In the 243 years since 1776, the Republic has soldiered on for 38 of them—16% of its existence—without a vice president. It’s not such an important job.
That said, the only person to land the presidency without a single vote being cast for them was Gerald Ford, who ascended House of Cards-style through Richard Nixon’s vice presidency after Spiro Agnew’s resignation. So it’s not nothing.
If there is a black swan to American political conventional wisdom, it’s the resident of the U.S. Naval Observatory who works in the Executive Office Building at the far-less-sexy 1650 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The quintessential vice presidency is still John F. Kennedy’s selection of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960, which gave the youngest-ever president an elder statesman at his side, pulled Johnson out of the running as an antagonist in the Senate, helped win Texas in a national election that was still won by only 112,987 voters, 0.17% of the popular vote, and created the definitive moment of referring to the vice presidency as “a heartbeat away from the Oval Office,” as LBJ was sworn in as Air Force One raced JFK’s corpse to Washington.
But 1960 was 69 years ago, when Alaska and Hawai’i were year-old states—before the creation of Medicare, the Education Department, Housing Department, Energy Department, Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency, the 25th or 26th amendments, before civil rights, Miranda rights, Roe v. Wade, 24-hour news, the Internet, gay marriage, or social media. Just about the only thing that hasn’t changed is our Cold War against Russians. Hillary Clinton’s loss could be seen as the last gasp of the Democrats ’90s heyday. Next up: a truly 21st-century contender.
A 21st-Century Contender
While running for vice president isn’t a political move per se, the crowded field of contenders for the Democratic party’s 2020 nomination guarantees plenty of losers hoping to save face in the coming months.
Five Republican losers in 2016—Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, Nikki Haley, John Kasich, and Rob Portman—were offered Donald Trump’s vice presidency before it went to Mike Pence. Fortune asked experts—authors, historians, and other cultural cognoscenti—to wax political on what the vice presidency now means in perpetual election cycles and whose strengths and weaknesses are maximized by that tough tightrope stretched between functional and charming—avocado milquetoast, so to speak.
“You want a plausible president,” says Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University who wrote The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden, “someone who will follow, not lead. People talk about Palin but look at Paul Ryan with Romney in 2012 or John Edwards with Kerry in 2004. Edwards was more interested in John Edwards on the ticket than John Kerry on it.”
Broadly though, the nightmare scenario is another Sarah Palin, who unraveled under the sudden, surprise pressure of national attention in 2008, spreading unspooled, untested, and uniformed into an outsized role on the campaign trail. For Democrats licking their wounds after 2016, “there’s some apprehension about putting a woman in the #1 spot again,” says Ellen Fitzpatrick, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire who wrote The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency. “Maybe #2 works better.”
As well, Black Lives Matter, MeToo, and the immigration crisis are now newly emboldened litmus tests for voters.
“Diversity is a strength but also a challenge,” says Fitzpatrick. Allyship—Bill Clinton as the nation’s first black president or Barack Obama as the first gay president—is clashing hard with the desire for actual representation epitomized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“I think about Shirley Chisholm running for president in 1972 and saying it’s not enough to be taken for granted as a voting bloc, that people demand to be seen and heard, truly represented,” adds Fitzpatrick. “That time is now.”
A Pew Research Center poll in May found white men to be the least-inspiring nominees among Democrats. Two white men haven’t won an election for the Democrats since 1996, nearly a quarter-century ago. Not that Democrats are about to nominate Kanye West and The Rock. “At some point soon, a ticket will have two minorities or two women,” says Goldstein, “but not in 2020.”
“There are, in any case, too many of them,” says Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame who wrote Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States, “too little differentiated from one another and too poorly qualified to be worthy of support. The best way to enhance their credibility—if by credibility one means other people’s trust in and esteem for them—would be to withdraw. If either of the two senior candidates, Biden or Sanders, becomes the nominee, I hope he won’t reward with candidacy for vice presidency any of the also-rans who have cluttered the hustings.”
Nevertheless, here are candidate-by-candidate rundowns presented alphabetically, the only pecking order out of Washington’s swampy grasp.
People don’t run for the vice presidency. But Abrams is not most people. Although not a presidential candidate, she has openly courted the vice presidency—without suitors, perhaps given her turnaround since March, when she swatted rumors of running with Biden by saying “You don’t run for second place.”
And yet: “A black woman from the South ticks a lot of boxes for a lot of Washington consultants,” says Fitzpatrick. Abrams’ failed 2018 run for governor of Georgia was widely seen as stolen, offering a systemic redemption story for voters who feel Hillary Clinton’s election was also rigged against her.
There is virtually no chance Biden has any interest in being vice president a third time, although it’s legally possible. Biden himself was redeemed by Obama for his performances in debates, which helped turn around Biden’s rough start in 2007, when he called Obama “articulate and clean.”
Passed over by Hillary Clinton, “Booker hasn’t done himself any favors going after Biden on race,” says Jules Witcover, a longtime political reporter who wrote The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power, “given there’s still a good chance Biden could win. It’s not just about demographics or all of these calculations we have now, it’s also about chemistry.”
Booker is also the only unmarried man in the mix, forcing consideration of worst-case scenarios in which a breakup with his new girlfriend, Rosario Dawson, becomes messy tabloid fodder—although that’s a risk avoided by two other prominent Democratic bachelors whispered as possible presidents: Michael Bloomberg and Andrew Cuomo.
And given that Ocasio-Cortez is too young for the job (a vice president must be at least 35 years old), perhaps Vice President Booker could be the White House’s new tweeter-in-chief.
Buttigieg is exactly the kind of choice, like Palin, that may seem historic and progressive, but has broad ability to backfire. His mayoral record on race is fraught, and being praised for reading Ulysses is strange in a race where Elizabeth Warren has written eight books. Even Palin did not have the audacity to leapfrog statewide or federal office to go from mayor to the White House.
“Generally you want someone with 10 to 12 years in the House, Senate, a governorship, or the Cabinet,” says Goldstein. “The mayor of South Bend is so far away from that.”
If one of the current longtime front runners—Biden, Sanders, or Warren—becomes the presidential nominee, they will likely need a counter to elderly whiteness from the Northeast.
Castro throws Texas up for grabs, as O’Rourke does, but adds Chisholm-style representation that could help in Latino-strong swing states including Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Ohio—and non-Latino liberals who feel Obama brought the party past a point of no return on diversity.
“I can’t bring myself to use the term ‘Latino,’” says Fernández-Armesto. “It’s an academic invention that doesn’t denote me and shows intellectuals’ contempt for ordinary people’s self-designations. We’re really talking about Hispanics, right? Greasers, as our despisers say. The Hispanic vote is going to split roughly 75/25 in favor of Democrats (or around 70/30 if the party exhibits its usual incompetence) whoever’s on the ticket. The most important Hispanic constituency for capturing the Electoral College is in Florida, where Hispanics are largely very conservative. So a radical Hispanic on the ticket will be a lot worse from an electoral point of view than an Anglo or Hibernian-background centrist.”
Although she identifies as a black woman, Harris could also electrify the nation’s vast Indian-American population (her mother is an Indian immigrant, her father is black). But with so much social justice on the agenda, is another prosecutorial lawyer what Democrats want? That criticism may come to bear sharply in guessing appointments to the Supreme Court, which hasn’t had a public defender in its ranks since Thurgood Marshall retired in 1991.
“Klobuchar fits with Sanders,” says Goldstein. “Klobuchar is sort of that perfect balance of memorable and forgettable,” says Witcover. “If any of the men win it, they’d be wise to knock at her door.”
While his campaign has rebooted poorly a few times, and O’Rourke amplified criticism that he’s privileged and vain as he focuses on the White House over a Senate seat in Texas, “I can’t see anyone except Mr. O’Rourke enhancing Democratic chances,” says Fernández-Armesto. “We all know what the Democrats’ strategy must be: recover enough Trump defectors among the working classes of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Except for Mr. O’Rourke I don’t see a potential pick who might have a positive effect on that constituency. The Democrats have spent the last 60 years or so alienating historic supporters: the South, Catholics, and now Jews and low-paid workers. The last category is recoverable and the need to recover is urgent.”
O’Rourke, he sums, is the best candidate to be the president’s “poodle.” His candor and profanity are traits that worked well for Biden.
A 2016 reminder: Sanders was the only party rival to Hillary Clinton, who opted against including him on her ticket despite her campaign slogan of being “stronger together.” That’s how zero the odds are of Sanders being anyone’s veep.
“Warren’s policies and rhetoric for putting the squeeze on the financial sector clearly demonstrate her ability to strengthen a Sanders administration focused on economic justice,” says Brian Abrams, author of Obama: An Oral History and Party Like a President: True Tales of Inebriation, Lechery, and Mischief From the Oval Office.
Despite polling better than O’Rourke, who had the darling attention of Vanity Fair and Beyoncé, Yang has low prospects in part because only 6% of the electorate is Asian. That number falls to 2% among Democrats.
About 44% of Asian Americans identify as Democrat, but 42% identify as wild-card Independents. The Asian American Action Fund’s total spending in 2018 was a paltry $108,214. Asian Americans are statistically insignificant culturally and financially in Democrats’ party machinery. More than anyone else in the running, he is campaigning on ideas, but Yang has yet to find his yin.
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—Facebook and Google met with U.S. intelligence about 2020 election
—MSNBC climate change forum will give a voice to those denied the DNC debate stage
—Is Biden preparing to lose in Iowa? His campaign says the caucus isn’t a must-win
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