Former vice president Joe Biden’s promise to pick a female running mate was inevitable and necessary, yet somehow uninspiring. Senator Bernie Sanders’s failure to make that promise was also inevitable, and unnecessary.
It was uninspiring when Biden made the commitment, because we began this presidential primary with four female senators eminently qualified to be president on their own. I know, I know, voters didn’t seem to agree. But the shadow of Senator Elizabeth Warren hovered over this debate, the first one since she departed the race, and I couldn’t help be a little peeved that this is what it will come to: At best, a woman will get to be number two to a man in November.
That’s also probably the easiest, fastest way to wind up with a woman president. I’m not making morbid suggestions about the 77-year-old Biden, God bless him (Social Security tables give him a 10-year life expectancy, and it might be higher for a man with access to the best medical care in the world). But Biden might well step aside after four years—his campaign has indicated as much—leaving his vice president as the front-runner for the nomination. Either way, her exposure on the world stage (if Biden’s presidency is successful) might help her clear the barrier that keeps too many Americans from seeing a woman as presidential.
What about Sanders’s refusal to commit absolutely to such a choice? If you love Bernie Sanders, this is what you love about him: his absolute refusal to pander, ever. “In all likelihood” he’ll pick a woman, he said, but then he added: “For me, it is not just nominating a woman—it is making sure that we have a progressive woman, and there are progressive women out there.” I appreciate that he reassured us that he knows “there are progressive women out there.” But he’s used that formulation before—“it is not just…” being a woman, or a Latina, or African American—that makes someone a good candidate. As if any progressive who thinks representation matters believes that it is! I’m not Joe Biden’s biggest fan, but I don’t think he’s going to choose to run with Betsy DeVos.
One person’s pandering is another’s coalition building, and to some extent, the exchange explains why Biden is winning, and Sanders is not. (The same instinct drove Biden to adopt Warren’s bankruptcy plan, even if he had to distort his own bankruptcy record to do so, as well as much of Sanders’s college plans, just before the debate.) Biden was also wise to say he’ll nominate a black woman as a Supreme Court justice, and it was an unspoken rebuke to his BFF Barack Obama, who resisted exactly such “pandering” in 2016, and instead chose the admirable but decidedly middle-of-the-road white male liberal Merrick Garland. Civil rights and women’s groups urged Obama to pick a black woman, arguing that such a choice was not only long overdue but would also help turn out the Democratic base that November. But Obama thought it was more important to choose a person—a man—who had a chance to win over Republicans. Of course, amoral Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell never even gave Garland a hearing.
Biden’s promises to work with Republicans are a reason to worry about his possible presidency; his promise to put a black woman on the Supreme Court are a reason to think maybe he’s wiser about Republican obstruction than he purports to be on the stump. At any rate, black women are among the hardest working and most dedicated members of the Democratic coalition, and they are powering Biden’s candidacy. They deserve that acknowledgment, and more. At the same time, I hope Biden’s instinct for coalition building makes him sharper about the need to bring in Sanders supporters than he appeared last night. Chief strategist Anita Dunn set exactly the wrong tone when she told reporters after the debate that facing Sanders, Biden was “graciously dealing with the kind of protester who often shows up at campaign events, on live television.” That’s terrible strategy, and Biden better realize it immediately.
This was probably the last Democratic debate, given the coronavirus pandemic—or at least, it should be. It helped me empathize with the sadness of Sanders supporters that his campaign appears to have fallen short. The pandemic is especially dangerous because of the social rot Sanders has long identified—from the world’s most expensive health care system that distributes care poorly and inequitably, to the income inequality that will make this calamity so much harder on the working class than on anyone else. The crisis makes it clear that the country needs the systemic change Sanders is promising, but the very nature of a crisis means it will be even hard to get people to pay attention.