How Biden’s Vice Presidential Pick and Move to the Left Could Shape Higher Education

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

As the presidential campaign shifts toward the general election with former Vice President Joe Biden becoming Democrats' presumptive nominee, the grueling nomination fight now transitions to another intensive process: consideration of a vice presidential pick, which could have a number of implications for the world of higher education.

"Some people who have been vetted compare it to a colonoscopy," said Christopher Devine, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton. "It's just such an intensive vetting process, because [presidential campaigns] want to find out everything they may need to know." 

As the field for potential vice presidential picks narrows with the Democratic convention approaching, Biden's team will be exploring just how far his campaign could go with each contender, Devine said.

The Democratic party has begun to coalesce in its support for Biden as their nominee, with the recent endorsements of former President Barack Obama as well as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), former rivals for the Democratic nomination and representatives of the party's left wing. Biden will now have to look toward selecting a running mate that can further strengthen his party's coalition for the general election.

Typically vice presidential picks are announced sometime in mid-July right before the national party convention. With the outbreak of COVID-19 holding the nation's attention, however, Devine says Biden may take additional time to consider a running mate, which he now believes could happen in early August, or at the latest right before the Democratic National Convention, currently scheduled for mid-August. 

While the timing of the process is uncertain, Devine says the candidate pool is much clearer than in recent presidential elections, citing Biden's pledge to pick a woman for the number two slot during a March 15 Democratic primary debate.

Vice Presidential Front Runners and Their Take on Higher Ed

Given the names currently circulating for the number two slot on the ticket, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is "the likeliest choice," according to Devine, specifically citing her experience as a public servant and her personal relationship with Biden. Devine added that he could see Biden also considering Warren or Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who also ran her own presidential campaign. 

Other strong contenders, according to Devine, are Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the Georgia governor's race in 2018, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Should Biden look to the Senate, Devine said Hawaii's Mazie Hirono, Michigan's Debbie Stabenow, Nevada's Catherine Cortez Masto, or Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin are all in the running.

Not only is the list narrowed because of Biden's desire to get a woman on the ticket, but also due to his age, Devine added.

"At 77 years old, he needs to find a sweet spot: getting someone who's experienced and yet is not nearly as old as he is. So that can be hard to find. If age weren't a consideration, I can throw in a lot more with the candidates," Devine said.

Biden's vice presidential pick, according to Devine, could influence him in a way that resembles how Mitt Romney — the 2012 Republican presidential nominee — was moved by his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, who promoted a more conservative direction when it came to spending and entitlements. 

According to Devine, the way in which a vice presidential pick will influence Biden will come down to what issues have most animated them in their political careers.

"I think that's really going to come down to looking at that person and saying, ‘Where has she defined herself politically to this point?" Devine said.

Like Devine, Neal P. McCluskey, director for the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, believes that Harris is the more likely pick. 

For McCluskey the evidence is in Harris' platform, which, he says, is less left-leaning than Warren's and has focused heavily on fighting against predatory colleges.

"That may be ideally what [Biden]'s looking for," McCluskey says of Harris. "Somebody who isn't associated with major giveaways of higher education, but has spent time on it and seems to be focused on reining in lots of the excess … and trying to make the [higher education] system work for the average person without seeming to give away the store at taxpayer expense."

However, should Biden select Warren as his running mate, McCluskey would consider that choice to be a sign that the former vice president will pivot further to the left when it comes to higher education policies.

"That may mean he has a big debt forgiveness plan. That may mean he wants more free college than he recently proposed," McCluskey said. "My guess is Elizabeth Warren will not be his running mate because I think he may see that as being too left, a signal that he may be leaning more left than he would want in the general election." 

How Influence Could Play Out in Biden Administration Policy

Wesley Whistle, a senior advisor for policy and strategy for higher education at New America, said that at the outset of the vice presidential vetting process, Harris and Warren stood out, each having been quite vocal on higher education. 

Specifically, Whistle referenced Harris' record as California's attorney general, where she was a strong advocate for holding for-profit schools accountable for fraud — an effort Whistle says she has continued as a U.S. senator.

Whistle said that while Warren has used her Senate platform to advocate for similar issues as Harris, her own higher education platform in her presidential run went further. 

"As a candidate she proposed a very lofty free college plan and a debt cancellation plan, she said she would cut off Title IV funds to for-profit colleges. It was a pretty robust plan whether folks agree with it or not," Whistle said.

In fact, Warren's influence on Biden's campaign has already been seen in recent weeks, with his move to endorse Warren's calls for a minimum of $10,000 in debt cancellation for student loan borrowers amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

While Biden's initial plan touted free community college, greater investments for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and a proposal to double the maximum Pell Grant award, it has since expanded, Whistle noted.

"I think [Biden's] adopted a more generous free college plan," Whistle said. "Now he has added a debt cancellation plan, so it's speaking to the Sanders/Warren wing."

While Whistle says it is too early to guess who Biden would pick as a running mate, he does believe that the circulation of names also gives insight into how he might shape his Department of Education (ED) should he be elected.

Specifically, Whistle says Warren could be tapped by Biden to run the department or that he could go for someone like Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who has his own background in education having previously run the Denver public school system. 

"Regardless of who Biden's pick is, I think that [ED] will be much more like the Obama-Biden era around for-profit colleges," Whistle added.

While Biden's running mate could provide insight into the direction of a new administration's higher education policies, Whistle also remains greatly concerned about how the COVID-19 response will shape the focus of a new administration.

"There are going to be a lot of priorities," Whistle said. "And if you're in the middle of a recession ... who knows what the priorities might become."


Publication Date: 4/20/2020

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