Commentary: Joe wants a woman veep; he needs to be specific

If this is to be more than a consolation prize, Biden has to announce and defend his choice soon.

By Monica Hesse / The Washington Post

When Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race, several of my Warren-backing friends were approached by Tulsi Gabbard fans pitching an alternative: You wanted to vote for a woman? Tulsi’s still in the race; your dream lives!

It was preposterous on a couple of counts, one being that Gabbard has never polled above the single digits and currently has two electoral delegates (from American Samoa). But mostly: Elizabeth Warren and Tulsi Gabbard are radically different candidates. If you were fired up by Warren’s wonky anti-corporate corruption agenda, you were not likely to suddenly flock to a congresswoman you last saw at a debate way back in November jawing on about “regime-change wars.”

Female candidates are, actually, unique humans; not Garanimals T-shirts you can swap in when another gets dirty.

Which brings me to Joe Biden announcing in Sunday evening’s debate that, if he wins the Democratic nomination, he was publicly committing to selecting a woman as his running mate. “There are a number of women who are qualified to be president tomorrow,” he said, and he was going to draft one of them for his ticket.

This was good news. Great news! It was certainly better than if he’d publicly committed to not naming a woman as the Democratic candidate for vice president. A female vice president wasn’t the historic first that a lot of voters had in mind when this election began, but it would be a massive first nonetheless. If Biden won, a woman would be nicely positioned to take over in four or eight years, and if that’s what it takes to break a 250-year-old male lock on the Oval Office, so be it.

Biden should be applauded for doing his part to make American government, as he said on Sunday, more reflective of American demographics.

So why was it, as I spent the evening checking in with various women who had supported Amy Klobuchar, or who had supported Kirsten Gillibrand — or who would have crawled over broken glass to get Carly Fiorina within spitting distance of the White House — why was it that their reaction was sometimes less “Thank you, Joe!” but rather, “Gee, Joe. Thanks.”

Bitterness? Exhaustion? Let’s tread carefully, lest we provoke something like Mike Bloomberg’s dismissive assessment of Warren in his final presidential debate: “The trouble is with this senator, enough is never enough.”

For Democratic primary voters to choose a female nominee was apparently too much to hope for. Now, in all likelihood, Biden will make the choice instead. It’s a gift horse for the bottom of the ticket; should we look it in the mouth or simply throw our arms around Uncle Joe for giving us a pony?

The answer is obvious. I appreciate this theoretical horse/veep, and I can’t wait to get it to a comfy stall in the West Wing and lovingly feed it oats and hope Biden consults it on important executive decisions. But I am going to spend a second examining its teeth. At the very least, we’re going to do a quick floss.

Biden’s wonderful gesture was also, frankly, an eye-rolling one. His insistence that many qualified women could be president tomorrow rings a bit hollow, seeing as it’s coming off a primary that once had six women, and Biden did everything he could to make sure none of them would, in fact, be president tomorrow.

Now, he has decided that a woman could have the vice presidency, as a consolation prize.

Then there’s a matter of specifics. Which woman are we talking about? Warren or Gabbard?

Would Kamala Harris’s razor-sharp intellect be a fantastic complement to Biden’s folksiness? Sure. Would Georgia’s Stacey Abrams work as a strategic bridge, enticing the younger, more progressive wing of the party to give Biden a chance? You bet. Somewhere, some coy strategist has probably run the numbers on what former Republican governor Nikki Haley would do for Biden’s ticket; potentially recruiting a conservative vote or two in purple swing states.

But those are specific women. Specific women, with specific identities and qualifications. Biden didn’t name a specific woman. He also didn’t say something like, “I’ve analyzed all the contenders, and the best one is this woman I can’t name yet, but we’re already in conversation.”

What he said was, “a woman.” Which means something very different than naming an actual person. It’s the difference between actually believing that gender equality exists and believing it’s something you have to say exists, to keep everyone happy.

Most feminist voters I know don’t want “a woman” in the White House just because an older man announced in advance that he’d earmarked a special lady-slot for someone wearing a pantsuit. They don’t want griping naysayers to invent stories about “reverse sexism,” i.e. “We all know Mayor Pete would have been the best choice, but Biden had to choose a woman so here we are.”

What they want is a candidate who was chosen for the office not because it would be nice to have a woman in the role, but because she’s the best person for the job.

That’s why the idea of Biden picking Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris or Stacey Abrams — or any woman, really — for the bottom of his ticket feels, for the moment, like a tinged blessing. Does Biden understand that many voters are still making the mental switch from, “at last, we could have this woman in the White House,” to “at least, we could have a woman in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building?”

Biden is often a good thinker, but a messy speaker. Many times, he’s been a strong advocate for women, and I have to believe he wants the right thing: not a Garanimals woman vice president, but a specific woman, chosen for her specific skills, with whom he’d be proud to campaign.

So I hope he introduces her. I hope he announces his running mate now, soon, this week. Why not? We’re in the middle of a pandemic, it’s good to demonstrate a deep bench. And moreover, it’s good to show that you’re thinking of your running mate as a person substance, not just a box to check off.

I hope the next time he’s onstage for a town hall, he can do more than vow to choose a woman. He can invite his running mate onstage and say, “Your future vice president is sensational. Here she is.”

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section and author of “American Fire.”

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