Why Not Janet?

A vice-presidential pick who could show that Joe Biden is serious about winning, and then governing

Janet Napolitano
Emma McIntyre / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Amid the chatter about Joe Biden’s having lost a step or two, has anyone paused to notice that, in the 2020 campaign, he has not put a foot wrong?

He bet everything on using South Carolina as a firewall, banking on support from African American and moderate voters, and then on riding that victory to success on Super Tuesday; the gamble paid off spectacularly. He managed to stay on good terms with the prickly Senator Bernie Sanders and edged him tactfully out of the race, winning Sanders’s firm endorsement in the process. He brought early and exceptional unity to his normally fractious party. In the pandemic, he has played a weak hand well: Instead of trying to compete with President Donald Trump for airtime, he is displaying decency and statesmanship and letting the obvious contrast speak for itself.

In short, Biden has shown consistently impressive strategic skill in his third presidential outing. We will see how convincingly he deals with recent charges of sexual misconduct dating from 1993, but Trump is right to be worried about facing him.

Still, Biden’s most important strategic test is yet to come. Given his age, everyone needs to assume that his running mate may succeed him, either by election in 2024 or by succession before then. Never in my lifetime has the choice of a running mate mattered so much.

In an ordinary race, identity politics plays a big role in Democrats’ ticket-balancing calculations. This time, it already has, inasmuch as Biden has promised to choose a woman. There’s no shortage of names in circulation, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Gretchen Whitmer, Amy Klobuchar, and Stacey Abrams prominent among them.

But if the Democratic primaries proved anything, it was that 2020 would not be a paint-by-numbers election in which African Americans vote for black candidates, women vote for female candidates, and the young vote for next-generation candidates. Instead, the young gravitated to one old white man (though only weakly, compared with 2016), and African Americans and women gravitated to another old white man. The Pew Research Center recently found that only about 40 percent of Democrats are bothered that their nominee is an older white man.

Strikingly, among all demographic groups, black Democrats are the least identity-bound. Only 28 percent of African-Americans say they are bothered by having an older white man as the nominee—and the figure is barely higher among Hispanics. (College-educated whites under 50 are the real locus of liberal identity politics, as no one who has visited a university campus in recent years will be surprised to hear.)

In other words, 2020 will not be an identity-politics election for Democrats. Neither will it be an ideological election. In a forthcoming book on the Democrats post-2016, the University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket points out that a recurring pattern has been for parties to tilt toward their liberal or conservative wings in the next election after losing the presidency. Think Barry Goldwater in 1964, George McGovern in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988. Only after repeated drubbings do the parties’ bases drop their ideological demands in order to win.

This time, however, Democrats’ desperation to defeat Trump has accelerated the timetable. Opinion polls and his own interviews with Democratic activists find “that the focus on electability was both strong and unusual in this cycle,” Masket writes. “The 2020 contest was the first of the last four in which Democratic voters were prioritizing a candidate’s electability over agreeing with them on most issues. Thanks to negative partisanship generally, and attitudes toward Donald Trump specifically, Democrats were willing to surrender quite a bit to defeat Trump.” By selecting Biden, Democrats have sent a clear message: Revolution can wait.

The party’s energized base and laser-like focus on winning in 2020 give Biden room to nominate a running mate who is both white and moderate, in an effort to win over swing voters. But she needs to meet one all-important criterion.

Although the pandemic makes a blowout possible (in either direction), odds are that the election will be decided in a handful of battleground states, notably Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Within those states, the outcome will depend disproportionately on voters—particularly, though not only, college-educated women and suburbanites—who are disgusted with Trump but need to believe that Biden is a safe alternative. They need to know that Biden’s successor is ready to be commander in chief and has the experience and gravitas to govern. Trump will do everything possible to convince them otherwise.

That requirement substantially shortens the list. Warren’s fire-breathing persona rubs against Biden’s promise of bipartisanship. Harris, Whitmer, and Abrams lack seasoning. Harris has not yet completed her first term in the U.S. Senate, Whitmer is still in her second year as governor of Michigan, and Abrams has never served in federal or statewide office. Klobuchar, now in her third Senate term, is no greenhorn, and she offers gravitas and bipartisan chops. In Minnesota, she has shown she can attract moderate and Republican voters, and in the 2020 primaries, she did better than respectably. On paper, that makes her a good fit. But she has not held an executive office, and the public prefers governors to senators. (Only three sitting senators have been elected president, versus nine sitting governors.) And she hails from Minnesota, a state Biden is likely to win anyway.

The ideal résumé, then, would be a former governor with gravitas and federal experience, a track record of attracting moderate and Republican voters, and appeal in a key battleground state. Not too old or young—say, in her early 60s. All that, plus a good relationship with Joe Biden. Someone, that is, like Janet Napolitano.

Janet who? She is not in the headlines. Her last outing on a ballot was 14 years ago. She has had several bouts with cancer, most recently in 2017. Those are liabilities. But no woman in American politics is better suited to the particular requirements of this year’s race.

I first encountered her in December 1999, when I was reporting an article on emerging political talent in Arizona, my home state. Recently elected Arizona’s attorney general—and the first woman to hold that position—Napolitano was representative of the center-left pragmatists ushered into politics by Bill Clinton’s success. With perfect Clintonian pitch, her campaign was tough on crime and soft on kids. “She won in an overwhelmingly Republican state by running a dogged shoe-leather campaign, by stressing competence over ideology (she had been a federal prosecutor), and by talking about both doing more for children and enforcing the law,” I wrote in National Journal. Her manner was crisp, self-contained, more lawyerly than political, with flashes of warmth. “I felt when I was campaigning that most people were pretty moderate,” she told me back then. “The populace had a kind of consensus that’s really not being translated very well into public policy.”

Her subsequent career justified my impression of her talent. In the 2002 gubernatorial race, she barely squeaked to victory, but her subsequent emphasis on early-childhood education paid off. By 2005, she had brought full-day kindergarten to the state, a hit with suburban parents. She “likes children and she likes a good fight, and the combination seems to work,” I wrote in National Journal in 2005. In her 2006 reelection bid, she trounced her Republican opponent by almost two to one. She won every county and state legislative district, a first in the state.

Remember, Arizona is a red state. It last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1996. But in 2020, thanks to demographic change and an independent, libertarian streak, the state and its 11 electoral votes are in play. If Trump were to lose there, it would likely block his return to the White House.

People I asked expressed varying views on Napolitano’s current standing in Arizona. She remains well liked but last served in elective office in the state in 2008, and so memories have faded. In 2009, newly elected President Barack Obama appointed her to be secretary of homeland security—a rookie mistake on Obama’s part that turned the governorship over to a Republican, who went on to spark the anti-immigrant flames that eventually helped bring Trump to power. Napolitano’s departure under those circumstances is a sore point among some Arizona Democrats, and her service under Obama is a sore point among some Arizona Republicans. Still, everyone agrees that her presence on the ticket would be a net plus in Arizona, whether large, small, or in between.

From 2009 and for more than five years, she ran the government’s third-largest Cabinet department, with almost a quarter-million employees. In that role, she had regular contact with Biden, who was tapped by Obama to oversee the economic-relief effort after the 2008 financial collapse. “She had a lot of interaction with him because of the law-enforcement stuff,” recalls Brian de Vallance, who worked for her both in Arizona and at DHS. “And he had been a leading person in the Senate on law enforcement stuff. They had a very good and healthy relationship, and they saw each other often.”

Apart from health concerns, the most frequent yellow flag raised about her is her leadership of the Obama administration’s aggressive action to deport undocumented immigrants. A killer objection for Latino voters? Maybe, but remember three things. First, a Biden-Napolitano ticket would be facing Trump, whose hostility to immigration (illegal and legal) is incomparably greater. Second, credibility on law enforcement and security is likely to be a net plus among the swing voters Democrats badly need.

Third, recall the context. In his first term, Obama thought his immigration policy was setting the table for comprehensive immigration reform. When that failed in the Republican-controlled House in 2013, it was Napolitano who led the administration’s pivot to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which ceased deportations of up to 800,000 so-called Dreamers—undocumented immigrants who had arrived as children. (It was an action the Trump administration promptly overturned.) On balance, Napolitano’s immigration record at DHS arguably leaves her in a good place, especially where swing voters are concerned: first tough, then tender, and sharply contrasting with Donald Trump.

She remained a champion of DACA—suing the Trump administration to defend the program—in her next job. In the fall of 2013, she became president of the University of California, the country’s (arguably the world’s) premier public-university system, with almost 300,000 students on its 10 campuses. That moved her away from national politics, although not from campus politics and its controversies. (A student protest about campus police forced her to cancel a speech in Washington, D.C., in February.)

Out of sight is out of mind in politics, especially against such contenders as Klobuchar and Whitmer, who have been very much in the public eye. Still, she is stronger on executive experience than Klobuchar and Whitmer and any other mentionee. She is deeply versed in security and immigration, issues on which Democrats need swing-state credibility in 2020. Her record as a prosecutor and attorney general will reassure law-and-order suburbanites. Her style radiates authority and competence. (A typical assessment, from de Vallance: “She’s very smart. She’s very hardworking. She’s relentless on getting things done.”) No one doubts she is ready to step into the Oval.

Vice-presidential picks fall on a spectrum between contrast and comfort. Contrast picks—like Lyndon B. Johnson for John F. Kennedy, George H. W. Bush for Ronald Reagan, and Sarah Palin for John McCain—seek to balance the presidential nominee’s perceived shortcomings. Comfort picks—like Al Gore for Clinton and Biden for Obama—try to reinforce the campaign’s main message and emphasize teamwork.

Napolitano would be solidly in the comfort category for Biden: someone who mirrors his own strengths, whom he is comfortable with, whom he and the public trust to take over. The urban left and the identity-politics crowd would be disappointed. But they are not the constituency the Democrats need most this year, and the prospect of winning the White House and possibly the Senate would bring many of them around.

I asked Napolitano about the vice-presidential nomination. She told me that she has not had conversations with the Biden campaign, and is not, to her knowledge, under consideration, but ruled nothing in or out. (“I don’t like to speculate or deal in what ifs. Right now, there is nothing to consider.”) She endorsed Biden as “knowledgeable, experienced, and a capable leader,” and she said they have had an excellent relationship for years and have worked together on a wide range of issues. Her health, she said, is good. “I did have a resurgence of breast cancer in 2016, but my excellent doctors … got it all and I’ve had a clean bill of health ever since.”

In September, Napolitano announced that she will step down from the UC presidency this coming August. Kids, can you say “available”? Biden would be crazy not to short-list her, and crazy he clearly is not. In hewing to the center and pitching to moderate voters who crave a sane, competent, nonscary alternative to Trump, Democrats have played their hand shrewdly in 2020. Putting Napolitano on the ticket would show they are serious about winning, and then governing.