A Few Things To Consider Before Crowning Kamala Harris
My friend Berny Belvedere took to Arc Digital to write on what he perceives to be the potential reign of Kamala Harris as queen over the Democratic Party and possibly “12–16 years to run the country” as vice president and president herself.
I expect Biden to win the presidency this November - which means that, barring a cataclysmic event on the level of COVID-19 or entry into a new war, Biden’s choice of Harris is likely to be the most significant political decision he will make for the rest of his days.
It is also the most momentous VP decision of my lifetime, with only George W. Bush’s choice to enlist Dick Cheney coming close. Historically, we have a few examples of vice presidential selections going on to have huge national ramifications - some, such as Cheney, by design, and others, such as Andrew Johnson, Teddy Roosevelt, and LBJ, by unhappy accident.
At this point, it’s likelier than not that Harris will be president…
With Biden’s selection of Harris, we have a VP decision that we can sensibly expect, at the very front end of the process - that is, prior to the election, prior to her spending even a single second in the White House - to be massively significant. In fact, it can’t help but be, given the circumstances.
Mr. Belvedere lists six reasons why he finds Senator Harris’ prospects for political success to be nearly limitless. He concludes with the coda that “There are basically two ways she misses out on all this power and influence: (a) if Biden loses to Trump in 2020, or (b) if Biden’s tenure is a catastrophe. I think both are unlikely.”
While understanding this present election is far from over, let us proffer for a moment that Biden does indeed win the presidency in November, for the sake of taking the rest of the arguments on their merits.
Berny makes fine points that the inclusion of Harris on the ticket automatically catapults her to the top of the Democratic pecking order going forward. It is inarguable that the same questionable “bench” of Democratic presidential candidates, easily swept aside by Joe Biden once the Democratic Primary broadened out into areas with the traditional Team Blue constituency, will find challenging a sitting or former VP Harris a tall order. Smartly, Biden and his team have embraced the “generational change” optics as opposed to fighting the obvious: A Joe Biden that will be inaugurated at an age above the average lifespan of a president is an inescapable fact to be dealt with. If the Biden Administration has success, or at least isn’t a total disaster, it would stand to reason a VP Harris would be taking a star-making turn from it for her own quest to step behind the Resolute Desk. A successful run as number two, and presumably a powerful and active number two at that, would alleviate her own failed primary and give a sound springboard going forward.
Which all makes great sense on paper, but it requires a few too many tumblers in the machinations of time and political space lining up to be certain about. It is that item (b) Berny raises that should give observers pause in projecting the future of a Kamala Harris-era of Democratic politics.
More to the point — on what, exactly, are we basing the assumption of a successful Biden presidency? Since all other plans Kamala Harris has for the future are now predicated on Joe Biden not only winning but succeeding as President, we should consider how the next administration might look before we get ahead of ourselves coronating 2024/2028 as the President Harris years.
The 2020 election itself is setting up to be a point of eternal contention, one that will linger into the next administration regardless who wins. There is an increasing probability that we could end up with a 2000 situation on our hands, in which we do not even know who the president is until well past the day after America votes. With charges of “illegitimate” already being leveled, the known no-holds-barred attacks of Trump and company, and an already hyper-partisan environment, the odds are against a Biden Administration getting any kind of “honeymoon” period. Additionally, an ousted Donald Trump is unlikely to adhere to his predecessors and stay out of the limelight, and more than likely would be waging open warfare against all things Joe Biden if displaced by him.
The other national matter settled by the November election will have even more sway over the success of a Biden administration, and by extension the prospects of Kamala Harris. With every congressional seat up for grabs and 35 Senate seats in contention, Team Blue has dreams of having all three branches of government back under their leadership after their strong showing in 2018. While the House of Representatives is safely in Democrat hands, even a Trump collapse might not be enough to get a majority in the US Senate. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris both hail from the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body and know it well, but if Mitch McConnell is still the majority leader come January any major legislative achievements will be very tough sledding indeed. Talk of eliminating the filibuster in the Senate has grown louder, but such a fight would weigh down the early, crucial days of a Biden Administration that would be looking to strike while the political capital iron is hot, off what would have been an excellent Democratic cycle.
Recent history tells us early success, or lack thereof, is crucial to an incoming administration, and thus would be telling of the future prospects of Kamala Harris. Even if Democrats get both houses of Congress like Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016, such an advantage is usually fleeting. Biden spent the primaries defending the signature legislative achievement of his VP stint, the Affordable Care Act, but also saw firsthand what that victory cost. That battle and others, coupled with the eventual cyclical nature of congress, saw a 2010 mid-term hand control back to Republicans. The short, two year window of Democratic dominance made the ACA the biggest achievement of the Obama presidency, since most of the rest of it had an majority opposition party to blunt policy efforts. President Trump didn’t even get that much of a win, settling for a tax cut measure as his biggest legislative achievement before Democrats came roaring back in the blue wave midterm of 2018, and the economic collapse of COVID rendered it a mostly moot political point anyway. With at least 34 Senate seats coming up in 2022, and all the House again, the prospect of a mid-term power switch — even if Democrats win it all in 2020 — once again looms large and could make the Biden/Harris window of opportunity not four or eight years, but practically a matter of months.
There are other things working against whoever is president come January that are already baked into the leadership cake. The economy, while somewhat stabilized from its spring collapse, is currently still very precarious. Some folks are imagining a roaring comeback as soon as COVID-related restrictions are lifted, but that is just that, hope. There is little evidence or data supporting belief in a rapid nation-wide rebound. Trouble is lingering not only in unemployment figures, a restricted job market where folks are adapting to distance telework if working at all, and businesses adapting to COVID constraints, but also in economic ripple effects from months of hard times and belt tightening. Already, states and municipalities are screaming about massively decreased revenue, and outside of federal assistance which may or may not happen with a divided congress, those agencies will be looking to make it up in cost cuts and increased taxes and fees. Neither of which traditionally bodes well for a shaky economy, or for a new administration that is only going to be able to blame Trump for so long without showing tangible improvements.
Politically, Kamala Harris may be fine even if a Biden administration doesn’t set the world on fire in policy or legislation implemented, at least in her own party. As Berny points out, the available Democratic bench for high national office is very thin at the moment. But it is important to note that while the Democratic side of the prognostication ledger stabilizes with a Biden win, the Republican side will not remain static. There may well be long-term fractures within Team Red from the Trump years, be they four or eight, but nothing heals a party quite like being in the minority with a new big bad to coalesce against. NeverTrump for all its noise and fury online dies the second a Trump presidency does, and most of the traditional Republican base will happily lock arms and forget old scores quickly against President Biden and the assumed rise of Kamala Harris. With the ticket so linked together due to all the reasons Mr. Belvedere points out such as age, ability, and their “simpatico” vision, the Republican party will be running against Kamala Harris from the second she is sworn in as VP. That is a lot of lead time to chip away at a candidate who is also yoked together with someone else ostensibly calling the shots.
Berny may well be right. Kamala Harris, at least on paper, is now set up with advantages few politicians in recent memory have enjoyed. If Joe Biden wins in November, she will indeed be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. There is a very real chance things improve for the country and a VP Harris gets a Obama-like surge of “historic” support for not only the first woman president, but woman of color as well. But her success is not fully dependent on her, and if 2020 has taught us anything it is that things that can change, do change, and often in rapid and unpredictable fashion. Both the Obama and Trump administrations began with more clearly defined mandates and advantages than the Biden/Harris one is likely to start with. Both Obama and Trump had those that proclaimed the start of their administrations as “generational shifts”, and both found themselves with changed political landscapes quickly. Then there is still the matter that, VP or not, Kamala Harris is yet to win an election outside of California on her own accord, something she will have to do to become/stay President of the United States of America. Not to mention that four years, eight years, or twelve years are all long periods time for the next generation of Democrats to just sit and be happy with status quo. The assumption that all of Team Blue, many who rejected her in the run up to 2020, will be happy to defer to a VP or President Harris for so long is highly questionable. Plus, there is the little matter of winning the 2020 election first we sat aside earlier, where Senator Harris could become the third woman nominated by a major party for vice president following Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin in falling short, instead of the historic first elected.
If Berny Belvedere is right, and against all these obstacles and challenges this is the beginning of a 12-year or more era of Kamala Harris as VP and President, we will be able to agree on one thing looking back on it from the turmoil at the potential start of it: whatever advantages she began with, she will have earned it to make it so. If she even makes it that far. If Joe Biden wins. If.