On the Virtues of Not Being Excited

I wrote back in February about how comparatively small the stakes were in this year’s Democratic primary, given Donald Trump’s obvious, dangerous unfitness for office and the congressional Republican Party’s determination to obstruct anything a Democratic replacement might do. Imagine, then, how much smaller were the stakes in Joe Biden’s selection of a running mate. There’s no evidence that a vice presidential pick matters meaningfully in electoral terms, and the powers of the office are so limited that ideology doesn’t matter much either. The only real test of a good vice presidential candidate, apart from “Will they become a Sarah Palin-style disaster?”, is whether they can credibly assume the office in the unlikely event the president dies or becomes incapacitated. And for Biden, who may very well not seek a second term, there was an added need to find someone who could credibly run to replace him in 2024. Given that Biden had committed early on to picking a woman, and that this summer’s reinvigorated Black Lives Matter protests made it likely he would pick a woman of color, I’d say Kamala Harris was pretty obviously the best choice.

Does that mean that I’m personally excited he picked Harris? No. I see the logic of it, much as I could see the logic in past years of picking John Edwards, Tim Kaine, or Joe Biden himself. And that’s all I really need. There’s a tendency on the left to treat vice-presidential selection as a key component of campaign strategy, and to expect a “wow” factor, as if the candidate is Old Deuteronomy making the Jellicle Choice rather than a political professional hiring a member of staff. This is a symptom of a wider problem in in left political commentary: a vision of politicians not as people whose job it is to pass and carry out laws within a particular institutional framework, but as some unholy combination of philosophers and entertainers. There’s a particular type of nominal leftist whose criticism of Donald Trump is always strangely muted given their alleged policy preferences, and I suspect the issue is that however much they might deplore his beliefs, his “showman with passionate opinions” energy is much more what they think a politician should be than Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton’s neutral, fairly pragmatic vibe.

My problem with looking for exciting candidates is that excitement can generate a blind faith that stops you from recognizing that all politicians are inherently comprising and compromised. National politics is a high-level job, and no one who has ever held a high-level job (or even any job for any length of time) has done so within learning to accept trade-offs they don’t like and tolerate rules they think are pointless or even injurious. The role of pressure groups outside government (which we call “lobbyists” when we don’t like what they’re arguing for, and “activists” when we do) is to force politicians to confront the ways in which their institutional structures can work against their stated purpose. When ordinary voters are so enamored of a candidate that they simply trust she’ll do what’s right, they surrender their role in that discourse. So no, I’m not excited by Kamala Harris, any more than I was by Joe Biden, or Hillary Clinton, or even Barack Obama. I’ll do everything I can to put Biden and Harris in the White House, and then I’ll do everything I can to make sure they live up to the responsibilities of an administration that will have a greater task ahead of it than any since perhaps 1933. That’s what this historical moment demands.

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