Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 27 May 2024

 

Opinion | The Unsinkable Kamala Harris

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks in Washington, May 24. Photo: brendan smialowski/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Scarcely four weeks from the first presidential debate of 2024, Democrats dream of President Biden’s stepping aside for a more appealing candidate. But there is a hitch.

For starters, a convention switcheroo is all but impossible unless the president agrees—and he and the rest of the Biden family show no sign they’re ready to go. And even if someone did manage to persuade Mr. Biden stepping aside was the right thing to do, there’s a bigger problem. Her name is Kamala Harris, and identity politics gives her an effective veto over any plans to swap out candidates.

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It’s an extraordinary power considering her political weakness. A Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll released last week reported that she is now the favored replacement on the Democratic ticket if President Biden were to step down. But when it came to head-to-head match-ups with Donald Trump in seven swing states, the same poll reported Ms. Harris trailing in all of them, by margins ranging from 3 points in Michigan to 10 in North Carolina.

That’s not surprising in light of her performance these past four years. Whenever Ms. Harris has been in the news, it’s typically been for her high staff turnover or the word salads she serves up regularly.

The one significant portfolio Mr. Biden gave her was the border with Mexico. She made one visit, and has since given it a wide berth. She rightly recognizes it’s a loser for the Biden administration. But for all her insistence that she’s dealing with the “root causes” driving the illegal crossings, the whole country understands that the problem has metastasized under her watch.

So if the party is to have a stronger ticket heading into November, it probably means dumping both Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris. But that raises the uniquely Democratic problem of identity politics. Could the Democratic Party today really pass over its black, female, Indian-American vice president for any one of the white candidates usually mentioned as replacements for Mr. Biden?

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Even the vice president’s estranged father has been critical. When Ms. Harris in a radio interview invoked her dad’s side of the family to explain that she had both smoked pot and inhaled—“half my family’s from Jamaica!”—her dad, a retired Stanford economist, complained that their ancestors were having their names tarnished “in the pursuit of identity politics.”

It helps to remember how she got her job, after being forced to drop out of the Democratic primaries before a single vote was cast. Back in March 2020, before Mr. Biden tapped Ms. Harris to be his running mate, he announced he would choose a woman. This followed a similar promise before the South Carolina Democratic primary to appoint an African-American woman to the Supreme Court. In short, Mr. Biden has made no bones about his appeals to identity politics to get votes.

This embrace of identify politics may have been cynical, but it worked. Black voters, who constitute the majority of Democrats in South Carolina, rescued Mr. Biden after an embarrassing fourth-place showing in the Iowa caucuses and fifth-place showing in New Hampshire.

Now Ms. Harris is on the campaign trail trying to shore up the president’s standing with women and African-Americans. Support for Mr. Biden has been slipping with the latter demographic, which he really needs to turn out for him if he is to defeat Mr. Trump. So giving Ms. Harris the old heave-ho in favor of a white politician such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom or Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would probably backfire and further divide the party.

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The only way Democrats might get away with it at this point is to nominate Michelle Obama. But the former first lady shows no desire to insert herself into the election mess that Mr. Biden has created for himself.

That leaves the vice president untouchable. Perversely that probably helps Mr. Biden because it means that Democrats who are calling for him to step down must think twice if Ms. Harris is the replacement. And if she’s not, they face the prospect of heading into the election having alienated a large chunk of Democratic voters.

Martin Luther King Jr. looked forward to an America where people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Identity politics works the other way. In the Biden White House, people selected for their racial or gender identities are politically difficult to let go if it turns out they aren’t up to the job—because that isn’t why they were hired in the first place.

By making clear that he cared less about whether his picks were the best than he did about whether they checked some identity box, the president unfairly cast doubt on the competence of all such hires. The result is what the nation now sees with Ms. Harris, clearly in over her head but impossible to dislodge.

May is Asian-American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage month. At a Rose Garden celebration earlier this month to mark the occasion, the president introduced himself to the crowd with a joke. “My name is Joe Biden,” he said. “I work for Kamala Harris.”

His embrace of naked identity politics means it’s truer than he knows.

Write to mcgurn@wsj.com.

Main Street: Donald Trump has increased his attacks on Robert F. Kennedy Jr., highlighting his fear that the 2024 Independent candidate could siphon more votes from him than from Joe Biden. Image: Lev Radin/Zuma Press

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Appeared in the May 28, 2024, print edition as 'The Unsinkable Kamala Harris'.

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