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A Vice President Duckworth Would Be Bad for Illinois

If she’s picked by Biden and they win, Duckworth would be the sixth consecutive one-term junior senator from our state.

Photo: Zach Gibson / Bloomberg

The New York Times is starting a “Tammy Duckworth for vice president” bandwagon.

Last week, the paper of record saw fit to print a profile of our junior senator. It included an interview with Dan Milberg, the Apache helicopter pilot who rescued Duckworth from the crash in which she lost both her legs during the Iraq War.

Milberg voted for Trump in 2016. He’s considering voting for Joe Biden this year, but not if Biden chooses a running mate who is “too progressive.” Duckworth, according to her former brother-in-arms, “is moderate enough that I think she can be appealing.”

Two days later, also in the Times, columnist Frank Bruni called Duckworth “Biden’s Best Veep Pick.” He argued that nobody else can get under Trump’s skin like Duckworth, who nicknamed the president “Cadet Bone Spurs” for deferring the draft five times — four for college, and once for bad feet. (VoteVets Political Action Committee has released a Duckworth-for-VP YouTube ad with the “Cadet Bone Spurs” jibe.)

“She’s a paragon of the values that Donald Trump, for all his practice as a performer, can’t even pantomime,” Bruni wrote. “She’s best described by words that are musty relics in his venal and vainglorious circle: ‘sacrifice,’ ‘honor,’ ‘humility.’ More than any of the many extraordinary women on Biden’s list of potential vice-presidential nominees, she’s the anti-Trump, the antidote to the ugliness he revels in and the cynicism he stokes.”

A Duckworth vice presidency wouldn’t be good for Illinois, though — and it might not be good for Duckworth, either.

Duckworth occupies a cursed Senate seat alongside Dick Durbin. None of her five immediate predecessors as junior senator served more than a single term. Carol Moseley Braun, Peter Fitzgerald, Barack Obama, Roland Burris, and Mark Kirk were all one-and-doners — or in the case of Obama and Burris, less. 

A sixth consecutive one-termer would be unprecedented in Illinois history. It didn’t even happen in the 19th century, before politicians made careers of staying in Washington.

Illinois could use some Senate seniority. This year, Sen. Dick Durbin will win a fifth term, tying him with Shelby Moore Cullom for longest-serving Illinois senator. Durbin is 76 years old, though, likely making this his last go-round. Duckworth is only 52. She could easily match, or even surpass, Durbin’s longevity in office.

Beyond the fact that Duckworth could best serve Illinois by staying in the Senate, there’s the question of why she’d even want to be VP. In the words of John Nance Garner, who spent eight frustrating years in the office under Franklin D. Roosevelt, the vice presidency “is not worth a bucket of warm piss.”

For most of its occupants, the vice presidency is a career-ender. Almost every vice president wants to be president, but few of them get the promotion. The last four senators elected to the vice presidency were Walter Mondale, Dan Quayle, Al Gore, and… Joe Biden. Mondale, Quayle, and Gore all failed in their presidential bids. Quayle and Gore are both in their 70s, and could still be in the Senate, serving on important committees. Biden, meanwhile, is trying to break the losing streak.

Of course, this particular vice presidency may be worth more than Garner’s proverbial bucket. If Biden wins, he’ll be 78 when he’s sworn in — by far the oldest man to assume the office. As of this week, Biden’s birthday is closer to the end of the Civil War than it is to the present. He may be a figurehead president, making speeches at Boy Scout jamborees and posing for photos with Super Bowl champions while delegating the work of running the country to his veep. He’ll probably only serve one term — just long enough to eradicate Trumpism from D.C. Then, his vice president will be the frontrunner for the 2024 Democratic nomination.

Should Duckworth become vice president, who would succeed her in the Senate? If history serves, and given the current political climate, it would likely be a Black politician. Illinois has already sent three Black senators to Washington, more than any other state.

Currently, there are two statewide elected officials who could step into the job: Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton. Raoul once occupied Obama’s state senate seat, so he’d be a natural for Obama’s old U.S. Senate seat. And as second-in-command to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose job it would be to appoint Duckworth’s replacement, Stratton is in a plum seat. 

Or perhaps Pritzker could prevail on Obama to serve the remainder of Duckworth’s term, until the 2022 election. Obama lives in D.C., doesn’t have a job, and still owes Illinois two years of that term we elected him to serve.

Would Biden choose Duckworth? She’s already been interviewed by his team, and according to the Times, has been asked to submit documents for vetting. Plus, the last time Biden ran with an Illinois senator who grew up in Hawaii, it worked out pretty well for him.

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