A Must-Win Election
It is widely, and I think rightly, believed that the survival of American democracy would be seriously jeopardized by Donald Trump’s winning the presidency in 2024.
That means that this upcoming election is a Vincelombardian moment— i.e. one where winning is the only thing. Meaning, we cannot afford to lose. Which means, in turn, that the Democrats must do everything possible to make sure they’ve got a winning ticket.
A Re-Run of the 2020 Ticket?
How about the same ticket that defeated Donald Trump in 2020?
Over the past months, I’ve expressed considerable confidence that – in a rerun of the 2020 election -- the Democrats already have a winning hand. There are good reasons to believe that, in re-nominating Trump, the Republican Party is heading for a disaster. The past three elections have shown that an American majority is rejecting Trump and MAGA politics. And since 2020, the nation has witnessed Trump attempt to overturn a legitimate election and being indicted for a whole series of crimes.
Even though the polls show a tight race, I’ve argued that by the time people vote, their reasons to vote against the fascistic criminal, Trump, far outweigh whatever reservations they have about Biden as President.
And I still think that likely the case. (See for example this on “the MAGA Doom Loop,” in the Washington Post.)
But I also worry.
(There are plenty of signs that the American people cannot be trusted to see things clearly. Like this on How on Earth Can Voters Think Trump Accomplished More Than Biden?: “more voters (52 percent) agreed that former President Donald Trump “has a strong record of accomplishments” than agreed the same about Biden (40 percent).”)
The Age Issue Cannot Just Be Ignored
People rightly say that one should hesitate to take too seriously whatever polls say right now. But neither should we dismiss out of hand whatever warning signs those polls might be showing. And when it comes to the must-win Democratic ticket, there are two warning signs.
The big one concerns the top of the ticket: people are concerned about Biden’s age. A great many Americans perceive Biden as already frail and diminished. And beyond that, there’s the entirely legitimate concern about what it would mean to elect to a second term as President a man who will already be 82.
And this is the one issue – i.e. whether the President of the United States is perceived as “strong” or “weak” – that I can’t dismiss as being outweighed, in the American psyche, by the fascist-criminality factor. I don’t worry much that people’s failure to give Biden credit for a really good economy will take precedence over their distaste for a fascistic President. But the “strength” of the “king” may be a factor in the civilized mind that goes deeper than matters like “democracy” and “the Rule of Law.” (I think of such books -- about ancient peoples and their need for strong rulers -- as The Golden Bough, and The King Must Die.)
But, though various thoughtful people are still hoping that Biden will withdraw (e.g. this piece where David Ignatius argues that President Biden should not run for reelection in 2024), for a whole variety of reasons, I have difficulty envision how – at this late date – the Democrats can improve their chances of gaining that absolutely necessary defeat of Donald Trump than by having President Biden withdraw.
I’ve proposed here some months ago a way that Biden might reduce his vulnerability to the age issue. My proposal is based on the assumption that the truth would show that Biden is not only in better shape for doing the job of President than is the general perception in the electorate, but is actually a better bet than Trump.
If Biden is in as good a shape as I expect he is, and if I were Biden, I would defuse the age issue by challenging Trump: 'Let us both submit to a comprehensive evaluation at one of the nation’s top medical facilities – like Mayo – with the results on both of us to be made public.”
Biden would benefit whether Trump accepts the challenge (and, as seems possible, Biden gets the cleaner bill of health), or Trump rejects it, refusing to submit to a fair evaluation made public, and therefore looking weak and arousing suspicions that he has something to hide.
But there’s another possible way to reduce people’s discomfort with electing an 82 year-old to begin a four year term. It concerns the second spot on the ticket.
The Vice President as President-in-Waiting
The age issue is making the VP candidate more than usually important, because – apparently, and reasonably – many Americans recognize that it is more than usually likely that a man already in his 80s elected to a four-year term as President will either die or become incapacitated (Woodrow-Wilson-style) before the term is up.
Which reportedly means that -- more than usually -- voters will be asking themselves, “Do I want to have this VP as my President?”
And that leads to another finding from the polls that should not be ignored in this must-win election: a whole lot of polls have shown that Kamala Harris’s standing with the American electorate is rather weak. (E.g. this.) The consistent picture strongly suggests that Harris is a drag on Biden, and in a way that could be especially costly on a ticket where the VP is regarded as an especially important factor because of the President’s age.
Maybe this factor is not large enough to worry about. And not everyone thinks that Kamala Harris so weakens the ticket. (See for example Jennifer Rubin’s column rejecting the idea of replacing Harris on the ticket.)
But what if it is reasonably estimated that the number of votes that Biden would lose because Kamala Harris is his running mate might cost the election? (Meaning, result in Trump becoming President again.) What should happen then?
Can the Ticket Be Strengthened with a New VP?
It might be the case that there’s no way she could be replaced. Harris was put on the ticket in 2020 because Biden promised that he’d make a Black Woman his running mate. It would likely be a political disaster for Biden – or anyone else -- to ask her to get off the ticket. Important constituencies would be outraged.
No one can ask her to go.
But – if the ticket could be made stronger without her on it -- maybe Kamala Harris could voluntarily make that possible.
Indeed, perhaps she could make herself a heroic figure by delivering stirring speech — putting nation ahead of her own personal ambition because, in this upcoming election, the survival of American democracy and the Rule of Law are on the line.
(She could declare: “I’m withdrawing because we all need to leave it all on the field in this coming Presidential election to make sure that a man – Donald Trump – who took an oath to protect the Constitution, but committed a whole series of crimes in an attempt to overthrow the Constitution, does not again get the power to destroy our Democracy.”)
How to Replace an African-American Woman
So, maybe the best course is to stick with the 2020 ticket. And if there is to be any change, it would have to take into account the impact of that change on all the relevant components of the electorate—on who turns out, and how those who turn out will vote:
- How will the people who celebrated seeing an African-American Woman on the ticket feel if Harris withdraws?
- How will the people who might be swing voters on the VP-issue feel about potential replacements?
Here are my thoughts, for whatever they may be worth.
One possibility would be to choose another Black Woman, of whom there are several that have been impressive in one way or another (like Stacy Abrams or Karen Bass). But I suspect that naming another Black Woman would play badly in the wider electorate. Two black women in a row, I fear, would be interpreted by a segment of the electorate as showing that Biden is not using the priorities appropriate to the choice of a VP by a President in his 80s.
Nor does choosing a white man look like a viable option. There are surely a few white male Democratic figures whom the electorate would consider presidential timber. But, until the 2020 Election, the United States had only white men as President and Vice President from George Washington’s time up through Donald Trump. And to choose a white man to replace Kamala Harris would likely be experienced as a slap in the face by a lot of women and people of color who welcomed the progress toward diversity at the top.
That leaves a black man and a white woman.
Of those two possibilities, all other things being equal, I expect the white woman would be the politically stronger choice. Women are more than half the country, while blacks are just 1/7 of the population. So the choice of a woman would not so readily smack of appeasing a constituency. (And that’s not even considering the how the recently increased virulence of white racism might figure in.)
If Biden’s 2024 running mate were to be a white woman, then who?
If only she were younger, Elizabeth Warren would seem a great choice. Choosing any Democratic Senator involves risk, since control of the Senate is also important. But Warren is from Massachusetts and – 2010 notwithstanding – the Democrats should be able to hold that seat.
But Warren is less than ideal for countering the age issue. Though she looks more youthful than her years, and seems to be at the top of her powers, she’s 74, she’d be almost 80 at the end of the term. It might be better for the Democrats’ next generation to get the nod. (Maybe Amy Klobuchar, though Minnesota is less sure of keeping the seat if Senator Klobuchar opens it up.)
Or perhaps steering clear of the Senate, naming a Democratic Governor who already has some national status. (Perhaps Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of Michigan.)