OPINION | How to pick a running mate

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SINCE clinching the Democratic nomination in April, Joe Biden and his senior advisers have run a mostly error-free campaign.

They have unified their party without taking positions that would be deal-breakers for moderate and suburban voters, and Mr. Biden’s soothing demeanor has provided a notable contrast with President Trump’s hard-edged divisiveness.


But the task is about to get much harder. Between now and November, Mr. Biden faces four challenges: choosing the right running mate, delivering an effective acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, countering the Trump campaign’s assault on his record and character, and conducting himself with clarity and vigor during the presidential debates. If he passes these tests, the solid polling lead he now enjoys will almost certainly be translated into an electoral victory.


The first task must be completed within the next few weeks. History suggests some guidelines for selecting the vice-presidential candidate, as do the distinctive circumstances of this most unusual year.


A good vice-presidential choice doesn’t help the presidential candidate very much, but a bad choice can inflict serious damage. Studies have found only marginal effects of the vice-presidential candidate on the national popular vote share. The last one believed to have made the difference between victory and defeat in his home state was Lyndon Johnson in 1960 — and political scientists have thrown this belief into doubt, too.


On the other hand, George McGovern was forced to replace his initial choice, Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, a stumble from which his 1972 campaign never recovered. Despite an initial surge of interest and enthusiasm, John McCain’s selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin cut against his public reputation and weakened his candidacy as the seriousness of the 2008 financial crisis became apparent.


The lessons of the past are clear. Mr. Biden and his team should heed the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. There is no substitute for careful vetting and common sense.


If Mr. Biden wins the election, he’ll be 78 when he takes the oath of office in January —  already the oldest president ever. There is a nonnegligible chance that his vice president would have to assume the presidency. The woman Mr. Biden chooses — yes, it will be a woman, as he has pledged — must be perceived as having the experience to step into his shoes at a moment’s notice. Those with limited records in national politics are unlikely to meet this standard of credibility, as are those who have never held elective office.


In addition, Mr. Biden should give priority to African- American candidates. He owes his nomination to unwavering African-American support at the campaign’s critical juncture. The disproportionate effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the demonstrations sparked by the killing of George Floyd moved issues facing this community to the center of national politics.


The selection of an African-American running mate would guarantee the unity and enthusiasm of the Democratic Party, while the failure to do so would be dispiriting for a crucial portion of Mr. Biden’s coalition. Although religious conservatives were likely to support the eventual Republican nominee in 2016, Donald Trump’s selection of Mike Pence was a powerful signal that he didn’t take their support for granted. In this one respect, Mr. Biden should follow Mr. Trump’s example.


Mr. Biden is an effective congressional negotiator, but his presidential schedule, much of which would likely be dominated by foreign policy, would force him to delegate much of this job to others. A vice president who could work with Congress on Mr. Biden’s behalf as he did for President Obama would be a force multiplier. The vice president should also have the capacity to manage specific portfolios for the president, as Al Gore did with the National Partnership for Reinventing Government and Mr. Biden did with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.


An effective vice president should offer candid, confidential advice to the president and back his decisions unflinchingly once they are final. The vice president shouldn’t establish an alternative power center, as Dick Cheney did during George W. Bush’s first term.


Even if Mr. Biden turns out to be a one-term president, he should enjoy the assistance and support of his vice president for the full four years. He shouldn’t select a vice president who would begin her own presidential campaign the day after the 2022 midterm elections. He would be well advised to secure a specific pledge to this effect before her selection.


These considerations should lead Mr. Biden away from mayors and governors, and toward individuals with extensive records of leadership at the national level. Selecting a vice-presidential nominee widely regarded as unready to assume the presidency would be the Biden campaign’s first significant unforced error.




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