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A VP for the VP

Photograph Source: Beth Rankin – CC BY 2.0

In what we now look back upon as “normal” times, a presidential candidate’s choice of a running-mate mattered in theory because the Vice President is only, as the saying goes, “a heartbeat away” from the presidency.

In practice, however, hardly anyone gave that consideration much thought – because it seemed overwhelmingly likely, the Kennedy assassination notwithstanding, that the presidential candidate’s heart would still be beating four or eight years after Election Day.

Therefore, the kinds of concerns that affect voters’ choices in presidential primaries and caucuses seemed if not entirely irrelevant, then very nearly so. Regional balance mattered more, and it mattered too if a prospect came from a state that was likely to be seriously contested and in which the party’s wisemen (always men) thought that the presence of a native son (always a son) on the ticket would tip the balance.

Gender started to matter too some forty years ago. When Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, it was something of a Hail Mary pass, but the idea was not unreasonable. In the end, Ferraro wasn’t much help, but her private parts were not the reason why.

When John McCain, “going rogue,” chose Sarah Palin in 2008, her gender was widely considered an asset. In the end, she too harmed the ticket more than she helped it, but blame for that lies mainly with McCain’s chronically bad judgment and the fact that he and his team never bothered to vet her properly.

Now, to hear Joe Biden tell it, a female running-mate is essential.

This after Hillary Clinton went bust – first against Barack Obama and then, to everyone’s surprise, against Donald Trump.

It is not pointed out nearly enough that Clinton became a credible candidate in the first place – and a feminist heroine — not on her merits, such as they may be, but because she was Bill Clinton’s official wife, a “First Lady.”

Why feminists were never particularly bothered by that is something of a mystery but let that pass. Now, unless Biden is dumb enough to choose her — or Michelle Obama or Laura Bush — we will at last be beyond the bizarre notion that, for a woman, being a president’s wife is a royal road to becoming president herself. We’ve come a long way, baby.

But these are not normal times – these are Trumpian and Trump-edemic times. It is surprising, by the way, that Trump doesn’t refer to the covid-19 crisis in those terms. After all, he does like to see his name on everything; and although naming the plague now raging for him would contradict his and therefore the GOP’s line about what a mighty virus slayer he is, contradictions have never bothered the Donald before.

These are also times in which, after having his presidential ambitions frustrated nearly as often as Harold Stassen’s back in the day, Biden will finally get his shot; and unless he blows it even more spectacularly than Clinton blew hers, his victory is, for all intents and purposes, assured.

He should thank Trump for that; unless he has a total personality transplant between now and November and, even then, only if the moral and intellectual health of the nation collapses entirely and/or collective amnesia sets in with a vengeance, Biden will get the Electoral College votes he needs.

As a general rule, the old adage, that all things come to him who waits, is patently false, but this time it seems spot on.

This is why this year it really does matter whom the running-mate is – not just in theory, but in practice too. It matters because, with Biden as the Democratic Party nominee, being just a heartbeat, or a neural misfiring, away takes on a whole new relevance.

Thus, the factors that voters and others deem relevant for picking a nominee for president have become relevant, like never before.

Were the powers that be in the Democratic Party and in respectable corporate media quick enough to be experiencing buyers’ remorse already, they would be shopping around for a replacement for Biden right now. Unfortunately, that is about as likely as that the corvid-19 virus will pack up and go back to wherever it came from.

My hopes are therefore more modest. Even so, they are longshots, to say the least, and my record, so far, is anything but promising.

For nearly four years, I have been waiting for cholesterol and obesity to do Trump in. Nowadays, with the Trump-edemic raging, I’d more than settle for him to follow, and exceed, the lead of Boris Johnson, his UK counterpart and soulmate. But, alas, we mortals are, as we always have been, playthings of nasty, mean-spirited gods, or perhaps of a Supreme Being who is, theology be damned, anything but perfectly good.

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal. Maybe Trump will eat that fatal hamburger at last or catch the virus he poo-poos. If there really were a God in heaven, it would be from a virus that Ivanka and her airhead husband picked up at that New Jersey Seder that they graced with their presence, violating both DC and New Jersey travel bans in the process.

I entertain idle hopes for Biden too.

How wonderfully ironic it would be if, unlike Reagan before he was elected for a second term, Biden’s ever-worsening dementia would become too obvious for Democratic muckety-mucks and their media flacks to ignore. Or, failing that, if, at some point during his tenure in office, he would, in one way or another, be deemed unable to serve, causing his vice president to take his place.

The chances of that are a whole lot better than the chances that Trump will croak before his term expires in January 2021; and, in any case, I now hope that he hangs on — since it is too late for much good to come from his demise, especially with Mike Pence waiting in the wings. Pence gives godliness and sycophancy a bad name.

Moreover, the best way now to de-Trumpify the body politic would be for Trump and his most flagrantly pernicious underlings to do hard time – not for their political depravity, but for their more egregious “high crimes and misdemeanors” and for at least some of their many actionable criminal offenses.

I fear, though, that with Biden in the White House that won’t happen; that. like Obama in 2009, he and his advisors will decide that the thing to do is to forget the past, look to the future, and blindly move on.

That was Obama’s Original Sin. It laid the moral and political foundation for the toadying to financial, corporate and military interests that followed, along with the bombings, drone attacks, “targeted assassinations,” deportations, and imperialist depredations that he and his administration undertook, and for the Cold War revivalism that he let fester.

If and when Biden follows his lead, it will be worse than tragedy repeating itself as farce.

Be that as it may, and wishful thinking aside, the chances are more than decent that at some point in the next few years, Biden’s vice president will, for whatever reason, take his place.

She will have her work cut out for her. Being up for it – something Biden plainly is not – is therefore of paramount importance.

***

As anyone who cares about improving the way things are or even just keeping them from becoming worse than they are already knows or, ought to know, it is not so much who is actually in charge that matters as it is the forces acting upon and through them. As a non-Clintonite or Bidenesque later-day James Carville might say: “it’s the movement, stupid.”

However, it is also plain that the character of the person at the top can matter a good deal. We have Trump to thank for making that lesson as clear as can be, but it is always, inevitably, the case.

For all his faults, Biden is obviously nothing like Trump, and neither will be anybody he chooses for a running-mate. Trump is a sociopath incapable of looking beyond the immediate news cycle from a narcissistic point of view. With progressive forces mobilized and militant, Biden and his VP pick, even if she is no less reactionary than he, could probably be prevailed upon, at least sometimes, to be a force for good, not just for the less godawful. Trump and his minions are inherently godawful or worse.

Needless to say, getting progressive forces to fulfill their historic responsibilities, is no easy feat; or, at least it wasn’t in pre-Trump-edemic days. Had they been more mobilized and militant earlier this year, fewer African American voters in South Carolina and then, once that tipping cross was crossed, everywhere else, would have fallen in behind Biden, the candidate least likely to advance their interests, to the extent that, following the lead of Jim Clyburn and others of his ilk, they ultimately did. Also, more twenty- and thirty-somethings, “of color” and not, might actually have bothered to vote.

This is why, after Trump is out, and even before whenever circumstances are right, all conceivable leverage should be deployed to force Biden and whomever he finally picks to run with him not to veer too far off on the wrong path.

In my personal lexicon, a Democratic Party “moderate,” in the present conjuncture, is a rank opportunist afraid of going “too far.” All the candidates running for the Democratic nomination this year, other than Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, were moderates to some extent, some more than others. Biden was and still is the worst of them all.

As the term is widely and usefully understood, “centrists” often are, but need not be, moderates in that sense, and moderates need not be centrists.

The spatial metaphor suggests the idea that centrists occupy a middle position on a left-right political spectrum – in between two polar extremes. That, however, is not the main notion that theorists, including Marxists, have in mind when they use that term. Rather, the idea is that centrists are susceptible to being pulled in either direction, according to how on-going political struggles unfold.

Biden is an extreme moderate and a centrist too. As such, he is more likely than not to pick another centrist to run with him. Therefore, for her as well as for him, applying pressure from the left is paramount.

But in her case, as in his, personality traits and other intangibles will surely also be consequential.

This is why it does matter whom the president is, and why, when his hold on the office he is running for is so obviously precarious, it can also be of great importance whom he chooses to be his VP.

The country and the world have already lost out on the first count, but it is not too late to avoid a similar fate on the second.

She who gets the nod will face truly formidable challenges, perhaps even more than Biden will, because the kinds of people who still back Trump to the hilt, the armed and dangerous ones especially, are perhaps the only significant segment of the population nowadays who are far less likely to take kindly to women in high places than to men.

It is tempting to deride them as fascists, and understandable too inasmuch as they sometimes act like fascists and because their Fearless Leader, who happens incidentally to be fearful of almost everything, has an evident fondness for authoritarian gestures which he pulls off in a quasi-opera buffa style reminiscent of Benito Mussolini.

However, that characterization is too ahistorical to pass muster, especially when there is a more apt parallel closer at hand – the Tea Party.

This has become especially evident in the demonstrations in state capitols – mainly in states with Democratic governors — against the stay-at-home orders that have been at least somewhat successful in stemming the tide of rising Trump-edemic cases.

The Tea Party was a purportedly grass-roots movement that, especially when starting up, was actually an astro-turf movement, funded and led by rightwing plutocrats and others intent on making trouble for America’s first African-American president. By all reliable accounts, the demonstrations last weekend were almost entirely astro-turf in nature. Noxious GOP plutocrats made them happen.

Like their Tea Party predecessors, most of the people who are actually now coming out to demonstrate profess libertarian ideologies of one or another kind. However, their grasp of the ideologies they advocate is, to say the least, confused.

They don’t quite grasp how, on even the most austere but philosophically lucid libertarian accounts, “liberty” is limited by the principle that no one is rightfully free to inflict harm on others. That, of course, is precisely what those demonstrators do when they congregate together in the midst of a pandemic brought on by a virus that circulates between persons in close contact with one another.

Insofar as their intentions are not merely malicious, those demonstrators somehow believe that the First Amendment protects those who menace public health; and that what they are doing is different in kind, not just degree, from, say, yelling fire in a crowded theater.

There is little point in engaging their arguments, because they really don’t have any; even more than their Tea Party predecessors, they are militant, empty headed fools, period, end of story.

The Tea Party had Obama for a foil. Their contemporary counterparts have their very own Donald Trump in the White House; who, then, can they mobilize against?

Trump and his media enablers were shrewd enough to get past that problem – by getting them to go after Democratic and refractory Republican governors instead, and, of course, to blame media that do not tow the Trumpian line.

That seems good enough to rile them up, but the fact remains that they are not only harming others, but also putting their own lives in jeopardy.

This is stupid, needless to say, but it is at least not philosophically befuddled. In libertarian ideology, causing harm to oneself is not proscribed in the way that causing harm to others is; and neither do they stray from core libertarian principles when they put themselves in mortal danger in order to augment the profits of capitalists who are plainly using them for their own pecuniary benefit, and who, just as plainly, hold them in contempt.

They take themselves to be living the “live free or die” life. That conceit would be more plausible if their understanding of freedom wasn’t quite so deeply flawed. But that is not the only way in which their thinking, such as it is, runs into trouble.

There is a problem too when they try to enlist their libertarian fantasies into their very Trumpian efforts to cause themselves to be held in esteem by those whom they envy.

The harder they try, the more they, like Trump himself, reveal how base and degraded they actually are. Theirs, after all, is not a thoughtful libertarianism. It is a by-product of their cult-like devotion to a Leader who, for reasons both opportunistic and venal, has decided that the best course for him now is to pander to the interests of venal libertarian capitalists who are stuffing his and the GOP’s coffers.

Following Trump in that undertaking, as the Trump-edemic rages, turns the Trump cult into something very like a death cult — in which the bamboozled willingly and even knowingly drink the Kool-Aid. How pathetic is that!

***

Is Biden capable of standing up against dangerous and demented Trumpian cultists, especially with Trump rattling their cages and riling them up at an ever accelerating pace?

Does he have anything to offer even to those only fighting to assure that a free and fair election actually will take place in November, and that, when Trump loses, he will cede power without creating havoc or inciting mayhem? I wouldn’t count on it.

But he may have it in him to choose, or be persuaded to choose, a VP who is more able than he, a woman whom the “liberal” cable networks and the quality press could not, or would not, dare to take on the way they took on Bernie Sanders.

Ironically, with a bona fide moderate party elder in the top spot, defenders of the status quo will hardly be in a position to mobilize against a candidate actually worth supporting.

That is something Biden himself certainly is not, but he just might have it in him to choose a running mate inspiring enough to get the kinds of people who didn’t come out in sufficient numbers for Sanders or Warren to prevail.

Unless they do, it will be hard, especially in a plague year, to defeat the massive GOP voter-suppression onslaught that surely lies ahead, making Trump’s defeat less certain than it would otherwise be, and visiting damage upon the efforts of genuinely progressive down-ticket Democrats to diminish the power of the Democratic establishment, and, in so doing, to reconstruct the Democratic Party in the urgently needed, salutary ways that the Sanders campaign was trying to advance.

In the effort to unify the Democratic Party against Trump, Elizabeth Warren’s name has sometimes been bandied about.

Unifying the party, in this context, means glossing over the profound differences that exist between those who want to maintain the power of the Pelosiites and worse who currently call the shots, and those who want, however timidly, to turn the party into an instrument for good.

A tactical alliance is, of course, possible. Indeed, to defeat Trump and Trumpism, it is indispensable. But real unity is a snare and a delusion.

However, with the Trump-edemic raging, and with Trump and his minions making everything worse, anything can happen.

Should Warren actually get the nod, I trust that I would be only one of many tens of millions whose first impulse would be to cry out: “say it ain’t so, Lizzie.”

After all, in our political system, presidents and vice presidents are always on the same page, as if an administration divided against itself cannot stand.

It is therefore one thing for her or for Sanders and for the people who supported them to offer Biden “critical support” or to form a tactical alliance with him and the Democrats behind him – that is, with the lesser of two enemies, as in the anti-fascist popular fronts of the late thirties; and something else altogether to surrender to the forces behind Biden lock, stock and barrel.

But perhaps in times like these, a VP and her boss actually can be on a different page, at least to some extent. Perhaps too, Warren, for all her seeming transparency, is more of a Machiavellian than she has previously let on.

If so, a nod from Biden could provide a backdoor into the White House, should the gods change course in a timely fashion by allowing the precarity of Biden’s condition to cause her to move on up.

I would say “time will tell,” but, unfortunately, it almost certainly will not, because, having been brought back from the dead by their efforts, Biden is unlikely to do anything that would put the interests of Democratic Party moguls and the donors behind them in even the slightest jeopardy.

Other names being floated in the flood of emails that the DNC and others send out daily, if not hourly, in order, they claim, to ascertain voters’ opinions, include, in alphabetical order: Stacey Abrams, Tammy Baldwin, Catherine Cortez Masto, Val Demings, Tammy Duckworth, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michelle Lujan Grisham, Kamela Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Keisha Lance Bottoms, Susan Rice, and Gretchen Whitmer.

With the exception of Harris and Rice and maybe Klobuchar, the problem with all of them, as it would be with the boy wonder Mayor Pete, is that they seem too flyweight, or at least too untested and inexperienced, to combat the twin scourges of Trumpism and the covid-19 virus.

Rice smacks too much of Obama and Clinton; that is, of the politics that made Trump all but inevitable. With a Biden-Rice administration, the country would find itself hurling forward back into a politically disabling past that, but for the contrast with the present, hardly anyone with a progressive bone in her or his body would find even remotely appealing.

Meanwhile, though Klobuchar may be mean as hell deep inside, on the outside she seems too Minnesota nice to stand down the morons who come to Trump-inspired open-the-country-back-up rallies, brandishing firearms, foreshadowing what my come later should Trump lose in November, as he likely will even with Biden for an opponent, and respond, as he then likely would, by encouraging his followers to let all hell break loose.

Therefore, much as it grieves me to say it, inasmuch as she seems to be an old school law and order prosecutor at heart, I would venture that, Warren apart, Harris would be the best of the lot.

I would expect that Trump and Pence will somehow find a way to keep debates from happening this fall, but on the chance that they don’t, the dramatic highlight of the fall television season could well come when she tears into Pence, making mincemeat of him, maybe even making him cry.

That might even be more amusing than “debates” between two non-compos mentis dirty old men, depending on what Saturday Night Live writers and hosts of late television shows are able to make of them.

I confess that for a day or two in the period leading up to the South Carolina primary, before I learned that her politics is Bidenesque, I thought that Sanders should look into making common cause with Demings. She, like Harris, used to be a prosecutor, as well as a cop and a police chief.

But she doesn’t seem nearly so cop-like. Also, I was impressed by her performance during the Trump impeachment inquiry, and I thought that Warren was on to something by seeming to be grooming Julián Castro for the VP job. Castro is from Texas, a swing state rich with delegates; Deming is from Florida, a state nearly as delegate rich and even more “purple.”

I therefore reckoned that it would be a good move on Sanders’ part to follow Warren’s lead.

Also, my head was still back in 2008 when a number of leftwing African Americans voiced concerns that Obama, with a Kenyan father and a white mother and with white grandparents who made sure that he would have an elite education in Hawaii and then at Columbia and Harvard, wasn’t quite African American enough.

Of course, he, like Harris, of whom much the same could be said, decided at some point to identify as an African American. And I wondered then, and wonder now, whether it was Wall Street’s fondness for Obama that was really what those who raised the issue found troubling.

However that may be, unlike Obama and Harris, Deming’s African American-ness is plainly beyond reproach, and I deemed that a mark in her favor. I now suspect, though, that the nuances of identarian politics have evolved just enough in the United States to make that concern less consequential than it may have been twelve years ago.

Whether or not it has, no one can accuse Harris of being anything like a flyweight, while the jury is still out, as it were, on Deming. I would therefore venture that, while either one would help the ticket, Harris would help it more.

Gretchen Whitmer, Trump’s “Michigan woman,” would help the ticket too, if only because she seems to have a knack for getting the Donald’s goat. But is she up to steering “the ship of state” through its current and future maelstroms? There is no good reason, at this point, to think either that she is or that she is not; but, for better or worse, we may soon find out because of all the contenders currently under discussion, she seems the one most likely to succeed.

Harris would be a better choice, however; she is more plainly up to the task. Therefore, if I am right in thinking that the Warren option is a non-starter, kept alive to keep progressives on board and as enthused as possible with Biden heading the ticket, Harris is the one to root for.

She is plainly better than Biden in every pertinent respect; and, with the Democratic establishment still in charge, she may be as good as we now can get.

Not to despair too much, however, because, for overcoming Trumpism and moving forward at last, what goes on outside the White House matters a good deal more than the shortcomings of those inside.

The task for the next six months will be to hold that thought, and then, when Trump is defeated and conditions are right, to act on it, no holds barred.

More articles by:

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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