Joe Biden’s impending vice presidential pick has the feel of history being made before our eyes: a woman with a chance to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. But actually, it’s an old rerun.
There was a similar buzz back in 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro’s Democratic vice presidential nomination heralded a revolution in the presidential landscape that never happened. Since then, it’s been 36 years, two generations reaching adulthood. There have been two defeated female vice presidential candidates, but still no woman elected.
However groundbreaking his choice may be, until it’s ratified on Inauguration Day, Biden’s pledge to pick a woman for his vice presidential running mate seems more like the movie “Groundhog Day.” It keeps repeating itself.
Only two female vice presidential candidates
On these pages in 1984, I interviewed Rep. Ferraro, a contender for a then-shocking concept: a woman as the vice presidential nominee of a major party. The headline from her comments, was “A woman on ticket can’t be just symbolic.” Weeks later, Ferraro riveted the country with an acceptance speech so powerful that I included all of it in my book about her life and historic selection.
But that shining “daughter” of America moment soon faded. It now feels a lot closer to symbolism than a revolutionary change in U.S. politics. After the Walter Mondale-Ferraro ticket’s crushing loss, it took 24 years just for the same fate to reoccur. This time, the failed effort was on the Republican side, with Sarah Palin’s nomination as John McCain’s running mate in 2008.
Hillary Clinton won the 2016 popular vote, but the Electoral College left her at home in New York, instead of the White House.
So far, despite some cracks, the glass ceiling for women has stayed intact, 231 years after the first presidential and vice presidential election.
Barring a stunning reversal, another woman is about to run on the national ticket. The tantalizing difference now is this could actually come to electoral fruition, if Biden’s sizable lead in the polls and the dismal mood of the country continues unabated.
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With the prospect of a 78-year-old president on Inauguration Day, a woman ascending to Oval Office from the vice presidency may finally be possible — outside of Julia-Louis Dreyfus on the television show "Veep."
Several factors for a female VP to overcome
How likely and smooth the path a woman VP nominee’s to the highest offices depends on several factors, including a very big wild card:
► What happens in the spotlight? All the women considered leading contenders appear to have held significant positions in Congress, federal, state or local government. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren even campaigned for president. But even those positions pale in comparison to the scrutiny of being on a national presidential ticket.
For Geraldine Ferraro, her husband’s financial dealings put her on the defensive, soon after her nomination. While that also reflected the double standards for women in 1984, don’t bet against the current Twittersphere being even rougher.
The potential for a nasty nickname from President Trump may be the least of it.
► Biden’s age bringing extra scrutiny. A traditional school of vice presidential selection was usually ticket-balancing with a safe prospect who adhered to the political version of the Hippocratic oath to do no harm.
Yet even Biden notes his age brings added weight to his choice of running mate. As a result, his pick can realistically expect to be examined a lot more rigorously for presidential ability than ever before.
► Previous decisions, from prosecutorial and police actions to votes cast long ago, may come back to haunt a vice presidential nominee. With the stakes higher than normal for a VP selection, this can not only influence potential Republican defectors and independent voters, but progressive Democrats still embittered from the primary process.
► Avoiding being a caricature. Sarah Palin was initially hailed by some as a bold, conservative choice in 2008. But she also became the target of a plethora of jokes about her Alaskan lifestyle and colorful comments. Saturday Night Live summed it up with a mocking Tina Fey saying, “I can see Russia right from my house!”
► The political bump. A woman vice presidential nominee may energize various bases, depending on her color, career, background, or region. But a recent Politico/Morning consult poll didn’t show Biden’s overall selection of a woman as a priority for voters. Only 16% cited it as having a major impact.
Still, if some battleground states are as tight as 2016, even a small bump from a female VP could swing the election.
► Could she actually take office? The pandemic threatens in-person voting at a time when going to the grocery store can seem like a deadly risk. Meanwhile, Trump is already signaling he could contest the election results.
So, a woman could win the vice presidency by traditional standards and still not take office in January. This would be the biggest wild card for Biden and his VP nominee.
Biden's VP: Tammy Duckworth is a war hero and the best vice president for Joe Biden in 2020
Regardless of politics, if Biden and his female running mate don’t win or take office, it would be yet another missed opportunity for American women to finally become part of an American political tradition since 1789.
Progress has been made, although not enough. Nancy Pelosi is the first female Speaker of the House. Madeleine Albright’s 1997 confirmation as Secretary of State shattered barriers against women that went back to Thomas Jefferson. Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton would later become the USA’s top diplomat.
If Biden loses, there’s always 2024 for his VP selection and other female candidates on both sides. But August marks the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote. It’s long overdue for women of either party to become vice president and president.
Geraldine Ferraro died before seeing that achievement, despite her 1984 acceptance speech declaring, “There are no doors we can’t unlock.”
Decades later, the question is still when American women will find the key.
Lee Michael Katz is author of "My Name Is Geraldine Ferraro." He is the former Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for USA Today and International Editor of UPI. His website is www.lmkatz.com
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