard glare on whether VPs really do count for much in the larger political equation. Yes and no. No in the sense that voters don’t vote for VPs, they vote for presidents. Most know that a VP does not make policy. It’s not exactly a ceremonial position, but other than stepping in in the event of a catastrophic illness or death of a president, it’s not far from that.

However, the vice presidency does have a lot of value in other places, going back to the 1960 election. That year, John F. Kennedy picked Lyndon Johnson as his running mate. Kennedy was a moderate, wealthy, erudite Massachusetts senator who needed the Southerner Johnson to assure the popular and electoral votes of the South. Since then, presidential candidates have picked their running mates for balance on gender, region, age, and in the case of Pence, a temperament in contrast to shoot-from-the-lip Trump.

In 2016, Trump and Hillary Clinton needed VPs that had few negatives and solid party insider status, were fairly young, and as an added boost, seen as good governors and administrators. The youth and good administrative skills factors couldn’t be minimized since Clinton and Trump were at or near age 70 and would be nearing 80 if they won two terms. If there was a health challenge to either one in office, voters would want assurance that a VP would be able to hit the ground running at the top.

This election brings the issue of the independents. They now make up more than 40% of the general electorate, a historic high. Trump and Biden engender towering doubt and skepticism among a big swath of them. They could be the X-factor in a close vote in the half-dozen must-win swing states.

Here’s where the right VP can help. Pence and Biden’s VP will spend a lot, if not most, of their days on the campaign trail in those swing states courting voters and talking rationally about the tax, trade and job creation policies that Trump and Biden are pitching to the independents and waverers. The idea is to show that they will bring the required straightforward, steady hand to the administration in the White House.

The single biggest asset that a VP pick brings, though, is that he or she can turn on more voters than their potential boss can or has turned off, no matter what part of the country they hail from, their gender or their rank in the party. Pence was tapped precisely because he was viewed as being able to accomplish that tricky feat.

That’s more important than ever, since the VP must be more than someone who won’t harm the ticket, but someone who will help the Democratic ticket win. The only way that can be done is for a VP to be a showpiece for the qualities that many voters think Biden lacks. This has absolutely nothing to do with race and everything to do with winning.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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