Biden Owes the Country a New Vice President

5 minute read
Steil is senior fellow and director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author, most recently, of The World That Wasn’t: Henry Wallace and the Fate of the American Century.

Heading into an election year in which two radically different visions of America’s place in the world look set to compete, yet again, one issue is bound to beset Joe Biden—and rightly so. His age. Biden will, shortly after the election, turn 82. Actuarily, he has a one in three chance of dying before the end of a second term. And so his choice of vice president, this time around, looms large.

The last time the matter of a president’s running mate was of such consequence was 80 years ago, in 1944. Franklin Roosevelt refused to make a choice—or, rather, he made four of them, endorsing four separate candidates in four different ways. The result was a wild battle in which the winner was uncertain. In the end, the incumbent vice president lost his place on the ticket. The change of vice presidents had a momentous effect on post-WWII history.

In his 2012 “documentary” series titled The Untold History of the United States, the conspiracy-minded filmmaker Oliver Stone contended that a great tragedy occurred at the 1944 Democratic convention. An allegedly corrupt coterie of reactionary party leaders bullied an ailing Roosevelt into allowing an open convention for vice president—one that would, with their wise guidance, lead to the replacement of the pro-Soviet Henry A. Wallace with the russoskeptical Harry S. Truman. They did so anticipating, rightly, that the president would not survive a fourth term. Truman came from behind and won on the second ballot. Roosevelt died the following April, elevating the Missourian to the top job. By 1947, he had established himself as an unapologetic Cold Warrior, determined to resist Russian expansionism.

Had Wallace kept his place on the ticket, Stone contended, there would never have been a Cold War. Yet my recent mining of Russian and FBI archives makes clear that this is nonsense. Wallace was a willing dupe who, running for president as an independent Progressive in 1948, allowed Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who valued “peace” with Washington only insofar as it aided Russian expansion, to edit his most important election speech.

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Stone was right, however, in his belief that Truman joining the ’44 Democratic ticket was an event of great historical magnitude. Wallace himself would come to acknowledge, after North Korea’s Soviet-backed invasion of the South in 1950, that he had failed to recognize Stalin’s aggressive aims in both Europe and Asia. If Wallace had remained vice president in 1945, there would most surely still have been a Cold War. It would simply have been one for which the United States would sign on late, after the Soviets had come to dominate the strategically vital territories of northern Iran, eastern Turkey, the Turkish straits, Hokkaido, the Korean Peninsula, Greece, and all of Germany.

This brings me to the matter of Biden’s vice-presidential choice. Kamala Harris, the current holder of the post, shares with Henry Wallace progressive values and a proclivity to verbal infelicities. There are no indications that she would be soft on Russia or otherwise swerve—as Donald Trump has—from mainstream American foreign-policy tenets. But neither are there indications that she has developed, over her three years in the White House, any strong, recognizable convictions on America’s role in the world, or how Washington should exercise global leadership. Equally importantly, she has struggled mightily to move the public on any aspect of policy, even those policies—such as civil rights and immigration—on which she has taken an active interest or prominent role. While Republicans, most notably Donald Trump, have leveled, and will continue to level, ad hominem attacks and unsubstantiated charges against Harris, they will be amply justified in making her presence on the ticket a major campaign issue.

The American vice president has only two important constitutional roles: to break tie votes in the Senate, and to sit on presidential death watch. This latter task will be more important under a second Biden presidency than it has been at any time since FDR’s fourth term. Should Biden be re-elected, there is a one in three chance of his vice president taking his job before January 2029. And roughly half the electorate thinks that Harris is not up to the demands of that job.

With the world order as unsettled and the American public as polarized as they have been in many decades, this is no time for a president who hopes to forge an identity in office. Though FDR cleverly kept his fingerprints off the party leaders’ plan to replace Wallace with Truman in 1944, he made the responsible decision in approving the switch. Today, Joe Biden owes it to the nation to make such a switch in 2024. There is more than enough talent within his cabinet, in the Congress, and outside government for him to do so.

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