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Joe Biden is 77. Kamala Harris is 55. They come from different coasts and didn’t overlap in the Senate. There aren’t many people who know both of them well.
Dylan Loewe is an exception. The 37-year-old speechwriter spent most of 2012 and 2013 sitting next to Biden on Air Force Two revising drafts of the vice president’s remarks.
“For two years, I spent more time with him than anyone in my life, including my wife,” Loewe said. “I had a very close experience with him in terms of observing him and understanding him and channeling him.”
A few years later, Kamala Harris asked him to help her write her memoir, "The Truths We Hold," which was released early last year before she ran for president. By Loewe’s estimation they spent some 200 hours together.
“Working with someone on a memoir is different,” he said. “You are part staff, part therapist, part friend. You get to ask them questions you would never ask as a staffer. You’re interviewing them and pulling out the best stories.” He once spent a morning with the senator talking about the emotionally grueling ordeal of her mother’s death.
For Loewe, who is still fond of both candidates, their political marriage has been exhilarating. “This is what it must feel like for children of divorce to see their parents get back together,” he said. “There are people who know Harris better than I do and people who know Biden better than I do, but there’s nobody who knows them both as well as I do."
His unique experience with Biden and Harris makes him a useful expert on one of the central questions raised by Biden’s choice: If they win, what would the Biden-Harris partnership look like in office?
When John Kerry was looking for a running mate in 2004, he told an aide, who later relayed the story to me, that there were three options: “A Mr. August, a Mr. October or a Mr. January.” The August pick would be helpful if the nominee was down in the polls or needed to unite his party going into the convention (think Sarah Palin or George H.W. Bush). The October pick would be helpful in winning the general election (think Lyndon Johnson securing the South for John F. Kennedy). The January pick would be the best person to help govern, especially for an inexperienced president (think Dick Cheney and Joe Biden).
Some candidates straddle the categories, and the ideal running mate would satisfy all three criteria.
So where does Harris fall on Kerry’s calendar system?
Most plugged-in Democrats I’ve talked to argue that in 2020, with an experienced person at the top of the ticket and the desperate imperative among Democrats to remove Trump from office, the Biden campaign was driven by more short-term considerations, making Harris more of an August-October pick.
“When you pick your vice president you are trying to win an election first and foremost,” said a Biden adviser.
“I think this is what he grappled with,” said a Democrat familiar with the selection process. “Kamala was a no-brainer on the political side. But his process was about figuring out what kind of a partner she would be on the governing side. And can he replicate the closeness he had with Obama in this selection, and will he be able to confide in her and trust her? Will she have my back at all costs?”
The loyalty question hung over the process. One way that Harris seemed to have answered it was to point to her record as attorney general in California.
“Kamala has always been a better surrogate for others than a bragger on herself,” said a former Harris adviser. “During her California days, she deferred to the governor on a number of things at times when she could have undercut him. She was loyal to Jerry Brown.”
Biden’s insistence on loyalty and allergy to presidential ambition became such a driver of the process that some observers saw it as sexist. Did male candidates previously have to prostrate themselves this way? The former Harris adviser said, “Having worked for female candidates, sexism is kind of hard to see and point to, but it’s easy to feel how the sexism works in these campaigns. I’ve not walked in the shoes of an ambitious woman, but I’ve felt as an aide that some of the tropes are gendered at best and sexist at worst. But people did say the same thing” — regarding the perils of ambition and importance of loyalty — “about Al Gore and John Edwards and Sarah Palin.”
But if that’s what Biden wanted from Harris, what did Harris want from Biden?
Biden, who studied the history of the vice presidency before taking the job, was influenced by the advice of Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s No. 2. In what became a famous document among people who study the office, Mondale wrote Carter a long memo in December 1976 arguing that he wanted to be Carter’s confidant — not someone, as was common for previous vice presidents, who took on mundane tasks that the president didn’t want to handle or was sent to funerals abroad. “I believe the most important contribution I can make is to serve as a general adviser to you,” he wrote.
Biden asked Barack Obama for the same thing. “Biden didn’t want turf, he wanted to be a broad-based adviser,” said a former top official in the Obama White House.
“The modern vice presidency was established by Water Mondale, who clearly laid out what he wanted his responsibilities to be,” said Kenneth Baer, a former aide to Gore and then an official in the Obama administration. “And since Mondale, the strongest vice presidents did that — Gore, Cheney, Biden. The question is what has Senator Harris asked for? What does she want to do with her vice presidency?”
The search process that Biden underwent was different from Harris'. Biden, a generation older than Obama, had two things that the first-term senator lacked and needed in his running mate: Washington experience and foreign policy credibility. Biden played coy during the vetting process. In the fall of 2008, shortly after he had been added to the Obama ticket, Biden told me in an interview that when Obama initially called him and asked whether he would consider being vetted as his potential running mate, Biden demurred. “I’d have to think about it,” he told Obama.
Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, loved being a senator and believed he might be more helpful to Obama — and influential — remaining in that role. Or at least that’s what he told the young senator when he came calling. “It wasn’t self-evident to me that being vice president would be a better job,” Biden told me at the time.
Even after allowing the vetting to go forward, he continued to be a firm negotiator, clearly understanding that he had a great deal more leverage than potential running mates usually have. “I wanted to make sure we understood each other — that, even if I vetted” — by which he meant passed the vetting process — “and he wanted me to take the job, I wasn’t committing to do that,” Biden said in the 2008 interview. “When the time was appropriate for him, if I was the guy, I needed to spend at least two or three hours with him to understand what the role would be.”
What came out of that eventual conversation — a secret late-night meeting in a suite at the Graves 601 Hotel in Minneapolis on August 6, 2008 — helped define the Obama-Biden presidency. Biden had been well-briefed on the history of the vice presidency and was familiar with Mondale’s famous advice. He made it clear to Obama that he expected his role in the White House to be Obama’s trusted adviser, and not one who was bogged down with frivolous assignments that kept him away from the Oval Office.
“We would try to avoid travel if Obama was in the White House,” Loewe said. “If Obama was in the Oval so was Biden. If Obama was in the Situation Room so was Biden.”
Biden asked Obama for four big things: that he would always be the last person in the room before a big decision was made; that the two men would have a weekly lunch; that Biden would be included in the morning presidential daily brief from the intelligence community; and that Biden didn’t have to change his personal political brand.
Biden’s 2008 account may be a little self-serving and exaggerated. “Biden felt he had more leverage with Obama than Harris had with Biden today,” the Biden adviser said. “But I don’t think Biden was in a position to completely dictate his job description.”
Still, there seems little doubt that Harris was not in a position to ask for much.
“I would bet my life this was a one-way negotiation because Biden had options and she wanted the job," the person close to Obama said. "You think she’s gonna turn around and be negotiating with Joe Biden? Good f---ing luck with that! Talk about negotiating from a point of weakness! I highly doubt she showed up with a list of 12 demands she wanted.”
The former top official in the Obama White House agreed that Harris was in a weak position.
“I don’t think she had very much leverage,” he said. “But I think it’s part of the job interview that you are asking for thoughtful things. If you ask for nothing — think about it from any potential employer’s perspective. You want to know what do they want out of the job? That helps you figure out whether they are well-suited for the job. Biden would be interested in, 'What do you want? How do you expect to play the role of vice president? What’s your vision?' If the answer is, ‘Whatever you say, sir,' he’s going to be like, ‘Really? Do I want this person?'”
The Biden adviser added, “She really wanted it and she wanted it because she’s got her eyes on 2024. I’m not sure she was in a position to make many demands on him.”
A person familiar with the process said, “The job was more prized this time around than it normally is because of Biden’s age.”
Despite the lack of leverage, several people close to Biden argued that Harris will benefit from Biden’s high regard of his vice presidency.
“The Obama-Biden relationship weighed heavily on Biden,” said the source familiar with the process. “He had a very idealized view of what this relationship is and could be. The intimacy he had with Obama is so important to him and was guiding him since the beginning.”
Given their obvious differences, it took a long time for Obama and Biden to develop a real relationship, but it eventually blossomed. Biden and Harris will have a similar adjustment period. Loewe’s view is that the two seeming opposites actually have much in common: childhoods governed by parents with value systems that the two still talk about — even revere — as adults; a strong sense of empathy; and lives shaped by losses of close family members.
“You get two people like that together and they become fast friends,” Loewe said. “They are like tuning forks who are going to reverberate on the same frequency.”
He predicted that given Biden’s reverence for the office of the vice presidency and his deep understanding of what makes the job work, Harris will be empowered and influential. “She will be in the Oval all the time, just like he was,” Loewe said. “In the Obama age, the relationship was driven by Biden, and in the Biden age, it will probably also be driven by Biden."
He might be right.
On Wednesday, the Biden campaign released a short clip of the moment when Biden offered Harris the job.
“You ready to go to work?” Biden asks her in the video chat.
“Oh my God," Harris responds. “I am so ready to go to work.”
“First of all, is the answer yes?” he playfully demands.
“The answer is absolutely yes, Joe,” Harris says, stammering a little. “And I am ready to work. I am ready to do this with you, for you. I’m just — I’m deeply honored and I’m very excited.”
If the two running mates had a two- to three-hour conversation to hash out the details of the relationship — as Biden insisted on with Obama before he would take the job — it doesn’t seem to have happened in this call.
What actually seems to have happened is something more unusual. Biden himself publicly defined Harris’ role in the most generous way he could.
“When I agreed to serve as President Obama’s running mate, he asked me a number of questions, as I’ve asked Kamala,” Biden said while introducing her at their first joint event, in Delaware on Wednesday, “But the most important was he asked me what I wanted. ... I told him I wanted to be the last person in the room before he made important decisions. That’s what I asked Kamala, I asked Kamala to be the last voice in the room, to always tell me the truth, which she will, challenge my assumptions if she disagrees, ask the hard questions because that’s the way we make the best decisions for the American people.”
Biden’s obsession with the strong advisory role of the vice president can be overblown. “I don’t buy this ‘last person in the room’ thing,” said the Democrat familiar with the selection process. “If it’s a decision about Syria, he might be talking to Susan Rice. Or if it’s something about Ohio, he needs the governor of the state. It’s a metaphor — this ‘last person’ business is more conceptual than a reality.”
But Biden’s public comments suggest that he truly believes he is a transitional leader of the Democratic Party. He was not just picking a running mate, but, given his age, someone who is very likely to follow him as president or become the party’s frontrunner for the nomination in 2024 if, as is likely, he doesn't run for reelection.
“It shows he takes very seriously that this is the only other constitutional officer in the building, so that she can give him unvarnished advice,” Baer said. “And if he wants to properly prepare this person to be ready for the job on a moment’s notice, they need to be read in on everything.”
In other words, Harris got everything she could have wanted without ever having to ask.