Kamala Harris's unprecedented challenge

Kamala Harris's unprecedented challenge
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If Vice President Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisSenate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam House passes bill to compensate 'Havana syndrome' victims Harris 'deeply troubled' by treatment of Haitian migrants MORE runs for president in 2028 — or in 2024 if the opportunity arises — she will face more hurdles than any other sitting vice president in decades, and perhaps in all of U.S. history.

The last sitting vice president to lose their party’s nomination for president was Alben Barkley in 1952. Despite earning outgoing President Harry Truman’s support (or perhaps because of it, given the president’s early withdrawal from the presidential race due to deep unpopularity), Barkley could not shake questions about his age and health after labor leaders mounted a powerful, last-ditch effort to derail his candidacy.

Barkley’s defeat completed a trend that began right after the Civil War, during which most sitting vice presidents (or at least, those who didn’t succeed a deceased president) failed to sustain intra-party support. Like Barkley, incumbent vice presidents Adlai Stevenson (1896), Charles Fairbanks (1908), and Thomas Marshall (1920) could not secure their parties’ presidential nominations. Moreover, sitting vice presidents Schuyler Colfax (1872), Levi Morton (1892), Charles Dawes (1928), John Garner (1940), and Henry Wallace (1944) lost their re-nominations for the #2 spot.


But since 1960, every sitting vice president who has run for president has won their party’s nomination, beginning with Richard Nixon, who comfortably topped his main opponent, Nelson Rockefeller (who coincidentally would become vice president to Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford). Eight years later, at the dawn of the modern primary system that granted the electorate more influence, Hubert Humphrey won a chaotic and tragic primary beset by civil strife and political assassinations. In 1988, George H. W. Bush overcame early stumbles versus U.S. Senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.) to sweep through most of the primaries. And in 2000, Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreTrump's election fraud claims pose risks for GOP in midterms Don't 'misunderestimate' George W. Bush Why the pro-choice movement must go on the offensive MORE ran against a largely cleared-out field to easily claim his party’s mantle.

Yet Vice President Harris’s situation is different. In addition to her trailblazing status as the United States’ first female VP of color — and all of the resulting (and at times obscene) societal barriers she must overcome — an historically high number of major Democratic candidates sought the presidency in 2020. Some are in the early-to-mid stages of political careers; repeat runs are forgone conclusions, and the next “open” primary in 2032 or even 2036 might be too long to wait. Additionally, several potentially electrifying non-2020 Democratic candidates are all-but-certain to enter the fray instead of biding their time for another 8-12 years.

And if that were not enough, Harris must work for and with a president who might or might not run for re-election. Some vice presidents, like Gerald Ford, never really wanted to be president. Others, like Harry Truman, accepted the role knowing their ascension could be imminent. Still others, like Charles Fairbanks, had the luxury of knowing their president’s re-election plans four years in advance.

Harris is wading in uncharted waters for many reasons. But the fog surrounding 2024 puts her in a nearly impossible and historically unprecedented position. Politicians plan. They learn how to apply their strengths to many or most variables at play. Yet Harris’s variables are on two distinct playing fields. Many qualities that make vice presidents great are not qualities that make presidents or even presidential candidates great. And right now, Harris has no idea what her role will be when the next presidential campaign begins.

This does not excuse or negate perceived missteps and reported intra-office “dysfunction.” Rather, it exacerbates an already tenuous situation confronting the VP’s office every day — that if Harris wants to be the next Commander in Chief, she must be one of the most politically savvy and policy-effective vice presidents in U.S. history.


There is no playbook, little room for error, and half a nation to win over. And the clock is ticking.

Or perhaps it isn’t.

And that’s the challenge.

B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.