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Jonathan Bernstein

Is Kamala Harris Too ‘Ambitious’ to Be Vice President?

Determination and self-interest aren’t liabilities in a running mate. In fact, they’re necessary for success.

Looking out for No. 2.

Looking out for No. 2.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty

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Some of former Vice President Joe Biden’s big financial backers have been discouraging him from choosing Senator Kamala Harris as a running mate because she’s apparently too “ambitious,” according to a new CNBC report. The story led to widespread complaints on social media that women are faulted for a trait — ambition —  that men are expected to have and indeed are frequently praised for.

To be sure: It’s not clear that Biden himself is sympathetic to this case against Harris. Nor do we know how many of his supporters share the view that she’s too ambitious, or that she’d be too interested in her own prospects to be a good vice president.

Regardless, it’s worth pointing out how wrong these “allies” are about the presidency and the vice presidency. To begin with: Biden may well be choosing a president, whether his running mate succeeds him after four years, eight years or at some other point. Quite a few vice presidents have eventually become president, so what Biden owes his party and the nation is to choose someone who could do the job well. And ambition is a critical trait for that; indeed, I’ve argued that both George W. Bush and Donald Trump were bad presidents in part because they didn’t have the intense determination that the job requires. 

What about vice presidents? They, too, should be ambitious. In fact, the president is best served if the vice president wants his or her job. Such motivation aligns incentives in a healthy way. If Harris is vice president and wants to move into the Oval Office, then it will be in her interest to make Biden look good — to help him be popular within the party, so that she has a good chance of winning the nomination, and to deliver peace and prosperity, so that Democrats will win the next general election. 

It’s no surprise that the only vice president in modern times who was seen as an independent actor seeking his own policy preferences, rather than loyally acting on behalf of the president, was also the only one to seemingly have no presidential ambitions of his own: Dick Cheney. 

Vice President Mike Pence understands this, just as Walter Mondale did when Jimmy Carter was president. Once a politician accepts the No. 2 spot, breaking with the president — no matter how unpopular he is, and no matter how bad he is at the job — is political suicide. Even if some in the party would applaud the move, it would make so many enemies that any future nomination would be almost unthinkable. A vice president who wasn’t interested in the top job would have no such constraints. 

At any rate: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were all extremely ambitious men. I strongly suspect that all the women Biden is considering as running mates are extremely ambitious, too. If not? That would be a good reason to keep them off the ticket and far away from the White House. 

1. Robert Farley on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the demographics of the U.S. military.

2. Lee Drutman on the malapportionment of the Senate.

3. David T. Burbach, Lindsay P. Cohn and Danielle Lupton at the Monkey Cage on the protests in Portland

4. Fred Kaplan on Trump’s troop withdrawal from Germany.

5. Ariel Edwards-Levy on the myth of shy Trump voters.

6. Nate Cohn also looks for plausible polling errors.

7. And Stuart Stevens on the future of the Republican Party.

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