I really don’t know where the drumbeat of hostile coverage of Vice-President Kamala Harris is coming from. It could be from the same Republicans (all of them, so far as I can tell) who didn’t mind Donald Trump calling her a “communist” and a “monster” in 2020. It could be from the camps of past or future rivals for Democratic leadership. And it could be from the unnamed White House sources said to hold the veep and/or her staff in low regard. Or it could be exaggerated or even fabricated by Beltway gossips with too little grist for their petty little mills.
But there’s an underlying argument (expressed most recently at Politico) that needs to be slapped down regarding a 2024 scenario in which Joe Biden chooses not to run for a second term at the age of 82:
[L]ess than a year into her time in the executive branch, more than a dozen Democratic officials — some affiliated with potential candidates — say that Harris is currently not scaring any prospective opponents.
“She’s definitely not going to clear the f—ing field,” said one veteran New Hampshire operative.
Maybe not, but the idea that Harris will be denied the Democratic presidential nomination if Biden doesn’t run and she does is questionable in the extreme. Let’s just say history provides a rebuttable presumption that she’d win, whether or not she is able to “clear the f—ing field.”
Sitting vice-presidents in the 18th and 19th centuries did not often pursue the big job, though when they did (viz, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Van Buren) they typically won. In the early 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt’s veep Charles Fairbanks and Woodrow Wilson’s veep Thomas Marshall ran for president without their predecessors’ blessings and went nowhere. Worse yet, in 1940, John Nance Garner ran against his president, FDR, and was trounced at the Democratic convention.
The first situation remotely resembling what Harris might face in 2024 was in 1952, when sitting Vice-President Alben Barkley wanted to succeed Harry Truman, with at least mild support from the outgoing president. But Barkley was 74 (six years older than the oldest man to have ever entered the White House at that time), with a history of heart problems. Shortly before the Democratic convention, a coalition of labor leaders publicly called on Democrats to choose someone younger, which they promptly did, and the veep finished fifth on the first ballot.
Since 1952, four sitting vice-presidents have pursued the presidency — Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Al Gore in 2000. All four won their party’s presidential nomination. Nixon had minor opposition and lost the general election by an eyelash. Humphrey, who didn’t begin running until LBJ dropped out of the presidential contest after the primaries started, and who was saddled with LBJ’s unpopular Vietnam policies, still managed to defeat Democratic legends Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy (and after Kennedy’s assassination, George McGovern) for the nomination, before narrowly losing the general election. Bush had formidable primary opponents (e.g., Bob Dole and Pat Robertson) but nailed down the nomination quickly after New Hampshire and won the general election. Gore dispatched Bill Bradley after New Hampshire as well and famously won the popular vote while losing the presidency in the Supreme Court.
The record indicates that barring some scandal or unforeseeable development, Harris is likely to be the prohibitive favorite for the 2024 nomination, particularly if you consider the inhibitions facing any Democratic challenger to the first woman and the first person of color to serve as vice-president.
History aside, the case that Harris can be handily defeated in the 2024 primaries appears largely based on negative perceptions of her 2020 presidential campaign, in which she was said to display vacillation on policy positions, uneven debate performances, and an inability to identify an electoral base. Most of all, she never succeeded in overcoming Joe Biden’s powerful support among the Black voters she absolutely had to have for a viable candidacy.
Assuming (as is safe to do) that Biden decides to retire, Harris will run as his chosen successor and the bearer of his administration’s legacy, and these 2020 handicaps will mostly go away when it comes to the Democratic nominating process. It is extremely likely that Harris, who is well-positioned in her party’s center of gravity between self-conscious progressives and moderates, will inherit much of Biden’s personal following, and particularly his base of support among Black voters (and probably her fellow Asian Americans as well). She will have her own administration’s policy record and policy-development apparatus to generate a more stable message than she was able to generate on the fly in 2020. And as the Establishment candidate, she should not have serious problems raising enough money and attracting enough expertise to run a highly professional campaign. None of these enhancements mean she will become the 47th president without some skill and luck. But it should be enough to carry her to the nomination, even if, like so many early front-runners in both major parties, she begins the cycle with serious electability questions.
Moreover, it’s not as though there is some evident Democratic alternative for 2024 that will just blow her away on the winds of charisma, popularity, and electability. There’s talk of Pete Buttigieg as a non-Kamala option for 2024, but is this man, who struggled throughout the 2020 nominating contest to establish even the slightest connection to Black voters, going to take them away from Harris? Is Bernie really going to run again at the age of 83? Is Elizabeth Warren going to give up a Senate seat to run at the age of 75? Is there anyone from the left who won’t cede Harris the center, or from the center who won’t cede her the left, along with the bulk of Black voters? Is there anyone else whom the Biden-Harris administration might not intimidate with political threats or seduce with influence and possibly a Cabinet post or an ambassadorship who would pose a real threat to the veep’s nomination? It’s not impossible, but it’s very implausible.
So all this talk of Kamala Harris underwhelming the punditry is mostly hot air. It’s far too early to get a fix on which party will be favored in 2024 (recall that Clinton and Obama were handily reelected after getting waxed in the 1994 and 2010 midterms, respectively) and no particular reason to doubt Biden’s assertions that he will run for a second term. If he retires instead and endorses his handpicked running mate, she’ll inherit all the advantages of incumbency, including a near-lock on the nomination.