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Biden and Harris’s Absurd Case for Complacency

by California Digital News

After absorbing the initial waves of shock from Thursday night’s debate debacle, allies of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have begun whispering to the media their reasons why the Democratic ticket must consist of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. It is that, if Biden steps aside, the party’s only option would be to anoint Harris. If they fail to do so, Black voters would be outraged and register their dismay at the polls (or by refusing to go to the polls), thus ensuring Donald Trump’s election.

The Biden logic then proceeds to its next step: Harris would be a worse nominee than Biden, thus nullifying any reason for him to relinquish his spot on the ticket.

You can see the logic being traced out via the media. “Biden allies have played out the scenarios and see little chance of anyone besides Harris winning the nomination if he stepped aside,” explains Axios. “Is the Democratic Party going to deny the nomination to the first woman, the first Black American, and the first South Asian American to be elected V.P.?”

“Most Democrats who want to replace Biden also remain extremely dubious that his incumbent running mate, Kamala Harris, could beat Trump — but if she sought the nomination, then denying that prize to the first woman of color who has served as vice president could tear apart the party,” reports Ron Brownstein. “The fear that such a fight could practically ensure defeat in November is one reason Democrats who are uneasy about renominating Biden have held their tongue for so long.”

Of course, Harris’s allies understandably dispute the premise that her nomination would be disastrous. But they very much cooperate with the implied threat that denying her the nomination would rip open mortal wounds in the Democratic coalition. “The fact that people keep coming back to this is so offensive to so many of us. They still don’t get that the message you’re saying to people, to this Democratic Party, is, we prefer a white person,” a veteran Democrat and Harris ally tells Politico, which notes that Harris’s allies and aides are “not shy about pointing out the optics of substituting any other candidate (likely White, possibly male) for Harris — a move that they suggest would upset not only Black delegates at the convention but also Black voters with whom the Biden campaign is already on shaky ground.”

And so, by the logic offered by the Biden and Harris teams, the ticket is frozen in place. Biden can’t step down because he would have to hand the role to Harris, and the party doesn’t trust her in that position. Harris’s allies are aiming a gun at the party, Biden is pointing at Harris, pleading his own helplessness.

If this reasoning characterized the situation accurately, then the party is indeed doomed to shuffle forlornly toward November and the likely restoration of Trump and all the horrors he would bring. But I find the rationale not only suspiciously self-serving but also wrong on several key points.

First, while there was good reason to believe a year ago that Harris was clearly worse than Biden, there is much less reason to think that today. His catastrophic debate performance was an out-of-sample event. We will await more polling to measure the scale of the destruction, but Biden’s campaign had been pointing to the debate as the event that would redirect public attention from Biden’s faltering performance and onto Trump’s maniacal unfitness. Not only did Biden fail utterly, he achieved the opposite of his intention. It’s difficult to imagine anything Trump could do or say that would attract more attention than Biden spending an hour and a half sounding like a cast member in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Is Harris a mediocre politician? At this point, mediocrity at the head of the ticket would be a welcome improvement.

Now, while I think Harris is probably a better option than Biden, she is not the Democrats’ best option. If you undertake a change as radical as swapping out your presidential candidate because he’s losing to a sociopathic criminal, then you should really go ahead and pick a candidate whose political and governing skills have the confidence of the party elite. As Napoleon said, if you start to take Vienna, take Vienna.

This brings me to the next problem with the Biden-Harris argument for staying the course. If Harris is passed over, the threat is that Black voters won’t give Democrats the necessary landslide margins they need. That is happening already. Almost every poll shows the Biden-Harris ticket is garnering the lowest levels of Black support for any Democratic ticket in decades. The danger of a depressed Black electorate is being used to maintain a ticket that is losing in part because of a depressed Black electorate.

What evidence is there that having Harris as vice president and heir apparent has any positive effect on a constituency outside of political elites and professional activists who whisper to reporters? What reason is there to believe a different ticket, which could easily feature a different Black vice-presidential candidate on it, would fare any worse?

It helps to think more specifically about the hypothetical complaint that would ensue from Biden-Harris being replaced with, say, Whitmer-Booker. The complaint would be that Harris was passed over for a less-qualified white candidate, and Black candidates are being shunted into the vice presidency, a powerless role, because Democrats don’t trust them in the top job.

That complaint might have some rational basis if it weren’t for the very well-known fact that Democrats did nominate an African-American for president in the very recent past. Twice! Indeed, Barack Obama leaped ahead of the older white candidate whose supporters believed it was her turn to get the job. So the main basis of Harris’s discrimination charge would be obviously false.

That the hypothetical specter of baseless charges of racism are being used to empower an obviously ineffective white male candidate reveals a deeper problem to the Democratic Party’s approach to representational politics.

Identity politics in American elections is not some modern Democratic Party innovation. For most of our history, campaigns were bound by an unstated but extremely firm requirement that the candidate pool be limited to white men. Parties have always deliberately chosen candidates with backgrounds tailored to appeal to identity blocs — Protestant, Catholic, German, Irish, etc. It was long standard practice for presidential tickets to balance a Southern presidential nominee with a Northerner, or vice-versa. None of this was seen as fatally compromising qualifications for the sake of identity politics.

Still, even when parties employed hard regional or ethnic quotas for picking candidates, they still applied some test of candidate skill. The bosses in the smoke-filled room would try to assess whether the candidate could garner votes. That was the candidate’s job, garnering votes. And there has never been any reason to believe Harris possesses this talent at the level required to win a presidential election.

She won a Senate race in California, but that is a state where winning the nomination is tantamount to winning the general election. It does not require appealing to any voters who are not reliable Democrats. (For this same reason, I would absolutely not consider Gavin Newsom to replace Biden).

Harris is telegenic, and appears forceful in prepared settings when she can use her prosecutorial background. I was an early supporter of her 2020 presidential campaign. But that campaign was utterly shambolic. Despite having the benefit of the media treating her as a top-tier candidate, she committed a series of blunders, including changing her position on Medicare for All — at the time the most important issue in the campaign — three times, without ever being able to discuss the issue coherently.

Biden selected her anyway, due to a strange combination of factors. Early on, he promised to appoint a female vice-presidential nominee. And after winning the nomination, the murder of George Floyd led activists to pressure him to choose someone who was Black.

The combination of those two requirements functionally narrowed the candidate pool to a single person. Biden considered Karen Bass and Val Demings, who were both members of the House of Representatives, and even Susan Rice, who had never held elective office. But the traditional bar for vice presidents is a governor or senator, and Harris was literally the only Black woman who met that bar. It is surely true that deeply embedded racism and sexism has prevented more Black women from attaining those positions. But where things stood in 2020, Harris applied for a job in which she had the only qualifying resume.

A more sure-footed Biden campaign would have been able to resist demands that had boxed in their options to such an extreme degree. Here, I think, the extreme non-diversity of Biden’s inner circle left him highly vulnerable. Biden has long confined his trusted confidantes to a small handful of mostly male and entirely white advisers. This made female and non-white Democrats groups understandably suspicious that Biden was not listening to their perspective, and made it harder, especially in the feverish post-Floyd atmosphere, to push back. Biden’s path of least resistance was to avoid any identity politics fights during the campaign and get through to November with a united party.

Democrats hoped Harris learned from her campaign and would develop into a plausible successor. It’s clear that few leading Democrats believe she has done so. Assessing the performance of a vice president, who has no real official responsibilities, is notoriously amorphous and inherently subject to all kinds of bias, including racism and sexism. Still, Harris has churned through staff. Last year, a New York Times story on her performance contained an absolutely devastating passage:

But the painful reality for Ms. Harris is that in private conversations over the last few months, dozens of Democrats in the White House, on Capitol Hill and around the nation — including some who helped put her on the party’s 2020 ticket — said she had not risen to the challenge of proving herself as a future leader of the party, much less the country. Even some Democrats whom her own advisers referred reporters to for supportive quotes confided privately that they had lost hope in her.

Harris can chalk this all up to racism and sexism, but even Democrats her own team selected as character witnesses have said they don’t think she is up to the job. If you want to understand why Democrats are so hesitant to replace Biden with Harris, this more than explains their belief.

So where does this leave the party right now? Obviously, Biden can’t change decisions he made four years ago. But this history should give Democrats a more skeptical perspective on the use and abuse of political jockeying styled as identity politics.

The modern Democratic Party’s laudable and correct interest in expanding its leadership to excluded groups has had the unfortunate side effect of allowing candidates to weaponize insinuation. Just try to recall the endless volley of charges of racism and sexism between supporters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008, Clinton and Sanders in 2016, or basically everybody in 2020 without cringing.

That history is the backstop of the party’s current paralysis. And that toxicity has now returned, with Biden-Harris supporters already taking to social media to tar Democrats who disagree with them as racist, sexist, or both. It may or may not be the case that Democrats are so deeply enmeshed in the most cartoonish form of identity politics discourse that they can’t make clear-headed political choices, even with the highest possible stakes.

What they should not do is passively accept this state of affairs as an unalterable force of nature. Democrats have a choice about how they conduct their public debates over their nominees. When political actors use charges of bias to position their favored candidate for power, they can subject these claims to the appropriate level of skepticism rather than treat them as nuclear weapons aimed at their base. Submitting to this form of extortion is a choice, as is, potentially, ignoring or resisting it.

This doesn’t mean Harris can’t be the nominee. At the moment, according to one post-debate poll, only 27 percent of Americans believe Joe Biden has the mental and cognitive health to serve as president. This poses an almost-insurmountable obstacle to his election, even with Trump’s manifest unfitness. Biden is losing, and he has already squandered what his own campaign considered his best chance to change the race.

Again, even with all her limitations, Harris is probably a stronger candidate now than Biden. I also think there are better options than Harris. My choice would be Gretchen Whitmer, who’s displayed a repeated talent at appealing to swing voters, and who could be paired with a Black running mate like Cory Booker. There are other promising options, but I won’t pretend I can offer any single solution with any confidence that it’s the best way to go. I do believe that almost any change, including a Harris nomination, makes more sense than keeping a nominee who has so deeply forfeited public confidence.

My overarching point is that Democrats need to summon the collective willpower to make political choices in the clear-headed interest of their party and their country. It’s not too late, but very soon it will be. The Biden campaign has brought the party to a crisis point by a series of choices dictated by personal comfort, short-term thinking, and narrow self-interest. These decisions may be rational for the individuals involved, but they add up to a collective disaster.

If that persists, they will continue to drift toward a potentially irreversible setback for American democracy. If Biden and Harris haven’t opened their eyes to what we are now facing, everybody else in their party with influence has a duty to grab them by the shoulder and force them to.

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