"Open panic": Dems worry about 2024 with Kamala Harris as Biden's heir apparent

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

This LA Times piece is a few days old but perfect for Thanksgiving eve, as it’ll leave you in a cheerful holiday mood.

But many leading Democrats are increasingly public in their belief that Harris, the first woman to be vice president as well as the first Black and Asian American person, will not come into the next nominating race as the prohibitive favorite. They argue in favor of a wide-open primary geared toward finding a general election winner above all else. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is often mentioned as a potential contender, but Democrats expect others will emerge as they did in the crowded 2020 field, which also included Harris…

Some are privately discussing what veteran Democratic strategist Paul Maslin called an “extremely worrisome” problem for the party as it contemplates Trump’s potential return. The party’s loss this month in the Virginia governor’s race — a blue-leaning state that is normally seen as a bellwether — has further heightened anxiety ahead of next year’s midterm election, where the party in the White House almost always loses congressional seats.

“It’s open panic,” said another Democratic operative who would not use his name for fear of alienating the administration, adding that some party activists worry Harris doesn’t have the political skills to navigate such difficult times.


The LAT goes on to note, correctly, how unusual it is to hear well-known former senators like Chris Dodd and Barbara Boxer refer to Harris as merely one of several formidable contenders in the mix for 2024. The sitting VP is normally the presumptive nominee. And Democrats understand perfectly well how it might offend African-American voters to deny the first black woman vice president that “presumptive nominee” status. (Which likely explains why only former senators dare treat her that way, not current ones.) So it speaks volumes about how dimly Harris is viewed within the party that elder statesmen like Dodd and Boxer are already trying to shape expectations for a contested primary rather than a coronation that would leave them stuck with a lackluster nominee to face Trump in 2024.

But I’ll restate here a question I asked in a post last week: If not Harris then who? Who’s waiting in the wings to rescue the Democratic Party?

To my amazement, some White House staffers evidently believe the solution is Mayor Secretary Pete:

While Buttigieg says he’s not contemplating the race to be Biden’s successor, inside the West Wing, others are imagining it for him. His name is sometimes discussed by aides as a natural Democratic presidential nominee in 2028 — or 2024 if the president opts not to run.

“Nobody in the West Wing shuts that down,” said one person with direct knowledge of the conversations. “It’s very open.”

The chatter has frustrated some staffers of color who see it as disrespectful to Kamala Harris — the first Black woman vice president — and think senior officials should tamp it down. Some of Buttigieg’s former campaign staffers also question whether challenging Harris is feasible given how critical the Black vote is in any Democratic primary, and how Buttigieg struggled to attract those voters the last time around.


Politico excitedly cites a new poll showing that Buttigieg has the highest name recognition of any Biden cabinet member apart from Biden and Harris (which stands to reason, since he ran for president last year) but also has the highest favorable rating of any cabinet member at net +10. Harris, by comparison, is -12. Out: Mayor Secretary Pete. In: Mayor Secretary President Pete?

I don’t see it. The head of a nonprofit whose mission is to help elect black women to public office pointed the LA Times to what Biden said last year when announcing Harris as his VP pick, that nonwhite girls in Americans might now be “seeing themselves for the first time in a new way, as the stuff of presidents and vice presidents.” If Biden goes back on that by anointing a different successor, the nonprofit head said, he’d be undermining “literally the foundation for a winning coalition for Democrats. … Black women voters who have delivered time and time again as the margin of wins for presidential elections.”

Which is why, as difficult as it is to foresee how 2024 shakes out for Democrats, I’m confident there’ll be no Harris vs. Buttigieg primary. Maybe Biden will run again. Or maybe he’ll retire and Harris will run, in which case the field will clear for her — with misgivings — for fear of insulting the black voters on whom the party depends. Or maybe Harris will somehow be convinced not to run, in which case Buttigieg might conceivably have a path in an open primary. But I can’t imagine that Harris runs and Buttigieg jumps in to challenge her, knowing how much trouble he already has appealing to African-American voters and knowing that the left bears him a grudge for complicating Bernie Sanders’s path in the primaries last year. Besides, there are few politicians in America who can afford to play the long game as much as 39-year-old Pete Buttigieg can. (Someone on Twitter pointed out recently that if he ran for president in *2060* he’d be younger than Biden is now.) My guess is that, instead of challenging Harris, Buttigieg will enthusiastically support her in 2024 in hopes of landing the VP spot on the ticket. If she shocks everyone by winning, then great, he’s now vice president. If she loses dismally as everyone expects, that’s okay too. He’d be positioned as a top-flight contender in 2028 and he’d have earned some goodwill from black voters by backing Harris loyally.


Frankly, I think Buttigieg has no choice but to play the long game. I take no pleasure from saying it but I suspect too many voters would have difficulty voting for an openly gay man to make him viable nationally in 2024. And just as Dems quietly wonder if they can avoid mega-landslide margins in rural areas if they nominate a black woman for president, I’m sure they quietly wonder if they can avoid them with a gay man as nominee. If the lesson of Glenn Youngkin’s mind-boggling rural advantage in Virginia is that Democrats have become dangerously culturally alienated from voters in America’s countryside, neither Kamala Harris nor Pete Buttigieg is an obvious solution to that problem.

Exit quotation from Charles Cooke: “Absent a Nixon-Agnew-style cataclysm, the next cast of Democratic primary voters is going to have to choose one of three excruciating courses for 2024: (1) ask an 82-year-old Joe Biden to run for the White House again; (2) ask Kamala Harris to step in and take the reins; or (3) rip the party apart with a vigorously contested primary that, given the long lead-times that mark American politics, would last in one form or another for the lion’s share of Joe Biden’s post-midterm presidency.”

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David Strom 5:20 PM | April 19, 2024