A bit of conventional wisdom that’s very well established is that vice-presidential candidates don’t matter much in the outcome of presidential elections. But there are exceptions.
In 2008, John McCain chose the virtually unknown and unconventional Alaska governor Sarah Palin. As the first woman to join a Republican presidential ticket, she was guaranteed a great deal of media attention. But there was another reason Palin received unusual scrutiny: The 72-year-old McCain was, at the time, the second-oldest first-time major-party presidential nominee. The possibility that McCain could die or become incapacitated in office, making the inexperienced and palpably erratic Palin the “leader of the free world,” may have influenced some voters, research suggests.
Something similar might happen to Kamala Harris in 2024 — not because anyone would call the current vice-president and former senator inexperienced but because President Biden is about to break his own record as the oldest presidential nominee ever; he’ll turn 82 shortly after the general election. There is a nontrivial chance that if Democrats win in 2024, Harris will become president before January 20, 2029, when the upcoming term will end. Raising questions about Harris’s suitability for the presidency is an indirect and less senior-triggering way to keep the spotlight on Biden’s age and alleged infirmities. “You may be voting for a Harris presidency” will be an attractive to message to Republican strategists even if they are careful not to get too ghoulish about Biden’s life expectancy. Their secondary message will likely be that the genial and unthreatening Biden is just a doddering puppet of “radical leftists” like Harris.
In reality, Harris is no more “radical” than Biden. But she and her issues profile aren’t that well known, and Republicans will play on a host of racist and sexist themes suggesting the veep is either dangerously unhinged or incompetent or both. You can expect the lowest common denominator of GOP attacks on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Republicans may increase their focus on Harris by choosing a “moderate woman” (think Nikki Haley or Kim Reynolds) to run directly against her.
It’s possible Republicans won’t go with this strategy. For one thing, the media-contrived case against Harris as dead weight holding down the president is increasingly anachronistic. Yes, her job-approval ratings were initially poor. But, according to the latest polling averages from FiveThirtyEight, her approval-disapproval ratio is virtually identical to Biden’s, which is what you would expect in any administration. She’s not in any obvious sense a weak link. The same is true of the difficult and not terribly promising assignments Biden gave his veep early in his presidency (especially border control). Now her most prominent portfolio involves defense of abortion rights, a red-hot issue of concern to both the Democratic base and many swing voters (including some who usually vote Republican). If the GOP or its candidates go after Harris personally and abrasively, they risk raising the profile of that issue, which they decidedly don’t want to do.
And, finally, while Republicans may have no moral qualms about inciting racist and sexist concerns about the first Black person, first Asian American, and first woman to serve as vice-president, there are political risks as well. Whatever cynical Beltway reporters think of Harris, she is a highly sympathetic and historic personality to millions of voters.
Going after Harris to take down Biden may be an irresistible temptation to the MAGA folk who hate everything about her, but it could be a fateful choice for Republicans.
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