Back in 2019, a rumor began circulating. First, it flowed through prominent Democratic officials and donors, then through the outer ring of politicos, and finally through the press. The rumor: Joe Biden, the 77-year-old seeking the presidency for the third time in his life, was also seeking it for the last time. He did not plan to run in 2024, whether he won in 2020 or not.
Biden’s advisers couldn’t decide if this was something to publicize. On the one hand, it had a very Cincinnatus vibe. Here was an elder statesman of the nation, a longtime senator and arguably the most popular vice president in modern memory, coming out of retirement to slay Trumpism and restore the slow progressive path that Barack Obama had placed the country on.
On the other hand, elder statesman. Longtime senator. Coming out of retirement. Biden would be the oldest man ever inaugurated president, even older than the sitting president – who was, in 2016, the oldest man ever inaugurated president. Biden is older than Presidents Obama and Clinton. He displays vim and vigor at times and at times he displays the telltale signs of being a septuagenarian.
Disclosing Biden’s one-term vision could be good news in the primaries, where advisers thought his age was his primary weakness. It would reinforce the Cincinnatus element: Biden was stepping up to fix what Trump had broken and he would then pass the reigns on to the next person, be it Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, or perhaps Kamala Harris.
But as the Democratic primaries came down to a fight between Biden and another elder statesman, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, concerns about Biden’s age ebbed. Instead, the question became: what can defeat Trumpism, progressivism or liberalism? Are Americans fed up with Trump to the point that they’ll embrace a European-style social democracy? Or do they just want a return to the liberal democracy of the Obama years?
Democratic voters picked a return to the liberal democracy of the Obama years, bolstered by Black voters who have a deep respect for Biden and his service to the first Black president. In a lot of communities of color, Biden’s willingness to act as the number two to a nonwhite person was groundbreaking.
Once Biden had cleared the primary, it was time to pick a vice president. Although it wasn’t heavily publicized, it was understood even by the public that Biden’s vice president would have a good chance at being the frontrunner in 2024. Picking the runner-up in the primary wouldn’t alleviate concerns about Biden’s age. Instead, he eyed the demographics of the party.
After all, if you look at the candidates, Elizabeth Warren, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and even Tulsi Gabbard, well, they all won votes. But Warren had angered both moderate and progressive Democrats in the primaries, Bloomberg wasn’t seen as a real Democrat, Buttigieg is young and a likely presidential contender in the future, Klobuchar’s chances collapsed with the death of George Floyd, and Gabbard is deeply unpopular with Democrats.
Harris, though she lobbed a critical blow at Biden during the debates, never actually participated in the primaries. She withdrew on December 3, 2019, before a single primary or caucus, as her campaign funds ran perilously low. That meant she sat out of the fighting in early 2020 and instead focused on her work in Senate, which helped boost her profile a little bit.
It also meant that there was no test of legitimacy. Harris won the vice presidency because Biden picked her and together they won the election. This, it should be stressed, is legitimate and valid. But it will hang over her in 2024 that she didn’t seek the presidency in 2020 and so, unlike, say, Pete Buttigieg – who could run to Harris’ left without any big changes to his 2020 platform – she can’t claim to have been properly vetted by Democratic voters. This could be an issue for her in 2024.
If she’s not already president.
Speculating about a president’s death is macabre. There’s no desire here to see Biden gone before he completes his tenure in office. The chance exists, however, that Kamala Harris becomes president before 2024. What would a Harris administration be like? We don’t really know, because she dropped out of the primaries so early. We know she’s a stern but respected junior senator. We know she was a controversial attorney general (who waves off those controversies as being done in her name without her knowledge, a dangerous precedent for a potential president to set). We know she’s made it clear she’ll back Biden but as a friend and colleague and not a cheerleader, and she and her allies have already made an effort to make sure she has real power in the Biden administration.
Here’s what we said about Harris back in 2019:
“Harris supports Medicare for All, LGBT+ protections, and says that sanctuary cities are an important tool for effective local law enforcement. She believes marijuana should not be illegal and supports legislation to have marijuana convictions expunged. And she supports efforts to make police more accountable to their communities.
Just kidding: as attorney general, she fiercely opposed a bill that would have required her office to investigate when police officers killed people.”
Harris’ mixed record was one of the reasons why Democrats were wary of her and why even her vice presidency seemed unlikely. Harris has since said that her role as attorney general was to enforce the law and that now, as a senator, she’s able to make changes and push new ideas. This gained some traction with Democrats, either because they genuinely believed it or because it made it easier to swallow Harris as the vice presidential nominee.
In America, health care should be a right, not a privilege only for those who can afford it. It’s why we need Medicare for All.Kamala Harris, Medium, July 29, 2019
Harris also changed her view on Medicare For All, and seems to have embraced Biden’s plan for a public option since becoming the vice presidential nominee while dropping any Medicare For All stance.
She has maintained her support for decriminalizing marijuana (which Biden has now supported, although some critics say there’s a big gap between decriminalization and legalization) and she’s continued to push for LGBTQ+ rights, so those positions have been consistent.
All in all, President Kamala Harris would probably be not too different from President Joe Biden or, indeed, President Barack Obama; all, in turn, in the Third Way mold Bill Clinton built for the party in the 1990s. Is this what Democrats want? Is it what Americans want? Only time can tell for sure.
Image credit: Nuno21 / Shutterstock.com. Used under license.