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Why Tammy Duckworth is Biden's Best Possible Pick for VP

Why Tammy Duckworth is Biden's Best Possible Pick for VP

The hunt for Joe Biden’s Vice Presidential pick has been well underway for several months, and it has been assumed since the final primary debate, when Biden promised as much, that the VP would be a woman. The big question is which woman would get the position. Only recently has a candidate emerged, one Senator Tammy Duckworth, who can bring a unifying edge to Biden’s campaign. And a unifying profile is what Biden should be looking for in a VP pick. After all, Trump’s main strategy for winning, as in most other domains of his life, is to divide and conquer the electorate. Trump’s goal is to rile up his base using divisive rhetoric and political stunts, like giving a speech in front of Mount Rushmore during a national discussion on removing national monuments. Biden’s best move is to position himself as the unity candidate in opposition to Trump.

The problem from the start has been in finding a unifying candidate after a bruising primary season. Several of the other candidates Biden’s team has considered have been former rivals, like Senator Kamala Harris. Harris has been seen as a good pick in part because she is Black, which has become all the more important in the wake of the George Floyd protests. The problem for Harris is that, as a former attorney general, she has participated in the very system that Black Lives Matters protesters are working to change. She faced the same criticism during the primary, and the argument is still valid. Some voters will also remember her strong yet failed attack on Biden’s bussing record, which gave her a momentary boost in the polls, but ultimately damaged her credibility in the Democratic base. Choosing her as a candidate would send a confusing message about his commitment to social justice and force the Democrats to have a conversation about whether they would want Harris as a president given her poor performance in the primary.

Klobuchar was briefly considered but also failed to gain traction in the contest. Like Harris, her work as a prosecutor would likely have been seen as antithetical to the mood of the current moment. George Floyd was also killed in her home state, and the subsequent fallout has only exposed her weakness on race issues. Ultimately, Klobuchar announced her withdrawal from consideration for the VP slot, saying that the eventual nominee should be a woman of color.

Another former rival the Biden campaign has given heavy consideration is Senator Elizabeth Warren. Unlike Harris, Warren won 60 delegates in the primaries, despite failing to win a single state. Still, there might be strategic benefits to picking Warren that the other candidates do not offer. Most importantly, picking Warren would be potentially fortifying to Biden’s Left flank should defections emerge. At the moment, this appears to be merely a hypothetical problem though, as the reality is that no serious defections have occurred on the left so far. Warren is also somewhat divisive among progressives since many Bernie Sanders supporters see her as having betrayed what had been a unified progressive wing of the Democratic Party ahead of the final debate before the Iowa Caucuses. Installing Warren now could inflame the recently calmed divides between the establishment progressives and the anti-establishment progressives.

In an attempt to please progressives, the Biden campaign has also considered Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who rose to prominence after a narrow loss in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race. Abrams has strong credentials as a progressive, she is a black woman, and Bernie Sanders supporters like her a lot. Along with her leadership on race issues in recent weeks, these parts of her profile make her a strong candidate. The main problem for Stacey Abrams is that she is doing well enough in Georgia that she may still be a strong contender for governor, and may be seen more as a benefit to Democrats on the state level there than as VP. As a result, Biden has moved on to other options in recent weeks.

In addition to these contenders, several other candidates have been considered, including Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. But of all the lesser-known candidates, only one has gained enough traction to be seen as a serious dark horse contender in recent weeks: Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois.

Duckworth has an impressive resume. She was born in Thailand. Her mother is Thai Chinese and her father was a US veteran of three wars: WW2, Korea, and Vietnam. Through her father, Duckworth can trace her roots back to soldiers in the American Revolutionary War. After receiving an undergraduate degree at the University of Hawaii and a Masters in International Affairs from George Washington University, Duckworth began a Ph.D., which was interrupted by her military service (she completed the degree after her service ended). She was deployed to Iraq in 2004 as a pilot. When an RPG hit her helicopter later that year, she lost both her legs, becoming the first female double amputee in the war. She was awarded the Purple Heart and promoted to the rank of Major. Upon returning home and completing her Ph.D., she entered politics in Illinois. After serving as director of the Illinois Veteran’s Affairs department, she won a congressional seat in 2012, making her the first Asian-American from Illinois in Congress, the first woman with a disability elected to Congress, and the first member of Congress born in Thailand. In 2016, she reached her current stature by winning the Senate race in Illinois.

Duckworth has several strengths going for her as a candidate. Obviously, she is a veteran, which none of the other candidates can say. She is also very visibly scarred, which gives her patriotism a striking undeniability that previous Democratic Purple Heart recipients, specifically John Kerry, could not benefit from on the campaign trail. The GOP already proved the strength of her background recently. Tucker Carlson, President Trump, and others including Dan Crenshaw launched an ill-advised attack on Duckworth’s patriotism earlier this month. Duckworth’s response was perfect: “Attacks from self-serving, insecure men who can't tell the difference between true patriotism and hateful nationalism will never diminish my love for this country -- or my willingness to sacrifice for it so they don't have to. These titanium legs don't buckle.”

Duckworth’s military background and sharp retorts can bolster Biden’s appeal with both veterans and active duty military personnel. Indeed, probably the main reason she is under consideration right now is due to the ongoing fallout from the revelations late last month that President Trump had ignored intelligence reports stating that Russia had put a bounty on American soldiers in the Middle East. Democrats are most likely testing her appeal in this political situation and watching how the electorate reacts, just as they did with Harris and Abrams in the wake of the George Floyd protests last month. Duckworth is passing the test with flying colors. With a spotless military service record and a family background going back to the Revolutionary War, the GOP will have a tough time criticizing her on gun rights or painting her as a radical.

Another strength is Duckworth’s experience as a Senator. She was elected to the Senate at the same time as Kamala Harris was in 2012 and has been around long enough to learn the ropes of the legislature and build a robust network in Washington. As a senator, her voting record is also perfectly in line with what a centrist Democratic presidential candidate would go for. That will help her boost Biden’s candidacy in the midwest, in Klobuchar’s stomping grounds. With more than a decade of experience in government, she will also be a good backup to Biden, who is elderly, and who could potentially pass away in office. Duckworth would be a solid replacement from a governance perspective.

Biden will be hard-pressed to find another candidate that fits what Democrats are looking for in a VP pick so closely. Her main weakness is of course that she is not black, which is a requirement that Democrats are explicitly interested in seeing in a candidate. At the same time, being half Asian (Thai Chinese) and half white, she can take on some aspects of the mantle of the current Black Lives Matter civil rights movement. Though Duckworth has not been vetted in as stringent a manner as candidates who took the debate stage earlier this year, this can also be a double-edged sword, as she also hasn’t been dragged through the mud of an ugly primary. 

So what’s not to like? Duckworth has a stellar military service background and academic credentials. She has governance experience at the State legislature level and as Senator. She is a woman and a person of color, and she would satisfy conservative democrats on issues like gun rights as well as with her history at the Illinois Department of Veteran’s Affairs. She is fresh and unadulterated by the primaries. And she appeals to centrists and independents who voted for Amy Klobuchar and Tulsi Gabbard. She is clearly the best option for Biden as things currently stand. When Biden announces his decision in August, hopefully, she is his choice.