Opinion | The Kamala Harris calculus: What do Democrats gain or lose? (2024)

One benefit of the public angst and media frenzy surrounding President Biden’s debate performance has been a growing consensus among elected Democrats and activist groups that Vice President Harris is the only plausible replacement.

That is what a vice president does: step in when the president needs to be replaced, temporarily or permanently. A party that has long depended on the votes of Black Americans, especially Black women, could not — without unleashing a furious backlash and triggering massive defections — kick her to the curb in favor of a random, unvetted White politician.

As of this writing, Biden has given no public indication that he is ready to drop out. If that changes, however, many media voices, Democratic operatives and elected Democrats may have to eat crow. Should Harris ascend to the top of the ticket, the critics who denigrated her value, dismissed her expertise and denied her political skills will immediately shout her praises. (Recall that many Republicans who once denounced felon and former president Donald Trump’s insurrection broke the hypocrisy meter in eventually falling in line behind him.)

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Assuming the choice is essentially Biden or Harris, it behooves voters, Democratic officials and progressive groups to assess the upsides and downsides of making a switch. I have interviewed Harris as a candidate and vice president, watched her appearances up close, and witnessed her participation in the administration, especially her role in attacking the Supreme Court’s reckless decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The person I have seen bears little resemblance to the image critics have created. (Since her first year as vice president, many journalists frankly have stopped covering her, and simply recite that she has gotten bad press.)

Harris’s positive attributes fall into roughly three buckets. First, if Biden does not jazz young voters and risks defections among non-White voters, Harris could provide the spark to excite the base. A recent CNN-SSRS poll found that she would swing Biden’s three-point deficit among women voters to a seven-point lead, while also making gains among independents. (Caveat: Noncandidates often poll better before the media begins tearing them down in earnest.)

She has also had sellout crowds at college campuses, offering the prospect of a big turnout among younger voters. She is an electric speaker who can light up audiences of pro-choice women, HBCU students and Hispanic union members. The prospect of the first female Black president could inject the sort of energy needed to turn out the vote in what is likely to be a mobilization rather than a persuasion election (i.e., most everyone has already made up their mind).

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Second, the issues that should be at the center of the Democrats’ campaign — abortion, a tyrannical Supreme Court, and the manifest unfitness of felon and former president Donald Trump — are right in her wheelhouse. She has been the administration’s leading voice in attacking Dobbs as an assault on freedom and privacy. Her legal background provides authority and skill to explain the excesses of an unhinged Supreme Court. And as I have argued, she is as effective on the attack against Trump as any Democrat. (And yes, running against a Black woman would infuriate him.)

Democrats might relish a campaign in which Harris is the principal voice denouncing Trump’s racist comments, such as his use of “Black jobs” in his debate with Biden or his mutterings about nonexistent electric planes. Imagine her dissecting Project 2025 or zeroing in on his 34 felony convictions and civil adjudication for rape. And given her frequent overseas trips, Harris can adeptly describe allies’ horror over Trump’s invitation to Vladimir Putin to attack NATO countries and ridicule Trump’s delusion that dictators love him.

Third, Harris would deprive Republicans of their most potent issue. Virtually the entire GOP campaign has been about Biden’s age. Sure, MAGA cultists lie about Biden’s economic record, legislative successes, diplomatic achievements and more — but the only place where they have had real traction, especially after the debate, is on the age issue. If Harris were at the top of the ticket, perhaps the media would finally focus on Trump’s deteriorating mental acuity and personality defects (as I have pointed out) with proper urgency.

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Still, a Harris presidential nomination would come with real risks. Gender and racial bigotry might deter some swing-state voters. Previous criticism of Harris by Democrats would be thrown in her face. And the party would be forfeiting the incumbency advantage, as presidential historian and prediction wizard Allan Lichtman argues, as well as Biden’s unique connection with union workers. Harris would also face questions over her forthrightness about Biden’s physical limitations. (She has been among the most credible eyewitnesses to his job performance.)

Some of these risks might be offset by the low expectations critics set for her, but no one can guarantee she will gain more votes than she will lose. Post-debate polls show Biden’s numbers have dropped, but not so badly as to unleash a tsunami of public calls for him to exit the race (at least not yet).

That brings us to the only factor that matters: Will Biden conclude that he cannot vigorously wage a winning campaign to protect our democracy from the greatest threat in our lifetimes? A single interview will not be sufficient. He must appear day after day in free-flowing settings. If he cannot, he will have shown he lacks the capacity to run.

The good news for Democrats: If Biden does decide to step away, the party has a solid chance to win and make history with Harris. Alternatively, if he remains and wins reelection, voters can be confident there is an able vice president ready to take over if needed.

Opinion | The Kamala Harris calculus: What do Democrats gain or lose? (2024)
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