The Democrats are stuck with Kamala Harris, like it or not
For vice president, Kamala Harris checked all the boxes. But just because she made perfect political sense as President Biden’s running mate did not mean her elevation would work out for the Democrats. So far, the reviews are not good. But, barring a political Chernobyl, the Democratic Party is stuck with her as its nominee in 2024 or 2028.
Readers of this column know that I predicted Harris would be Biden’s running mate well in advance of the Democratic convention. As VP nominations are mostly about unifying the party, an old white male moderate could only fully placate the progressive leftist factions of the Democratic Party by covering as many identity politics bases as possible. Not to mention, Harris, clearly plotting her path to the ticket, played nice with Biden after she dropped out.
But now the structural and personal cracks are starting to appear.
Given Biden’s age — entering the White House as the oldest man ever to be president — Harris and her team had reason to suspect that his time in office would be a one-term transition to her own future administration. Harris would want to have serious responsibilities and an ever-increasing profile. Not factoring into that neat equation is that Biden and his loyalists did not spend the last 40 years slogging and scheming their way into power just to hand it over to a newcomer.
The other wrench in Harris’s plans is her lack of national experience. Outside of calling Biden out on school busing, the Harris presidential campaign was lackluster at best. She spent her political life in the monoculture of California with her San Francisco base rigidly politically correct, even by California standards. Attempting to appeal to the rest of the country was always going to be a problem.
Less than six months into office and these problems are manifesting themselves.
The knives are out, and whether it is elements of Team Biden throwing a shot across the bow or other Democrats unhappy with Harris’s heir-apparent status, it’s unmistakable that an effort to diminish Harris is underway.
And Harris is providing plenty of ammunition for her detractors.
Her big policy responsibility, immigration, has been a mess. Her lengthy refusal to visit the border was a bad move, but her explanation was worse. Claiming that any visit would be a worthless stunt ignores the fact that worthless stunts are the sine qua non of politics. Politicians are expected to visit disaster zones (whether natural or policy), make declarations and offer empathy. Harris and her team were just being obstinate in the face of Republican attacks instead of facing the music.
But maybe they were on to something, as her remarks both in Guatemala and to Lester Holt show someone with some fairly bad political instincts. Her admonition to Guatemalans (“Do not come!”) may have seemed like a handy sound bite, but it angered pro-immigration activists in her own party and sounded laughably futile to Republicans. Worse was her flippant attitude to Holt. In a relatively easy interview, Harris managed to fumble the one modestly tough bit of questioning, dismissing calls to visit the border by stating she had not been to Europe — one of the worst ad libs since the days of Sarah Palin.
These gaffes and Harris’s uneven performance in her debate with former Vice President Mike Pence call into question how she will do when she must carry the full weight of running for president. After all, the 2020 election was light work for Harris. Dominated by former President Trump and limited by the pandemic, Harris coasted largely under the radar — as did Biden, for that matter. Not having gone through the crucible of an intense campaign, a Harris run in 2024 would include some challenging on-the-job training.
In spite of these issues, Kamala Harris will be the first post-Biden nominee. It will be practically impossible to push the first female vice president to the back of the line.
Both parties are subject to identity politics. But for the Democrats, identity politics has become absolutely foundational. For their major donors, loudest activists and fellow travelers in the media, identity saturates everything. Replacing Harris would require a different female minority candidate. Aside from Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) or Rep Val Demings (D-Fla.), is there another minority woman who has serious national aspirations?
Biden’s appeal in 2020 was all about being the best chance to beat Trump — an anodyne party stalwart who could paper over the differences and factionalism of a Democratic Party that contains myriad squabbling interests and identities. Provided he is physically and mentally able (he will be 82 in 2024), Biden may well be the only Democrat who can hold the party together.
In addition, fear and loathing of Trump may force Team Biden to run a repeat of 2020. If Trump runs in 2024, Democrats have to face a hard reckoning as to whether Harris really has the mettle to win. For Harris to run and lose to Trump would be an indescribable disaster. Ironically, Trump himself faces the same dilemma — to lose twice in a row would be psychologically intolerable.
The best scenario for Republicans would be for Trump to fold, allowing a new GOP nominee to face an old Biden. For Democrats, the best scenario would be a rerun of 2020, to the frustration and exhaustion of most Americans.
Perhaps Harris will grow into her role, relieving Democrats of their anxiety. For now, it looks like her future is a throw of the dice in 2028.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.
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