How Stacey Abrams Is Making Politics a Little Less Fake

WASHINGTON — Politics has always abided by certain unwritten rules. Not all of them make sense.

One timely example: the rule stating that people who want to be picked as a presidential nominee’s running mate must never appear to be openly campaigning for the job — even though he or she plainly wants it (probably very badly).

If, traditionally, prospective vice presidents were asked whether they would like to be so-and-so’s running mate, they would typically follow some variation on the familiar dodge. They would say how flattered and humbled they were to be mentioned before claiming that they were not really thinking about getting selected, not at all, not one bit.

In other words, they must be reluctant. Or at least act reluctant.

But that custom is fading in this strange lockdown of a veepstakes season. Prospective running mates appear more and more to be shedding their fake reluctance — or not bothering to shroud their ambition in faux nonchalance.

You can call this progress, a win for the notion of saying what you want and advocating yourself. Credit Stacey Abrams as a trailblazer.

Ms. Abrams, who barely lost the Georgia governor’s race in 2018 and whose name has seemingly been bandied about as a potential Democratic running mate ever since, has repeatedly flouted this first rule of (non)campaigning for the vice presidency.

“Yes, I would be willing to serve,” Ms. Abrams said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when asked whether she would be the best running mate for the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr. She told The New Yorker that she would be willing to help Mr. Biden “not only win an election but to govern.” She believes she would make an “excellent running mate,” she told Elle. “If I am selected, I am prepared and excited to serve.”

Again, this is not how this courtship has usually worked. Or how it still works, in the case of some other candidates that Mr. Biden is supposedly considering.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, for instance, Democrat of Minnesota and a former presidential candidate, seems to have the reflexive hesitation move down pat:

She would be loath to “engage in hypotheticals,” Ms. Klobuchar told CNN’s Michael Smerconish when he asked her the (hypothetical) question about whether she would be interested in serving as Mr. Biden’s running mate. “Right now, I am focused on my state,” Ms. Klobuchar assured everyone.

Of course, Ms. Klobuchar undermined her sheepishness in a spasm of possible Freudian candor when she told a Biden rally crowd that she could not imagine a better way to end her presidential campaign “than to join the ticket — to join Joe Biden!” She promptly corrected herself, saying she meant “join the campaign.”

Likewise, Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, has said that while she would be “honored” to be considered as Mr. Biden’s running mate, she has also been “focused full time” on her day job. Same with another oft-mentioned prospect, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who has said she is “focused on helping the people of my state.”

“I’m not running for anything,” Ms. Whitmer told Politico. “You don’t run for that,” she added, “that” being running mate.

Which is not to say that Ms. Whitmer would not love to be the former vice president’s future vice president.

Credit...Michigan Office of the Governor, via Associated Press

“If you are seen as playing hard to get, it protects you from being publicly rejected,” said Joel Goldstein, a law professor at Saint Louis University and an expert on the vice presidency. (Note: Mr. Goldstein gets a lot of calls in running mate season; his wife compares him to “an exotic plant that blooms every four years.”)

Politically, there is also a self-protective element to this, Mr. Goldstein added. “If someone campaigns for the job and doesn’t get it, they leave themselves open to the charge that so-and-so doesn’t want to be senator or governor or whatever,” he said. For this and a variety of other reasons, it has been considered safer not to be direct about one’s desires.

That is changing in 2020, though, which is an especially notable shift, given that Mr. Biden has pledged to name a woman as his running mate, and voters have traditionally expected women to be more circumspect about their ambitions.

In the case of Ms. Abrams, candor about her ambition is part of a larger political imperative. Not only is she not interested in being coy, she said she had an obligation to do the opposite. “As a young black girl growing up in Mississippi, I learned that if I didn’t speak up for myself, no one else would,” Ms. Abrams said on “Meet the Press.” “My mission is to say out loud if I am asked the question — ‘Yes.’”

In addition to Ms. Abrams, other potential Biden running mates have been open about wanting the job. “I would certainly say yes,” the former national security adviser Susan Rice said last week when asked by PBS’s Margaret Hoover what she would tell Mr. Biden if he asked.

“Yes,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, after MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow asked her the same question last month. Ms. Warren’s firm and unqualified response appeared at first to stun Ms. Maddow, who eventually became delighted. “I’m so happy you just gave me a concise answer to that,” Ms. Maddow said, before going to a commercial.

Several factors might explain this recent erosion of political reluctance. Social media has fostered an ethic that rewards getting noticed. “We’re in a much more aggressive celebrity and self-promotional culture in 2020,” said Beth Myers, a longtime top aide to Mitt Romney who oversaw the former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential nominee’s running mate vetting process in 2012. “Everybody has their own mini-celebrity personality to maintain.”

The incumbent president has basically been saying and tweeting the quiet part out loud for the last four years. And he has been rewarded for it, at least by his supporters. Whatever you think of Donald Trump, no one will ever accuse him of being bashful.

Mr. Trump’s own running mate selection in 2016 followed a reality show format in which three presumed finalists (Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and former Speaker Newt Gingrich) engaged in public tryouts before being winnowed in a final elimination round — with Mr. Trump serving as judge, jury and M.C.

Still, it’s worth noting that Mr. Trump’s eventual running mate, Mr. Pence, assumed a much more uninterested posture than the other candidates did, to a point where Mr. Trump felt the need to ask him late in the process if he even wanted to be chosen.

“Chris Christie calls me nonstop about this job,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Pence, according to an account in the 2019 book “Piety & Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House.” “He’s dying to be vice president. And you, it’s like you don’t care.”

Mr. Pence had indeed given the impression he would be just as content to seek another term as governor of Indiana, according to the book. Mr. Trump announced his selection the next day in a tweet.

Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

As a general rule, the expectation that presidential candidates must “wait their turn” — another form of reluctance — is nowhere near as powerful as it once was. Two of the anointed Democratic “stars” of the last midterm elections did not even have to win their 2018 contests before hearing their names mentioned as presidential candidates in 2020.

This included Ms. Abrams, a former Democratic minority leader in the Georgia Legislature who narrowly lost her campaign for governor in a race laden with controversy over accusations of voter suppression; and Beto O’Rourke, a little-known former congressman from Texas, who barely lost his Senate race in 2018 and was next seen on the cover of Vanity Fair declaring himself “just born to be in it.” In this case, “it” referred to the presidential race of 2020 (which ended in November for Mr. O’Rourke, no longer the “it” candidate).

Pete Buttigieg, 38, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., did not bother to even win a statewide or federal office, or even a race for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, before bolting for Iowa. He appeared not the least bit self-conscious about being in such a hurry.

In one revealing exchange during a November appearance by Mr. Buttigieg on the New York Times podcast “The Daily,” the host, Michael Barbaro, asked the candidate whether he had joined the military in part because it might benefit his future political prospects. Nearly every presidential candidate in this situation would have replied with the same definitive claim of purity, whether or not it was true: Yes, of course they would have joined, no matter what.

Not Mr. Buttigieg. “You know, I wrestle with that,” he replied, adding he would like to think he would have enlisted anyway, but could not say so for sure.

“That strikes me as a very candid answer,” Mr. Barbaro observed.

It was, even in the guise of angst or “wrestling.” Beats fake reluctance any day.

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