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Charles Lipson Opinion: Can Democrats Solve Their Kamala Harris Problem?

Kamala Harris is a living embodiment of the Peter Principle, where people keep getting promoted until they reach jobs for which they are clearly unqualified. More and more Americans think that describes our current vice president.

Harris is deeply unpopular with independents, who are essential for electoral success (fewer than one in three voters view her favorably), and she is losing popularity among Democratic Party leaders. They see her ineptitude, listen to her word salads, and watch the polls with dismay. The latest evidence of Harris’ fading position is a sharply critical article in the New York Times, of all places, filled with anonymous disapproval from senior Democrats, many of whom once supported her. Now, they are worried.

Their fear is that although she’d be a drag on the 2024 party ticket, she’s almost impossible to drop. To win, Democrats need enthusiastic support from African Americans, who are likely to be insulted if Harris is dumped. That problem might be averted if she were replaced by another African American. But there are no obvious alternatives. If Harris is replaced, it would likely be by a white or Hispanic candidate.

Such a change would roil a party deeply invested in the politics of racial and ethnic identity, where losing groups are seen as aggrieved victims, winners as “privileged” oppressors. Those divisions are most virulent when they center on America’s historic wound of race, and they would be turned inward on the party.

Normally, voters don’t care much about the vice presidential nominee, even when they aren’t wild about the choices, as we learned in 1988 when George H.W. Bush chose Dan Quayle and again two decades later with John McCain’s surprise selection of Sarah Palin. But 2024 is likely to be different if Biden runs again. He is already the oldest person to sit in the Oval Office, and he is showing his age. Although gaffes have plagued Biden throughout his career, they have grown worse in recent years. There’s a reason he refuses to hold press conferences.

Voters are not blind to this quandary inside the White House. It’s a reasonable inference that a man who would turn 86 during a second term in the Oval Office might not be able to finish the job. His vice president would be forced to step in. Polls show voters are not thrilled with the prospect of Kamala Harris doing that.

What’s the evidence voters are unhappy with Harris? The best evidence comes from the last two campaigns, as well as recent public opinion surveys. When Harris ran for president in 2020, she had to drop out before the first primary votes were cast. Despite a glamorous roll-out that included national magazine covers and glowing endorsements, her polling stood at less than 1 percent in the Democratic primary field. That failure is stunning because her résumé checked all the boxes Democrats love: She was a progressive, a woman, a racial minority (black and Asian), and a senator from a deep blue state, who could raise big money from wealthy California donors. But checking all those boxes wasn’t enough after primary voters got a closer look.

The 2022 mid-terms exposed Harris’ flaws yet again. Normally, the White House dispatches the veep to crisscross the country, appearing with candidates eager to be seen with such a prominent national figure. Not this time. Although candidates wanted her help in raising money, they wanted it behind closed doors. No joint public appearances, please.

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Harris was also damaged politically when she was saddled with the informal title of “border czar.” Joe Biden gave her that thankless task. It was his decisions, not hers, that opened the border to record numbers of illegal immigrants, deadly drugs, and Mexican cartels. But Vice President Harris and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have become the public faces of that failed policy. They compounded the problem by denying the obvious. Time after time, they declared our southern border is closed and secure. No one believes them, and for good reason. Not only have illegal border crossings reached record highs, the administration has no solutions.

These cumulating problems have eroded Harris’ popularity. It was over 50 percent when she and Biden took office. Now, more than half the adults surveyed view her unfavorably, including some 40 percent who view her “very unfavorably.” The flip side of the ledger is no better. Only 14 percent say they have “very favorable” views; another 22 percent are “somewhat favorable.” These bleak numbers are even worse than Biden’s and make her one of the least popular vice presidents in recent history. They also explain why, if Biden runs again, only 39 percent want her as his running mate.

Harris’ unpopularity is not limited to one or two groups. The latest Quinnipiac Poll shows she is substantially underwater with all demographic groups except one. Among blacks, 62 percent of registered voters view Harris favorably; only 17 percent unfavorably.

This racial divergence is the crux of the Democrats’ predicament.

Would this dilemma disappear if Biden chose not to run? Not necessarily. In an open contest for the nomination, Kamala could well lose to another prominent Democrat, such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Gov. Gavin Newsom, or Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. If Harris lost after sharp attacks and primary voting split along racial lines, the outcome could pose a problem for Democrats in the general election.

Those troubles would be dwarfed, however, if Harris actually won the nomination and faced a stronger Republican candidate than Donald Trump, without his trainload of baggage.

If Biden does run again, he’s probably stuck with Harris. Democrats have painted themselves into this corner. For decades, they have mobilized voters with identity politics. They have highlighted group differences and amplified their grievances. As Joe Biden once told a black audience, they “want to put y’all back in chains.” Now, that rabid dogma threatens to bite its owner.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com. This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

 

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  • Originally from Jacksonville, Kevin Derby is a contributing writer for Florida Daily and covers politics across Florida.

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