Last week, in the race for the Democratic vice presidential nomination, the progressive activist wing appeared to make a sudden shift in its support: away from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and toward Rep. Karen Bass.
On Wednesday, Markos Moulitsas penned a Daily Kos post that was explicit about making that shift. United Farmworkers founder Dolores Huerta told the progressive publication Payday Report that, despite her support of Sen. Kamala Harris in the presidential primary, Democrats should “pray” that Joe Biden picks Bass because “I always think of the Bernie Bros and Bernie Sisters, and [Bass] would bring them to the table and the campaign.”
On the previous day, a group of Bernie Sanders-affiliated Democratic convention delegates from California published an open letter to Biden recommending either Bass or two progressives almost certainly not under consideration (Rep. Barbara Lee and Sanders’ campaign co-chair Nina Turner) — conspicuously leaving out Warren.
Also on Thursday, a trio of progressive organizations argued that a recent congressional vote against Sanders’ budget proposal to cut military spending revealed “Senators Harris, [Tammy] Duckworth or [Maggie] Hassan or Rep. [Val] Demings” to be “the wrong choice,” whereas those vice presidential prospects who for voted for the cut — including Bass, Warren and Sen. Tammy Baldwin — made them options who “would help unify the party, as well as attract swing voters.” While these particular leftists didn’t throw Warren under the bus, they did elevate Bass.
The embrace of Bass on the left is, on the surface, odd, because she is more of an inside player than outside agitator. As California Assembly speaker, she worked with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on a plan to solve the state’s fiscal crisis that included spending cuts four times larger than new tax revenues. While she is a nominal sponsor of the “Medicare for All” bill introduced in the House, she does not insist that a single-payer system is the only path to universal health coverage. She told Vox last year: “Probably a difference I would have would be whether or not … there was still an alternative for people that did not want to do Medicare-for-all. … I think it’s an important debate, and it doesn’t mean that everybody in the caucus is wedded one way or another.” Such ambivalence has long roused suspicion among die-hard single-payer supporters.
More recently, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, she positioned herself as a pragmatist when it comes to police reform. She said in a Washington Post interview that “Defund the Police” was “probably one of the worst slogans ever.” While she quickly apologized and said on Twitter, “I would never mean to malign a movement of activists,” she soon after offered further pointed language directed towards progressive activists: “It is the role of an activist to push us as far as they can push us. It is our role to legislate, and that is a different role. … We work on the inside, we know what is realistic. We are very committed to making a difference, and that is different than making a point. You can either make a point, or you can make a difference.” Those are fighting words to the average activist, who scorns the language of pragmatism as defeatist.
So what explains the Bass boom on the left? Look to her comment to The Atlantic: She “cannot envision” ever running for president, even if she was vice president.
The left is clearly worried Biden’s VP pick will be the Democratic Party’s leader in the very near future, and it won’t be a progressive populist like Warren or Baldwin. Biden has said he wants somebody philosophically “simpatico” whom he can trust to take on major responsibilities. And with Biden leading Donald Trump by healthy margins in nearly every poll, it’s very hard to argue Biden must shelve that desire and, out of political expediency, name a left-wing running mate to energize the party’s base.
Biden’s top choices appear to include Harris, whom some on the left view warily because of her prosecutorial record as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general; Demings, who ran the Orlando Police Department and must answer for brutality cases on her watch; Duckworth, who won her first Democratic primary in 2006 by beating a candidate farther to her left on issues like health care and the Iraq War; and former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, whose past support for military interventions such as in Libya unnerves the party’s antiwar voices. Many progressive activists do not want any of these anointed as the face of the Democratic Party’s future.
If Biden is going to choose a fellow pragmatist, the left would greatly prefer the choice be someone who won’t seize the inside track for the next presidential primary contest, which could be as soon as 2024. Assuming Bass doesn’t change her mind about a promotion (or want to extend her presidency after the tragic event of Biden’s untimely demise), her selection would ensure a wide open primary contest in which a devout progressive, or even a democratic socialist like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, would have a better shot of winning than one including a sitting vice president.
Progressive activists are surely aware than vice presidents (or former VPs) almost always win their party’s presidential nomination. Richard Nixon in 1960 and 1968. Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Walter Mondale in 1984. George H.W. Bush in 1988. Al Gore in 2000. And Joe Biden in 2020. The only example of a failed presidential nomination bid by a vice president in the last 60 years was the very brief 2000 attempt by Dan Quayle, who was long derided as an intellectual lightweight and uniquely unpopular. (Quayle also had the misfortune of running against his former boss’ son, George W. Bush.)
If Bass is a pragmatist who is acceptable to the left, then does that mean she would, as her advocates claim, successfully unify the Democratic Party and, like other good vice presidential nominees, “do no harm”? It may not be that simple.
First, there is the matter of Bass’ warm words about Fidel Castro upon his death, which some believe could jeopardize Biden’s ability to win Florida. Second, while progressives may want to avoid an anointment by Biden, other Democrats may be eager for one.
Many supporters of Harris, Demings, Rice and Duckworth want to see a woman of color cued up for 2024 or 2028. They recognize that breaking barriers is hard, but four to eight years in the national spotlight working inside the White House makes it a whole lot easier. Conversely, to pick a woman of color for vice president who is not expected to get a promotion would raise the question of why she was picked at all: to be a valued partner, or to be political window dressing?
If Biden feels Bass is truly the most qualified option, then he should pick her. But he should do so knowing that to say someone is most qualified person to be vice president is to also say that person is the most qualified person to be president as well, save for himself. Similarly, the progressive activists who are suddenly Bass boosters should be aware that despite Bass’ demurrals, becoming vice president can make one awfully interested in the presidency.