As Minneapolis and other American cities erupted after the death of George Floyd on May 25, a short list may have grown shorter for Democrat Joe Biden: his slate of potential vice presidential candidates.
It certainly grew more complicated.
A few weeks earlier, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., hosted a Zoom fundraiser with Biden and helped raise $1.5 million for his presidential bid. By the end of May, Klobuchar was watching Minneapolis burn and fielding questions about whether she should drop out of contention for Biden’s running mate.
The problem wasn’t Klobuchar’s proximity to the crisis: It was her history as a prosecutor in the county.
For eight years, Klobuchar served as the top prosecutor in Hennepin County, a jurisdiction that includes Minneapolis. Crime rates dropped, but critics point out Klobuchar didn’t bring charges against a slew of police officers facing allegations of excessive force.
One of the names that surfaced just as Klobuchar left for the U.S. Senate: Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer now facing murder charges for pinning down George Floyd, as Floyd gasped for breath. Floyd, 46, died shortly after Chauvin knelt on his neck for several minutes.
Klobuchar had already left the prosecutor’s office for her Senate post in 2007 when a grand jury declined to indict Chauvin over the shooting death of a suspect in a separate case. Reports that Klobuchar personally refused to prosecute Chauvin don’t appear accurate, but she still faces questions about how she handled other cases involving officers.
In such cases, prosecutors usually presented evidence to grand juries, and the juries decided whether to issue indictments. But Klobuchar has recently said she should have made more of the decisions about charging officers herself.
It’s difficult to know if the cases would have turned out differently, but the question mark is enough to complicate Biden’s decision-making about a running mate, particularly as the country has faced some of its most widespread urban unrest in decades.
Klobuchar isn’t the only candidate on the vice-presidential list with a background in law or law enforcement, and Biden will have to decide whether such credentials are assets or liabilities before his self-imposed deadline for choosing a running mate by Aug. 1.
The magnitude of the decision intensifies as Biden acknowledges his age: The former vice president will be 78 in November. He told a crowd in January he realizes the person he picks as a running mate should immediately be capable of stepping into the presidency if necessary: “I’m an old guy.”
A few supporters in the crowd chuckled. Biden responded, “No, I’m serious.”
CHOOSING A RUNNING MATE has always been serious, but the vice presidency hasn’t always been taken seriously. Benjamin Franklin once suggested calling the vice president “Your Superfluous Excellency.”
The role has grown in complexity over the years, but even for the most low-key vice president a high responsibility remains: If the president is unable to serve, the second-in-command catapults to the Oval Office.
If that happens, it’s usually by a president’s death, but the 25th Amendment also gives the vice president power to join a majority of Cabinet members (or another body formed by Congress) to declare a president unfit to serve. If a president objects, it would take a two-thirds vote by Congress to approve his removal.
Such circumstances would be extraordinary, but it’s a reminder of the linchpin a vice president could be in such a dramatic moment.
Former Sen. Joe Lieberman, who served as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, compared the experience of undergoing the vetting process to having an invasive medical procedure without anesthesia.
Biden says he’s healthy, and his campaign has dismissed questions about his mental acuity, but he’s aware his age makes a health crisis a more elevated possibility. (President Donald Trump talks less about his age, but he turns 74 on June 14.)
Biden also hasn’t publicly ruled out the possibility of only serving one term if he’s elected in November. And while vice presidents don’t have a stellar track record of winning the presidency, a one-term Biden would accelerate his vice president’s chance to aim for the top spot.
The most important question in picking a vice president is intensely practical: Who could best step into the presidency if necessary? But the question also becomes inevitably political: Who could best help me win?
For Biden, that choice is complicated by a particularly unusual election year.
What will be the most pressing issue in November? Will economic distress be improving or worsening? Will COVID-19 be weakening or surging? Will racial tensions and police relations be on the front burner or back burner?
That last question may be on Biden’s front burner at the moment. After reports resurfaced in late May about Klobuchar’s record as a prosecutor in Minnesota, an analyst for The Cook Political Report declared the senator is “off the list.” Klobuchar defended her tenure as a prosecutor, which included a tough-on-crime approach when Minneapolis was struggling to stem a soaring murder rate in the 1990s. But she didn’t publicly argue for Biden’s selection either way: “It’s his choice.”
Biden already had narrowed down his choice with an early promise: He says he plans to name a woman to the ticket. With heightened racial tensions in the United States, his advisers may urge him to select one of the African American women already on his radar. But some of those choices come with complications too.