When Sen. Tammy Duckworth told an interviewer, “I think we should listen to everybody” in considering whether tearing down statues of George Washington is a “good idea,” one could conclude it was a gaffe that would harm her chances to become Joe Biden’s running mate.
When Fox News’ Tucker Carlson said it was legitimate to “question” her “patriotism,” the double amputee, Purple Heart recipient responded, “Walk a mile in my legs and then tell me whether or not I love America.” After she then piled on with a lacerating New York Times op-ed, one could conclude that such toughness had earned Duckworth serious consideration as Joe Biden’s running mate.
Which is it? Have the past week’s events helped or hurt Duckworth’s standing in the 2020 campaign for vice president?
We can’t get inside Biden’s mind to know what he thinks. (Though we know what he said publicly during a fundraiser with her: “I found it virtually disgusting, sickening, [but] I know you can handle yourself.”) But surely, he recognizes that seeing how she handles herself is valuable information that will be part of his consideration.
In March, Biden was asked if “it`s important that [your running mate] be someone who actually has been tested on that presidential debate stage,” and Biden replied, “I think that`s a very important factor.”
Why should that matter? Most vice presidents did not run for president before getting chosen. Much of the time, a politician gets picked for vice president by staying out of the spotlight and out of trouble. The top of the ticket doesn’t want to get upstaged by a showboating sidekick creating needless distractions.
But Biden, as a 77-year old nominee, is likely not looking for a meek sidekick. Many voters will want assurance his running mate can truly be president in case he dies in office. And since Biden could well not run for a second term, many Democrats will view the pick as their probable presidential nominee in 2024. That reality creates an extra challenge, as many Republicans will be eager to savage Biden’s running mate, sully her future prospects and increase the chances of a messy 2024 primary.
So a bland underling won’t do. Biden needs someone ready to govern and prepared to fight on the political battlefield. Perhaps that is why he has created an unusually public audition process, by routinely joining prospects in virtual campaign appearances.
As Biden indicated in March, if you haven’t run for president before, and haven’t faced the intense scrutiny and withering attacks that come with running for president, you’re at a disadvantage relative to apparent shortlisters Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Certainly, both senators made their share of mistakes speaking extemporaneously on the presidential primary campaign trail but, at least theoretically, in the process they became more battle-hardened.
By making her gaffe, Duckworth exposed her disadvantage. When you’re running for a congressional office, a polite dodge of a divisive question usually attracts little notice. Duckworth’s mistake was handling the question like a candidate for Senate running in a blue state, not a candidate for vice president speaking to the country. (Moreover, Biden had already answered a similar question directly, drawing a distinction between commemorations of Confederates and those of our patriotic yet flawed Founders; all Duckworth had to do was echo Biden’s words, and prove she could be a reliable No. 2.)
At the same time, she stumbled into an opportunity. By getting a taste of presidential-level scrutiny, she got to show how she holds up to it. On the positive side, she used the moment to emphasize how much she has sacrificed for her country, and credibly shame those who question her loyalties. On the negative side, it took her four days to publish in the New York Times a comprehensive response, including clarification of her views about monuments to George Washington.
Considering that the gaffe itself was a needless distraction, and the cleanup was slow in the making, I doubt this episode has immediately strengthened Duckworth’s standing in the veepstakes race. The last thing Biden wants is someone who creates controversies and requires defending.
However, she can still try to use her newly heightened profile to her advantage—accepting more media interviews, taking tough questions head on and proving her handling of the statue episode was not indicative of her overall capabilities.
Duckworth boosters argue she’s the complete package. As a woman of color (her mother is Thai and of Chinese descent), she would excite progressive base voters. As a Midwesterner with a military background and a Purple Heart, she would appeal to moderate swing voters. As a working mother of two young children (she is the first senator to give birth while in office), she can connect with working-class white women who have been swinging away from Trump.
That all makes sense on paper. However, the statue episode is a reminder that a strong vice presidential candidate is one that not only checks boxes, but also performs.
Biden is expected to make his choice in August. For Duckworth to fully recover, she could use some strong performances before July is over.