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What Joe Biden's VP pick will tell us about Joe Biden

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event at the William "Hicks" Anderson Community Center in Wilmington, Del. on July 28, 2020. Credit: AP/Andrew Harnik

Joe Biden has by all accounts run a very small-"c" conservative general-election campaign to date. He has played it safe in his campaigning, letting President Trump hog the limelight with his acts of self-sabotage. He has quickly squelched ideas that might be popular on progressive Twitter but not with the general populace. Despite polling showing him neck and neck in Texas and Georgia, his campaign has concentrated its advertising on the traditional swing states. He has taken care to secure his left flank by earning the support of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Biden's campaign has organized its foreign policy team in a manner designed to keep everyone inside the tent with busywork, much like prior nominees.

Will that conservatism extend to his choice for vice president? The safe choice would be Kamala Harris, for reasons I'll explain a few paragraphs down. The past week or so, however, has seen a variety of trial balloons being launched in favor of choices like Susan Rice or Karen Bass. At the same time, a few water balloons have been lobbed in the direction of Harris.

The political scientist in me knows that much of this is overhyped silliness. Contrary to some speculation, Biden's process to date has a familiar feel to it. Float names to the media, see what gets oxygen and what does not, offer a little intrigue during the dog days of summer. The hard truth is that the vice-presidential choice has minimal effects on the general-election campaign. Picks have only a marginal effect on even their home state, much less the rest of the country. The exceptions, like Sarah Palin, are negative ones.

This is a choice with little upside but some potential downside for Biden. There is one aspect of Biden's shortlist that is anything but conservative, however: Folks like Bass or Rice are not people thought to aspire to the presidency. The media stories about Rice and Bass stress their nonpresidential ambitions; indeed, the New York Times write-up of Bass says she has been "assuring Democratic officials that she has no interest in seeking the presidency herself." This is in stark contrast to one of the critiques of Harris, which is that "she's too ambitious."

This is . . . odd. Vice presidents have aspired for the top job ever since the first half of the 19th century, when the next-in-line norm migrated from the secretary of state to the vice president. Over the past 45 years, Dick Cheney is the only elected vice president who has not subsequently run for the presidency.

One could argue that in this century, VPs have been selected for a somewhat different purpose. George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump were all viewed as political neophytes when they secured their nomination. Cheney, Biden and Mike Pence were probably selected with the idea of offering up a seasoned Beltway veteran to counterbalance the outsider claims of the nominee.

This does not apply to Joe Biden as presidential nominee. If elected, he would be the most experienced politician to occupy the top job since George H.W. Bush. This gives Biden the luxury of selecting someone who has the political skill and will to succeed him in office.

Why would Biden take a risk and select a VP with no designs on the Oval Office? One argument is that the country is in such a deep crisis that he needs as many managers as possible. But this is silly — if he wins, Biden can appoint an entire Cabinet of crisis managers. Susan Rice makes way more sense as secretary of state than as vice president.

Another argument is that Biden does not want to put his thumb on the scale of any primary in 2024 or 2028. This, too, is fanciful. At 77 years old, Biden might be serving only one term. Selecting someone who can inherit his mantle is the best possible way to ensure his legacy.

The most disturbing argument floating around in the political ether is that Biden does not want a VP choice who would overshadow him. That would betray an insecurity that the current occupant of the White House possesses in way too much abundance. It also, frankly, does not sound like Joe Biden, a man whose strongest political gift has been his ability to glad-hand anyone he meets.

I believe Biden should choose a vice-presidential candidate who has the political ambition for the top job in the future and the capacity to be president should Biden die in his first term. It would help if this person had more than a passing familiarity with the rigors of a national campaign.

Yes, I have just described Kamala Harris. She has the governing experience and the campaign experience. During the vice-presidential debate, she has the chance to go after a vulnerable Mike Pence in a manner akin to what she did to William Barr last year. From a purely selfish perspective, she would be good for the Jews. Picking the primary candidate who hit Biden the hardest during the debates would signal the kind of mature leadership that the country lacks. Most importantly, being the VP choice would eliminate Harris's biggest weakness during the primary, which was her inability to provide much content after a solid debate performance. In this scenario, the Biden campaign would be providing the content.

Joe Biden has the opportunity to play a pivotal role in the election of the first African American president and the first female president. I hope he does not take the risk of picking someone for vice president who has no future designs on his job. That would be a bad signal.

Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. This piece was written for The Washington Post.