Just a year after giving Donald Trump his electoral walking papers, the Democrats are in some degree of disarray in the United States.
It’s still early days and things may turn around before the 2024 election, perhaps even in time for the 2022 midterm elections in the U.S. But the Democrats’ jubilant triumph of 2020 is yesterday’s memory.
Virginia, previously considered rock-solid, was lost in the off-year gubernatorial election and New Jersey came unthinkably close to going the same way.
President Joe Biden’s polling numbers are in poor shape and those of Vice-President Kamala Harris are worse.
If national elections were held today, the Democrats could lose across the board.
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For a party to which changing demographics has purportedly gifted an iron grip on the future, this is a strange place to be. Inevitability isn’t supposed to work this way.
The Harris problem further complicates the conundrum. Put simply, she’s a poor retail politician.
That this comes as a surprise is a testament to people who should know better seeing what they want to see. Sure, she easily won statewide office in California. But virtually any Democrat will win in California.
To get a sense of what her real political talents are, just consider the recent presidential cycle.
Harris entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in January 2019 and was promptly seen as a serious contender. She was well funded and initially very credible in the polls. But exposure to the campaign process wasn’t kind. By December she was gone, not even making it as far as the first contest in Iowa.
Harris ended up as Biden’s running mate in one of those check-the-boxes exercises. He had publicly committed to selecting a woman and in the racially-charged atmosphere of 2020, her colour was a bonus.
What could be politically more advantageous than a Black woman for vice-president?
It must have seemed like a masterstroke.
In practice, it’s not turning out so well. There’s even a suggestion of discussions behind the scenes about the prospect of easing her out.
The concern has to do with 2024.
Given Biden’s advanced age and the niggling concerns about his capacities, there’s a non-trivial chance he won’t see out his full term. And if Harris succeeds and heads the 2024 ticket, the fear in some circles is that electoral disaster would follow for the Democrats.
The thought of replacing vice-presidents isn’t new.
Although he’d served four years as vice-president to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Henry Wallace was dumped as running mate in 1944. Roosevelt’s shaky health and the prospect of his not surviving a full new term – which he didn’t – made the Democratic leadership very uneasy. Wallace’s political views were well to the left of the mid-1940s mainstream, plus there was the matter of his eccentricity. He was deemed way too big a risk.
In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower tried to nudge his vice-president, Richard Nixon, off the ticket. He suggested Nixon could polish his future credentials by gaining administrative experience through a high-profile cabinet appointment.
In reality, Eisenhower wanted to replace Nixon with Robert Anderson, who he described as “just about the ablest man that I know.” Anderson would then become heir apparent.
Nixon declined to play. If Eisenhower wanted him off the ticket, he was going to have to say so directly. He didn’t.
Ironically, while getting ready to run for re-election as president in 1972, Nixon found himself in a similar situation. He wanted to replace Spiro Agnew with John Connally, the former Texas governor whom he greatly admired. If Connally became vice-president, he’d be positioned as Nixon’s successor.
Agnew, however, had developed an unusually large personal constituency for a vice-president. He was a significant force in his own right and thus too risky to discard.
What these examples had in common was timing. The undesirable vice-president would be dropped as running mate at election time.
Vice-presidents aren’t like cabinet members. Technically elected in their own right, they can’t be fired during their term.
Yes, a president can make a vice-president’s life miserable. But absent something like impeachment and conviction, the president is stuck with the vice-president for the term’s duration.
So if Harris is to be eased out, she’ll have to be induced to resign. Otherwise, it’s a matter of waiting until 2024 and not reselecting her.
In the meantime, those worried will need to keep their fingers crossed for Biden’s health.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit. For interview requests, click here.
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