past is prologue

2024 Republicans Try an Old Trick: Running Against Kamala Harris

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Many Republicans believe the X-factor in the 2024 presidential contest may be President Biden’s age and health. They also think Vice President Kamala Harris is a weak link in the Democratic team, thanks to a low public profile, poor popularity indicators, and, well, the provocation to racists and sexists that she poses. The idea, which is becoming a standard talking point for right-wing gabbers, is that the doddering Biden is a puppet of the Radical Left as represented by his veep, who is from (gasp!) California. GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley has been the most blatant in making this argument, as The 19th recently observed:

Nikki Haley has spent months zeroing in on Vice President Kamala Harris, telling GOP primary voters that the real danger of electing an aging President Joe Biden is the prospect of Harris as president. 

“We can’t afford a President Kamala Harris. I will say that over and over again,” Haley said Friday afternoon during an Iowa forum hosted by Tucker Carlson — mentioning Harris before even addressing Biden …

“Anyone is better than President Kamala Harris. Anyone,” Haley said during an appearance on Fox News earlier this month. When asked if she meant to say President Biden, Haley responded: “Well, I think it’s President Harris.” 

You might argue that Haley is a relatively minor candidate, but the reality is that she has injected the “President Harris” topic into the Republican mainstream, allowing others to bat it around. Certainly, Donald Trump has no inhibitions about smearing the veep; he called her a “communist” and a “monster” in 2020. Since he and other potential Biden opponents regularly mock the president as senescent and likely to die any day now, you have to figure that in a close general election the boogeywoman of Kamala Harris will be featured in right-wing agitprop.

You have to go back a way, but this isn’t the first time Republicans have focused on the specter of a little-known veep succeeding an unwell president. In 1944, a relatively close election in which Thomas Dewey opposed FDR’s bid for a fourth term as president, the GOP dropped many hints that Democratic voters would actually be naming the obscure Missouri Senator Harry Truman to the presidency. Yes, it’s hard to imagine now that Truman, who as president dropped the atomic bomb on Japan (a decision moviegoers are revisiting now in Oppenheimer) and promulgated a Truman Doctrine resisting the post-World War II expansion of communism, as some sort of guileless puppet of the Radical Left. But that’s how he was depicted by the GOP message machine.

There were two Truman-related themes Republicans pursued in 1944, both predicated on reminding voters of FDR’s fragile health. The first involved Truman’s origins as a foot soldier in the Kansas City political machine of “Boss” Tom Pendergast. Truman was never accused of any wrongdoing associated with Pendergast, and it was the Roosevelt administration that ultimately deposed and jailed the “Boss.” But the idea was that Truman was a malleable puppet. The second theme was based on a much-reported comment by FDR upon deciding to choose Truman in place of incumbent vice president Henry Wallace, considered too liberal for the ticket’s good, but a definite favorite of organized labor, particularly CIO president Sidney Hillman. FDR instructed his people to vet Truman with Hillman, who was happy to accept the Missourian as a second choice, as described in the book FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944 by David M. Jordan:

One of the ads the RNC sent out started with the words: “CLEAR EVERYTHING WITH SIDNEY.” It went on, for fifty-six seconds:

“Those are the actual words spoken by President Roosevelt, as reported by the New York Times. Roosevelt said these ominous words to Bob Hannegan, Democratic chairman. And what did they mean?

They mean that radical Sidney Hillman was put in charge of the Democratic convention! Hillman put on a show of backing Wallace — but mark this, voters, and mark it well. If Hillman had really wanted Wallace, he would have gotten Wallace. But who did get the nomination for Vice President? A man named Harry Truman — hand-picked by Hillman. Why? Because Truman has shown before that he will do as his boss tells him.”

There were more than ten of these ads, including a couple sent out… early in October, emphasizing “the terrible catastrophe to this country of the possibility of Harry Truman becoming President.”

Dewey and his running-mate, Ohio governor John Bricker, constantly hammered away at the alleged communist threat posed by Hillman and Browder; it was the subject of Dewey’s final campaign speech at Madison Square Garden. At this point, it hardly had to be repeated that the sick, tired credulous FDR and the inexperienced, easily bossed Harry Truman were in Moscow’s pocket.

Ultimately Roosevelt and Truman won, though it was the closest of FDR’s presidential elections. Republicans were right about one big thing: Roosevelt died less than three months into his fourth term, and Harry Truman became the 33rd U.S. president. But he was far from being a communist stooge, and no one bossed him. His own presidential reelection campaign in 1948 was a bit of a left-center masterpiece; after progressives under Henry Wallace and segregationists under Strom Thurmond broke away from the Democratic Party to run their own third- and fourth-party campaigns, Truman stressed his fierce independence and hammered away at the GOP’s “do-nothing Congress,” scoring one of the biggest upsets in U.S. political history by bearing the hapless Tom Dewey.

We have no idea what’s in store for Kamala Harris if she is reelected as vice president next year. And she obviously cannot so much as think about the possibility of ascending to the presidency before 2029. But Republicans really need to be rapped on the knuckles for replaying the 1944 attacks on Harry Truman three-quarters of a century later.

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2024 Republicans Try an Old Trick: Targeting Kamala Harris