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8 July 2024

The Kamala risk

Joe needs to go. But are Americans ready for President Harris?

By Jill Filipovic

The 2024 American election cycle will see its biggest shake-up yet if the incumbent president and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden heeds calls to step aside and allow a different Democrat to run against Donald Trump. Those calls have only intensified in recent days following Biden’s halting interview on ABC on 5 July in which he insisted that only “the Lord almighty” could persuade him to drop out. The next question is who might step into his place if that did happen. There is one clear favourite: the vice-president Kamala Harris. 

Harris, being VP, is an obvious pick. But there are concerns. Approval polls suggest she’s almost as unpopular as Biden. She has not carved out a distinct space for herself as vice-president, and doesn’t have a signature issue or clear set of accomplishments from the past four years. The Biden administration put her in charge of addressing the southern border migration crisis, but that’s not exactly something any Democrat wants to discuss. She toured the country in favour of abortion rights, but with no major changes proposed, it merited little coverage. And observers make the same criticisms of Harris that are so often levelled against power-seeking women: she’s unlikeable, she’s inauthentic, there’s just something about her I don’t like.

Even those who like Harris and find her impressive – and I include myself in that group – have doubts, less about the woman herself than about the American public. Maybe its post-Hillary traumatic stress disorder making us unduly cautious. But the US is a nation that elected Donald Trump, a career swindler and accused sexual assailant with no political experience running on a platform of unbridled racism and misogyny, over the most highly qualified and competent woman ever to seek the presidency. The person who bested Trump four years later wasn’t Harris. It wasn’t the Yale-educated middle-America senator with moderate politics who went from a prosecutor’s office to becoming one of the most effective members of the US Senate (Amy Klobuchar), nor the brilliant and ground-breaking Harvard law professor with working-class roots who is among the nation’s leading scholars on and advocates for consumer protection and reining in big banks (Elizabeth Warren). The person who bested Trump was Joe Biden: moderate, milquetoast, return-to-normal Joe Biden.  

And thank goodness. The Biden presidency has been exceptionally good for Americans. And many of us who supported other candidates in 2020 (I was a Warren backer) can see, with hindsight, the wisdom in pitting Trump against a broadly acceptable and uncontroversial white guy. I wish Americans had a different kind of country, the kind where the very idea of a Trump presidency would be roundly mocked. But we don’t. And so the question is: in this country, can Harris, a black and South Asian woman, win in potentially one of the most consequential elections in US history? 

The national conversation in the US has rapidly evolved since Biden spectacularly face-planted at his debate against Trump. So, it seems, have the views of the pundit class. And so have my own. I still don’t know if Harris can win, and if she weren’t VP and the Democrats were picking a candidate from scratch, I don’t think she’d be on the list. But she is VP. She’s highly competent, and has loyally served an administration with many accomplishments about which she can boast. At the very least, she seems to stand a better chance at winning than Biden. That may be the only measure that matters.

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Harris does have a lot going for her, not least that she’s already been vetted and introduced to the American public. The nightmare scenario for Democrats is that the party replaces Biden on the ticket only to have some ugly campaign-ending skeletons emerge from the replacement’s closet. Harris, at least, is a known entity.  

Not going with Harris also has its risks, key among them alienating female and African American voters, who are core Democratic constituencies. This is not as simple as “black voters like Harris because she’s black”, or a similar calculus for female voters. In 2020, black voters ushered Biden, not Harris (who also ran to be the Democratic nominee), to victory in the party primary. But given that the vice-president is the obvious choice to replace the president, it will undoubtedly be seen as a slight if Harris is not chosen. And that kind of insult – being the clear successor and being passed over anyway – is something too many women and racial minorities have experienced first hand, and may be unwilling to overlook.  

How will fear shape this election? Democrats have spent months telling voters that a Trump presidency will be disastrous, not just for progressive aims, but for America’s future and for democracy itself. And when one looks at what Trump and his right-wing network plans to do, plus a recent Supreme Court case that gives the president unprecedented powers to commit crimes in office without punishment, it’s hard to conclude that these warnings are overstated. On the right, fear is also part of the argument for Trump: Democrats, the warning goes, are ruining the country, mostly by driving up prices and letting in too many immigrants. Decades of social science research indicate that if people are afraid they tend towards conservatism (and conservatives generally tend to be more fearful than liberals). Scared conservatives will no doubt flock again to Trump. But what about scared liberals, or scared independent voters? Will fear of Trump be enough to drive them to support a President Harris? Or will the conservative-inducing fear make a Harris presidency feel too novel and too risky?  

Democrats are in uncharted waters here. None of us can actually see what might emerge. But one conclusion is becoming obvious: if the choice really is between Harris and Biden, Harris is the stronger candidate. And that may be all that matters.

[See also: Jubilation from the French Left on the streets of Paris]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change