Karen Bass? Really?

Rep. Karen Bass (D., Calif.) speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., June 17, 2020. (Kevin Dietsch/Reuters)

I have a gut feeling that most Americans will not react enthusiastically to a vice-presidential selection that they’ve never heard of before. This is a separate question from whether someone with low name recognition would make a good vice president. I just think that if someone’s first reaction to a running mate announcement is, “Wait, who?” then that selection will have some skepticism or wariness to overcome. I think many Americans just instinctively believe that if you’re going to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, they should have heard about you by now.

CNN reports that Representative Karen Bass of California, “the 66-year-old chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, has gained real traction in the late stage of the search.” If selected, few modern running-mate selections could compete for the surprise factor, other than perhaps John McCain selecting Sarah Palin in 2008.

Yes, Karen Bass been in elected office since 2004 and spent two years as speaker of the California state assembly, but her nationwide name recognition must be close to zero. I can’t give you numbers on Karen Bass’s name recognition nationwide, because as far as I can tell, no pollster has ever asked about her outside of California. I suspect many self-identified political junkies couldn’t name more than one or two facts about her.

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If selected, Bass would be something of a blank slate. That is not inherently bad, but her selection would set off a mad dash to define her in the eyes of the electorate, with the Trump campaign spotlighting everything bad and controversial and the Biden campaign spotlighting all of Bass’s career highlights. Biden and his allies in the media probably would win that battle . . . but maybe not.

Maybe the Biden campaign wants to do something surprising. Perhaps his team believes that despite Biden’s current lead in the polls, he could still be sunk by a lack of enthusiasm among the Democratic grassroots and a sense that he’s running a very boring, cautious campaign that mostly focuses on the fact that Biden is not Donald Trump. But a surprising veep pick would be a really odd decision, as Biden won the Democratic nomination in large part because he is the familiar, trusted old reliable. Biden won, I suspect, in part because he’s relatively boring and vanilla in a world where we’ve had one giant shock after another, and because in the Trump presidency, every day is a circus.

There’s a long tradition of trying to “balance the ticket” in American politics. That phenomenon always has an odd subtext of, “God forbid, if something ever happens to me and I cannot perform the duties of the presidency, the best person to take over is someone who is really different from me in a lot of ways.”

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