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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Kamala?
Um . . . run someone against her?
Matt Yglesias wrote a pointed Substack post this week arguing that Vice President Kamala Harris should work harder at trying to be popular by Sister Souljah-ing the kind of loony San Francisco lefties who want to remove President Lincoln’s name from schools. I must admit, I found the piece profoundly unsatisfying. Not because I disagree with his advice per se—I think he’s right that she should try to be more popular, that catering symbolically to normie sentiments is a cheap way to do that (no more tuna melt lessons!), and that the kind of excuse-mongering you hear from the Harris camp to explain her mediocre approval ratings should be ringing alarm bells. What irritated me is that he takes it for granted that Harris is Biden’s heir apparent and prohibitively likely to be the nominee in either 2024 or 2028. So if she can’t retool herself, Democrats risk being saddled with an unpopular candidate perceived as out-of-the-mainstream who could lose the general election to someone genuinely scary, kind of like they did in 2016.
I think that attitude is just weird. Either the party decides, or it doesn’t. If the party decides, they can decide that Harris is a weak potential nominee and actively look for alternatives. If the party doesn’t decide, then there’s always room for an entrepreneurial opponent to jump in and make a race of it regardless of what Harris’s supporters say or think. It’s just very weird to hear that highly-placed Democrats in Washington are all worried that Harris isn’t the one, but that those stories aren’t linked to alternative candidates looking to snatch the nomination from her. Sitting and former Vice Presidents face serious opposition for the nomination all the time—Hubert Humphrey did, Walter Mondale did, George H. W. Bush did. Why should we assume Harris will face no such challenge if she actually looks like a weak nominee? Or, to put it differently, if the assumption that she won’t face such a challenge is correct, shouldn't that be the primary subject of discussion?
As I argued nearly a year ago, while sitting or former Vice Presidents have historically done a very good job of getting themselves nominated, they don’t have nearly so good a track record at winning. Meanwhile, candidates who go on to win the general election have nearly always had to fight their way to victory in the primaries: that’s true of Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Having to fight for it doesn’t guarantee victory; John Kerry lost, Walter Mondale lost, George McGovern lost (though note that all of them lost to incumbent presidents). But in the two modern instances where the party really tried to clear the field for an heir apparent—Hillary Clinton and Al Gore—the strategy backfired.
Of course, both Gore and Clinton lost when running for a third term—but that only further underlines the foolishness of trying to anoint a successor. After two terms, the electorate is almost always looking for some kind of change. Clearing the field for a VP telegraphs pretty clearly that those looking for change should look to the other party.
I do not hide the fact that I’m not a Harris fan, but I am also not under the illusion that my personal tastes are electorally dispositive. The Vice President isn’t some kind of extremist; she’s a perfectly ordinary mainstream Democrat. That’s precisely why she isn’t that popular: because the Democratic Party just isn’t that popular (though it’s more popular than the Republican Party). Harris is substantially more popular than fellow her Californian, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Harris isn’t so good at catering to swing voters not just because she hails from California, but because swing voters have relatively little clout in the Democratic Party as a whole — because the ideological distribution of voters is increasingly bimodal rather than normal.
This is a structural problem, not something that a little Sister Souljah-ing can solve. Damon Linker thinks Harris won’t follow Yglesias’s advice because too many Democrats in her faction “would view such efforts as a moral betrayal,” but Harris doesn't really represent a faction. I’m not sure the Democrats even really have proper factions anymore. If they did, Senator Corey Booker, who came into the Senate well-positioned to play the role of inspirational moderate, wouldn’t have spent the years leading up to the 2020 presidential primaries trying to reposition himself as sufficiently woke and resistance-oriented to pass muster.
So here’s what I’d really like to see: not more advice on how Harris should change her spots, but more stories about who would be a stronger nominee. Corey Booker is still in the Senate; so is Amy Klobuchar; so, for that matter, is Kyrsten Sinema, who I understand is quite popular in a key swing state and very talented at getting press attention. Yglesias thinks Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan would have been a better pick for VP, which I think is debatable, but why shouldn’t she run against Harris in a presidential primary if she thinks she’d make a stronger nominee? Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania and Ralph Northam of Virginia are both term-limited out, and former Governor Steve Bullock of Montana is currently out of office; they all probably have a lot more experience winning swing voters than Harris does. Are they any less absurd as candidates than Martin O’Malley, an old Yglesias favorite? What about Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, up for reelection in 2022? Heck, if either Governor Laura Kelly of Kansas or Governor Andy Beshear of Kentucky can win reelection that year, the party would be foolish not to give them a look-see if they have any doubts at all about Harris’s electability.
Even if you think the odds are Harris would likely beat any opponent, having to beat an opponent, or several opponents, would make her a stronger nominee. And fearing the possibility of losing the nomination is by far the best way to convince her to change her political tune, if anything can. But you can’t beat someone with no one.