As you’ve probably seen, presumptive Democrat nominee Joe Biden has announced that California senator Kamala Harris will be his running mate in this year’s presidential election. If Biden maintains his current lead – no certainty, since it’s been slipping a little in recent weeks – she will have the inside track to at some point succeed him as president.
Harris dropped out of the contest herself last December despite a strong early showing, and quickly became the favorite for the vice-presidential slot. As a youngish (she turns 56 in October) woman of color she provides obvious balance to a ticket headed by an old white male.
Ideologically, Harris is seen as sitting somewhere towards the middle of the Democratic Party; more progressive than Biden, but unlikely to have major differences with him. California is a liberal state, but Harris’s background as a prosecutor (she was district attorney for San Francisco then state attorney-general) has given her a tough law-and-order image.
That may or may not be a bad thing. Certainly she has tried to stress her progressive and reformist credentials as issues around police abuses have recently become more prominent. (German Lopez last year produced a thorough assessment of her record.) Nonetheless she is widely disliked by civil libertarians, and seems to be a particular hate figure among “libertarians” – that is, those whose basically Trumpist politics shelter behind a thin veneer of libertarianism.
Once upon a time, vice-presidential nominees didn’t get a whole lot of attention. One of the less qualified of them, Dan Quayle, who was chosen by George Bush senior in 1988, was the subject of a minor scandal over claims that his family had pulled strings to get him into the National Guard to avoid service in Vietnam, prompting Jay Leno to quip that in the National Guard “You just kind of sit around and you wait for something to happen. Hey, if that isn’t training for the vice-presidency, I don’t know what is.”
But things have changed in recent decades, for two reasons. Firstly, presidents have got into the habit of giving actual responsibility to their vice-presidents. Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Biden himself all performed important roles in their administrations; it’s possible that Mike Pence does as well under Donald Trump, although things there are so chaotic that it’s not easy to tell. It’s no longer just a matter of attending state funerals in obscure places.
With that has come heightened public scrutiny. John McCain in 2008 was seen to pay an electoral price for selecting a dubious running mate, Sarah Palin, whereas previous poor choices had been largely forgotten after the initial flurry of publicity. Biden, a naturally cautious operator, was never likely to make the same mistake.
The second thing that’s happened is that the succession has become a more pressing concern as presidential candidates have gotten older. For most of the twentieth century, running for president was something you did in your fifties or late forties. Leaving aside incumbents seeking re-election, the oldest major party candidate prior to 1980 was Dwight Eisenhower, who was 62. (Which didn’t stop three of them from dying in office all the same.)
In 1980, however, Ronald Reagan was the Republican nominee at the age of 69, and the precedent has been followed. Bush in 1988 was 64, Bob Dole in 1996 was 73, McCain was 72, Mitt Romney in 2012 was 65 and Trump in 2016 was 70. In the latter year the Democrats joined the trend: Hillary Clinton was 69, and Biden this year is 77, the oldest yet.
Inevitably, an older nominee raises thoughts that they are less likely, if successful, to seek a second term – although in fact Reagan and Trump both did – and that they are at an increased risk of dying or being forced to retire through ill health. So a candidate is looking not just for someone to work with in office, but for someone to carry their legacy into the future.
To some extent the change is illusory; life expectancy in the United States is a good ten years higher than it was in the mid-twentieth century, so it’s no surprise that the average age would tick upwards. And presidents can obviously rely on much more high-quality medical care than the general population. Biden’s survival prospects are not that bad.
That said, Harris now becomes the heir presumptive to her party’s leadership. It’s been a long wait for the first female president, and it may still be a while to come, but there is now no doubt about who is favorite for the title.