Here is a counterfactual: if Gina Raimondo were US vice-president, rather than commerce secretary, would Democrats be so accepting of Joe Biden’s decision to run again? My guess is almost certainly not.
Since it is Kamala Harris, not the highly regarded Raimondo, who is next in line, almost no Democrat is pressing for Biden to step aside. Fairly or not, few think Harris could beat Donald Trump. As a result, Democrats and much of the “mainstream” media are working off an invisible memo that tells them to avoid talking about Biden’s age.
This cannot last. Forget Republicans and independents: a majority of Democratic voters think Biden, who will turn 81 in November, should not run for a second term. That means the vice-president will be an unusually big factor next year. To those who say a running mate’s popularity never alters US election outcomes, there are two responses.
First, history is a useless guide. It has twice told us that Trump could not be the Republican nominee. That looks on course to being twice disproved.
The second consists of two words: Sarah Palin. I defy any US political scientist to put their hand on heart and say Palin’s presence on the ageing John McCain’s ticket did not harm his chances against Barack Obama in 2008 — especially after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
Either way, Republicans, such as Nikki Haley, one of next year’s presidential contenders, have made it clear Harris will be the target. “If you vote for Joe Biden you really are counting on a President Harris,” Haley said recently.
Assigning the blame for Harris’s languishing profile — the vice-president’s office or the Oval Office — is an exercise in futility. It is hard to believe Biden was trying to boost Harris’s profile when he asked her to tackle the root causes of illegal immigration.
No foreigner can transform the “northern triangle” of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador into secure places for their poor. Though those countries could reap long-term benefits from the investments Harris has been drumming up, illegal US border crossings surged to a record last year of more than 2 million people. Now that America has scrapped its pandemic border rules, more migrants are likely to come. On this most populist of touchstones, Republicans have a ready-made scapegoat in Harris.
But Harris can hardly pin all the blame on Biden’s people. Her public appearances have been erratic at best. Staff turnover has been unusually high even by the backwater standards of a vice-president’s office, although that exit rate has slowed in the past year.
Harris also conducted her recent nine-day tour of Africa without incident. Since last year’s Supreme Court scrapping of the Roe vs Wade right to abortion, she has found some of the passion that eluded her in 2019 when she dropped out of the primaries before they had begun.
Even if no such glimmers were visible, Biden has to make a virtue out of necessity. He cannot drop Harris — the fallout from dumping America’s first female vice-president could spark a Democratic civil war. Biden must therefore elevate her.
This ought to be simpler than conventional wisdom supposes. It means giving Harris a far higher profile to speak on issues that voters care about, such as women’s right to choose, child care, parental leave and education. It would also make sense for Harris to distance the White House from some of the more exotic variants of left identitarianism. Whether the opponent is Trump or Ron DeSantis, Republicans are betting big in their “war on woke” — and Harris is seen as woke.
But anxieties about Harris’s deficiencies are overwrought. To be sure, she flamed out of the last race. So did Biden in 1988 and 2008. Moreover, most vice-presidents are kept out of the White House loop. Harry Truman, one of America’s best 20th-century presidents, was not even told America had an atomic bomb until after he was sworn in.
An isolated Lyndon Baines Johnson was routinely mocked by John Kennedy’s aides. The job is almost designed to make its occupant look redundant. It says little about how they would handle the presidency.
Biden has compelling reasons to thrust Harris to prominence as soon as possible. He lacks the energy for a modern campaign. Last time round, he was shielded by Covid and did it mostly on Zoom.
Harris has to compensate in 2024′s more normal in-person environment by taking up some of Biden’s slack. The more exposure she is given now the better. Harris needs to be prepared to be president. Biden picked her in 2020. Now he must invest in her. - The Financial Times Limited