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It Isn’t About Kamala Harris
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It Isn’t About Kamala Harris

The vice president is not why Democrats aren’t dumping Joe Biden.

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks as President Joe Biden listens at a Rose Garden event on September 22, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

I’m not in the business of advising political parties, and that isn’t what this column is about. 

But:

One thing that a whole lot of Republicans and Democrats agree on: The Democrats would be much better off replacing Joe Biden as their 2024 nominee, but they can’t because it would be too awkward to pass over Kamala Harris, who would be an even worse nominee than Biden. 

As almost always is the case when Republicans and Democrats agree, this claim is fundamentally wrong. 

Vice President Harris is hardly holding the conch in the Democrats’ election-season version of Lord of the Flies. She is, in a real sense, in a worse position than anybody else trying to figure out what to do about the problem she presents. The idea that she is some kind of hostage-taker who is keeping the Democrats from replacing Biden—that she would not or could not step aside without causing an identity-politics tantrum on the left—is pure nonsense. As things stand, Harris has two possible bad outcomes in front of her if she and Biden are the 2024 ticket: One, they lose, and she gets blamed either for being an encumbrance who thwarted efforts to replace Biden or simply for dragging down the ticket with her personal unpopularity and her political career comes to an end; two, they win, and she gets stuffed into the national sock drawer that is the vice presidency for another four years, waiting for her political career to come to an end. Harris isn’t exactly Niccolo Machiavelli, but she is smart enough to see how things stand. The notion that she would make a stink in order to hold on to the vice presidency—an office in which she has foundered badly and has been subjected to contemptuous treatment by her boss and her party—is nonsense. 

Even more nonsensical nonsense is the notion that Democrats would in reality find it awkward to replace her with Gov. Gavin Newsom of California. Newsom would be the easiest person to replace her with. Yes, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis would succeed Newsom as governor, but there is a gubernatorial election in 2026, and the California Democratic Party could, if it so chose, deliver the nomination to Harris at the modest price of a university presidency or other comfortable sinecure for Kounalakis, who isn’t exactly a towering figure in Democratic politics. Harris would certainly enjoy being governor of California a lot more than she would enjoy being vice president—or the failed candidate who helped to deliver the presidency to Donald Trump—and, as a bonus, she’d almost certainly be better at that job. If by some miraculous change she managed to turn around California’s sorry situation, then she’d have a pretty good case to make for herself as a presidential candidate. All that tough-on-crime stuff that hurt Harris in the George Floyd era might actually win her a few friends in California right now. 

(Being bad at one job doesn’t a politician will be bad at every other job: The great tragedy of the 2016 election was that Donald Trump wasn’t running against Hillary Rodham Clinton for mayor of New York City—a job that either one of them might have done pretty well, sundry delusions and psychoses notwithstanding.)

Short of that, Democrats probably could buy off Harris with a better version of whatever cushy gig they’d use to buy off Kounalakis. They could make her a university president or the dean of a prestigious law school, help her find her way onto a few corporate boards or highly paid advisory positions, and put her on MSNBC—not hard stuff to do, all in all. Harris is 59 years old, and while she and her husband are pretty well off, making a big pile of money in your 60s has its attractions, too. And she might even be able to salvage something of her political reputation in case the political scene changes—and it does change—in a way that favors her future ambitions, whatever those may be. 

In either case, there’s an easy way to deal with the discomfort caused by passing over a black woman: Give the allegations of racism and sexism some place to go. How would that work? By letting Harris make a speech about how she doesn’t think running for president in the current toxic political environment would be good—or safe—for her, for her family, or for the country. Ideally, such a speech would be intercut with video of Dixie-waving Trump enthusiasts, tiki-torch Nazis, January 6 thugs with nooses, and the like. Cynical? Sure. Unfair? Not entirely. In any case, it should not be very difficult to shift any sore feelings from the 2024 Democratic nominee to Donald Trump. (And I’m assuming here that the Republicans really will nominate that maniac.) Give Harris somewhere to go, give those feelings somewhere to go—problem solved. 

The problem is, that problem isn’t the problem. And Democrats know that—they aren’t sitting around waiting for me to point out the opportunity. They know where the opportunity is—but they cannot seize it. 

Democrats are not sticking with Joe Biden simply because they can’t figure out what to do with Kamala Harris. They know how to break up with somebody—ask Hillary Rodham Clinton. They are sticking with Biden for a variety of overlapping reasons. Many of them believe, not without reason, that dumping an incumbent president in 2024 would have the same effect as when Lyndon Johnson decided not to run in 1968, leaving Richard Nixon to trounce Hubert Humphrey and independent candidate George Wallace, the once (1963-67) and future (1971-79 and 1983-87) Democratic governor of Alabama. Some Democrats think Biden has done a good job and that Americans will come around to see that. Some think Biden’s weaknesses will recede into memory once Donald Trump is the Republican nominee. Then there’s the fact that in spite of Gavin Newsom’s obvious interest in the job, nobody of any substance (sorry, Dean Phillips) is actually in the race. Newsom isn’t the only person who wants to step into the political vacuum Biden would leave behind, and avoiding an anarchic battle royale would mean solving a thorny coordination problem beyond parking Harris somewhere or crushing the gubernatorial dreams of What’s-Her-Name Kounalakis (like you knew who the lieutenant governor of California is). And, perhaps most important, Joe Biden seems to seriously believe that the best man for the job in 2024 is Joe Biden, both as a political matter and as a matter of substance—which, of course that’s crazy, but Biden has been more than a little cracked since he first came into office back in the Age of Disco. 

The people who give their lives to politics also give their souls to politics. And it is very, very hard for such people to shiv (metaphorically, people!) a sitting president. 

Americans have started to really lean into the weird, increasingly cultic approach to the presidency, and dumping an incumbent seeking nomination doesn’t feel like ordinary politics to a certain kind of passionate partisan—it feels like regicide to the sort of people who run parties and organize campaigns. As the office of the presidency grows increasingly sacral and ceremonial in Americans’ minds, the notion that an incumbent president could be pushed aside the same way as the assistant sales manager of a regional insurance company or the mayor of Sheboygan feels wrong to certain people—and there are a lot of them—who have invested into the presidency an entirely inappropriate spiritual significance. When Jonathan Haidt can complain (as he did in 2017) that Donald Trump is effectively the nation’s “high priest” and that he’s prone to committing acts of “sacrilege” without anybody scratching their heads and wondering what the hell he means, you know that things have got a little strange in our befuddled republic. But that is how we talk about politics now. 

Put another way: In a spiritually and politically healthy society, Democrats could trade in Joe Biden for the same reason they’d trade in a 1999 Buick Park Avenue with 355,004 miles on it—because the vehicle in question probably isn’t going to take them where they want to go, and there are better options on the market.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.