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Would Kamala Harris be a better candidate than Biden? Doubtful

Would Kamala Harris be a better candidate than Biden? Doubtful

If Joe Biden is pushed out of the presidential race by elite Democrats, Kamala Harris is the obvious replacement. As numerous pundits have noted, the vice president has already outpaced Biden over Donald Trump — before she’s even had a chance to make her case.

While I’m not in the forecasting business, I’ve been around long enough to know that pundits in DC have no idea how the electorate will respond to a candidate. History is full of certainties and undeniable prospects. Many voters are reliable partisans. Many others are driven by intuition and emotion, not the kind of hard-nosed rationalism that pundits attribute to them.

In other words, it is a mistake to assume that Kamala’s popularity will increase after she presents her case to the voters. In reality, it is just as likely that the opposite will happen.

In 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s approval rating hit a historic high of 66 percent and remained above 50 percent until the 2016 presidential campaign began in earnest. Those are better numbers than Harris’s today, which stood at 36 percent in September 2018. Even among Democrats, Clinton’s approval rating fell 10 points from the start of the campaign to the election.

What happens when Harris faces a massive, heavily funded opposition campaign that relentlessly attacks her daily? Most voters don’t know much about Harris’s record. Trump’s negatives, on the other hand, are already factored into the polls. What will Kamala say about the former president that Biden hasn’t? Once you accuse your opponent of being Hitler, there’s not much room to ratchet up the rhetoric.

And what will Harris’s case for the presidency be? Won’t she be forced to fight on Biden’s record? Certainly, a change would shift the coverage away from Biden’s vulnerability. But before the media starts writing revisionist histories of the past four years, let’s remember that the administration’s policies were unpopular before anyone recognized the president’s declining mental state. Biden lagged Trump on the issues that mattered most to voters ahead of the debate.

And the top noneconomic issue for voters, according to Gallup, is immigration. The only memorable task Biden gave Harris was to contain the U.S.-Mexico border crisis. She was confirmed to the job in March 2021. In May 2022, the U.S. had its highest monthly border encounters, more than 241,000. In December 2023, that number was more than 250,000. In a 2019 appearance on “The View,” candidate Harris argued that illegal immigration should be a “civil enforcement issue,” not a criminal one. So maybe she just kept her word.

You might assume that Harris would distance herself from Biden. But consider that the reason Biden chose the weak 2020 Democratic primary was because of the perception of his moderation and decency. How will a far-left presidential candidate who didn’t even finish her first term in the Senate help Democrats in competitive states?

An outside Democrat could be more effective in recalibrating the debate. Names like Gretchen Whitmer, Josh Shapiro, and Gavin Newsom are being bandied about. But are the Democrats really going to push out not just the president, but also the first Black/South Asian/female vice president in history? Seems risky.

At the Wall Street Journal, Jason Riley argues that Harris could win over black voters to her cause. He may be right. But during the 2020 Democratic primaries, Biden drew far more support from African Americans than Harris. Biden’s connection to Obama was a bigger factor than Harris’ color. Even now, the Congressional Black Caucus is one of the president’s most ardent defenders. So maybe not.

Sure, Barack Obama has proven that you can win the presidency without any real accomplishments. Kamala, however, has never shown the political instincts that would convince anyone that she would be an effective national candidate. There is little evidence that independents or Democrats even like Kamala. Consider that she ran a primary campaign that degenerated into a bickering mess and received little support from her own party. Even as vice president, she has struggled to run an office.

A candidate who believes that pro-Hamas protesters “show what human emotion should look like” or spreads the Jussie Smollett hoax — a “modern-day lynching” — even after an investigation has been opened likely has a rich history of saying stupid things.

But then again, like I said, who knows. Maybe voters will love her confusing tautologies and irritating personality.

In many ways, Harris is already in the running. There is a significant chance that Biden will not be able to finish a second term, whether because he is mentally incapacitated, physically incapacitated, or worse. And every Democrat, the entire White House press corps, and anyone paying attention knew this before the president’s disastrous debate performance. Even if Biden stays in the race, he will not become any sharper or less fragile. Benjamin Button is a fictional character. We also know that Americans sometimes vote for candidates who are barely coherent.

Perhaps running mate is the best long-term strategy for Harris to become president.