Posted on March 26, 2020

Joe Biden Is Spending His Time in the Coronavirus Bunker Thinking a Lot About His VP

Gabriel Debenedetti, New York Magazine, March 25, 2020

On Sunday afternoon, nearly two weeks into his self-imposed isolation at home in Delaware, Joe Biden joined a private conference call for 72 donors from the Atlanta area. Biden, now the all-but-presumptive Democratic presidential nominee in a race frozen by the coronavirus, had recently been taking heat for his relative absence in the national conversation while Donald Trump’s inept response to the crisis flooded cable TV and headlines. (“Where is Joe Biden?,” went the refrain from frustrated Bernie Sanders supporters, some jittery Biden fans, and plenty of Trumpy trolls.) On the phone — a substitute for the in-person address he’d been scheduled to give donors gathered by former Coca-Cola CEO and chairman Muhtar Kent — he criticized the president and congressional Republicans, insisted that true leadership required truth-telling, downplayed fears that Trump could postpone the general election, and told his donors that his team had been turning his rec room into a makeshift TV studio so he could start addressing the nation from there, starting Monday. This was the obvious topic of the day, but a supporter on the line had another question, too. What about his running mate? A week earlier Biden had publicly promised to pick a woman, but now he broke some more news: “I have to start that vetting process relatively soon, meaning in a matter of weeks,” he told the donors, adding that he’d soon look closely at “six or seven” options.

If anything, he was underplaying how seriously he’s been thinking about the decision. At the very least, he’s been understating how deeply he’s talked it through with allies in informal conversations, especially in the days since the global crisis stuck him at home. And not one of the top Biden associates I spoke with in the last week had much doubt where he would ultimately focus a lot of his eventual vetting: his former rivals Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar. Realistically, a congressman close to the Biden inner circle predicted, no matter what happens, “the final five will include those three.”

Keeping in mind his own experience and his age, the former veep, 77, has always insisted to friends that his running mate must be ready to be president. But people close to him say he has recently become increasingly explicit that he may be choosing his own replacement, and that the candidates’ competence is now likely to be front and center in his considerations. “He’s been clear that he wants to pick someone who can be president if something happens to him,” a senior Democrat in close contact with the Biden team told me. It’s a point he’s made on recent calls with political allies, and even with his former boss. {snip} “I’ve actually talked to Barack about this,” Biden told his Atlanta donors. “The most important thing is that there has to be someone who, the day after they’re picked, is prepared to be president of the United States of America, if something happened.”


{snip} The coronavirus crisis has elevated the main concern: “Number one is finding someone who is absolutely, undeniably ready to do the job if the unimaginable happens.” According to a handful of Biden’s close allies, this may render the case for some potential candidates who’ve never held statewide elected office — like former Georgia house minority leader Stacey Abrams, former acting attorney general Sally Yates, or Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms — harder to make.

This instinct has been reinforced in conversations Biden has had with top allies in recent weeks, in between his check-ins with leaders like Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and a range of Democratic governors including Andrew Cuomo about their COVID-19 response plans. Some have made their preferences clear to Biden. Schumer, who is largely concerned about Democrats’ standing in the Senate, has been talking up Harris, whose seat would certainly be safe, and, according to Democrats who’ve spoken with him, has mentioned both Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer and Florida congresswoman Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief and Trump impeachment manager. (If Warren were chosen, Massachusetts’ Republican governor could choose her temporary replacement; Minnesota is a swingy enough state to make Klobuchar’s vacated seat a potential target for the GOP.) South Carolina congressman Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement helped revive Biden’s chances at the nomination last month, has been publicly pushing for him to choose an African-American woman. {snip}


Biden has hardly built a reputation as the world’s most flexible pol, especially in times of crisis, but this longish version of the list could include some unexpected names. After Biden answered the donor’s question on Sunday, the caller pointedly said she was thankful that Yates, the former acting attorney general fired by Trump in 2017, was also on the line. (“She’s really incredible,” Biden responded.) Fellow Georgians Abrams and Bottoms might also make this initial cut, as could senators including New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, Illinois’s Tammy Duckworth, and governors like New Mexico’s Michelle Lujan Grisham.

{snip} A wide array of strategists, elected officials, and donors in frequent contact with Biden and his top advisers indeed told me without exception, and independently, that individual members of the former VP’s brain trust appeared to be more focused — informally — on Harris, Warren, and Klobuchar, with Whitmer, Demings, and Cortez Masto also likely to be in the mix.

And the behind-the-scenes jockeying has already started. Biden advisers have heard from a handful of top fundraisers arguing that Klobuchar could ensure him victory by helping him carry midwestern states like hers — an argument that has also surfaced on Whitmer’s behalf — but skeptics have pointed out that Biden’s wide Michigan win over Sanders this month demonstrated the breadth of his base there, so he likely doesn’t need that specific help. Harris detractors have offered a parallel critique of her profile, in addition to highlighting the disappointing, dysfunctional ending of her campaign: Does Biden really need the help with black voters, given his wide margins of victory with them in the primary? Still, Biden and Harris — who was friends with his late son, Beau — have remained friendly in recent months, even after Harris’s attack on the former vice-president at June’s debate. While Jill Biden expressed displeasure with the senator in private after that, many close to Biden believe her reaction has been overblown by overdramatic chatterers in the months since then. Still, some lawmakers and fundraisers who agree with Clyburn that Biden should choose an African-American woman but who are critical of Harris have been tuning in with interest to Demings’s recent television appearances (a classic tool for capturing donor attention).