AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
With Joe Biden fading almost by the day, discussion is ongoing within the Democratic Party and the country over whether Biden will even be on the ballot in 2024. Biden insists he will be, but the very fact that he felt the need to make clear to Barack Obama that he plans to run again is evidence of the doubts around the prospect. His supposed justification for running again is that he “thinks he is the only one who can beat Trump.” The implication is clear: Biden is only saying he will run because he believes there is no one else.
But is that true? It is worth profiling the candidates.
The Unacceptable Heir Apparent – Kamala Harris
If Biden believes, as a source told the Hill, that he is the only one who can beat Trump, it is an indictment of his Vice President, Kamala Harris. It suggests that Biden believes that she cannot beat Donald Trump or that no one who can is capable of beating her in the primary. Harris has had a rocky tenure as Vice President, with polling numbers that make Biden look popular. The broader problem she faces is that the President’s lack of confidence in her ability to step into the presidency appears to be shared widely across the political spectrum.
When it comes to Harris, for most Democrats, it is not a question of whether they think she is a good candidate or can even win, but whether it is possible to get rid of her. If not, then Biden has to run.
It is easy to list her liabilities. A polarizing figure from one of the most left-wing states in the nation, Harris oversaw a dysfunctional campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The infighting and toxic work environment have carried over to a Vice President’s office that continues to hemorrhage staff, most recently the deputy chief of staff.
On average, Harris polls around 3-4% worse than Biden. She would undoubtedly struggle in a general election in which she would be unappealing on both personal and ideological grounds. But it would be dangerous to suggest she would stand no chance. Al Gore polled horrifically as vice president, often 15% or more behind Republican candidates, before effectively tying George W. Bush in the 2000 general election.
The problem for the Democratic Party is that displacing Harris would cut strongly against the party base’s commitment to promoting African American women in public life—a commitment exemplified by Biden’s pledge to nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court, which was instrumental in his victory in the South Carolina primary.
No Democrat seeking the presidency wishes to provoke the ire of a Democratic electorate tightly in the grip of identity politics. These challenges will confront anyone who runs against Harris for the nomination. The strategy adopted by her detractors appears to be a coordinated campaign of leaks to keep her from running in the first place—either by forcing her to forgo presidential ambitions voluntarily or by convincing the wider Democratic electorate that there is no choice but to abandon her.
The Challenger in his own mind – Pete Buttigieg
Mayor Pete, the Secretary of Transportation, seems to genuinely believe that he is engaged in a power struggle within the administration with Vice President Harris for the succession. Outside of the Beltway press corps, which may simply be enjoying the leaks, the only other person convinced Pete Buttigieg is a credible challenger to Harris, much less a possible general election winner in 2024, is Harris herself, whose paranoia about Buttigieg may explain why Biden is reportedly pushing the idea.
Stepping away from the media bubble, Buttigieg is the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city of 50,000, and may or may not have won a single state in a caucus. He was a McKinsey analyst who left before age 30, usually a tell-tale sign of a failure to make it into management, especially with a Harvard pedigree. He combines all of the social elitism of Democrats that comes with an Ivy League degree and a stint at McKinsey with a managerial approach to centrism which will offend both left and right. The right will see in him the same sort of technocrat who shut down the country for COVID. The left will see him as a corporatist with little chance for African American support.
Why, then, is he being pushed as a potential contender? A possibility is that Biden is hoping that by encouraging Pete to go after Kamala, there is a chance the two might eliminate each other. And Buttigieg is either vain or foolish enough to go along thinking he may come out on top. But it does not seem likely that Buttigieg is anymore a viable successor than Harris.
The Queen Across the Water (Or on Martha’s Vineyard) – Michelle Obama
Suppose Mayor Pete lacks appeal to a major faction of the party base and reminds millions of voters of their most annoying college roommate, all while discarding Kamala risks offending women and African Americans. In that case, there is one figure who provides an answer to both problems. Such an obvious answer is that she will likely become the center of Democratic fantasies and a major draft campaign. That is Michelle Obama, the former first lady.
It is said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and Democrats are nostalgic for the Obama years when they won Florida, Iowa, and Ohio twice. As the Democratic Party has been taken over by mediocrities or woke extremists, Obama has loomed larger as the last symbol of the party before the storm. Barack Obama cannot run again, but his wife could, and it makes sense that many would fantasize about her running to reclaim her husband’s crown and save the party from its troubles.
The problem is that Democrats yearn for Michelle to save them as an alternative to trying to save themselves. The appeal lies in Michelle Obama, the symbol, not the real woman who was divisive and far from universally popular when her husband was president. That is likely to make the fantasy more of an excuse not to reckon with the choices available than an alternative.
It is unlikely but not impossible Michelle Obama will run. But if she does, the reality will be less impressive than the myth. For one thing, Michelle Obama has shown little inclination to put in the work required on the political side. She has rarely campaigned for candidates or raised money. The impression is that while she might accept a draft for the nomination if it was offered to her, she would only consent to run in the event it was uncontested. This is not a unique problem; it has afflicted “savior” candidates going back to Wesley Clark in 2004 and Rick Perry in 2012. They polled well until they announced and then imploded when it became clear they only announced because they had polled so well they assumed they would not have to campaign at all.
Nonetheless, as 2024 approaches, expect chatter about Michelle to increase exponentially. The idea is far more appealing than that of Harris or Pete Buttigieg.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis
The above candidates are those with a national profile and base. If Biden does not run and Kamala Harris does, the odds are that only Buttigieg and Michelle Obama could realistically contest Harris, and only Obama has any real chance of success. If, however, Harris is removed from the scene, either by her own decision or through some intrigues on the part of Biden, then the field is open to a wider set of candidates. As a whole, Democrats are still suffering from the loss of an entire generation of up-and-coming “Red State” politicians in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. Nonetheless, they have a few governors who might be viable candidates – perhaps chief among them Colorado Governor Jared Polis.
It is interesting to compare Jared Polis to Pete Buttigieg, and not just because they are both gay. That is about the only thing they have in common. While Buttigieg worked as an analyst for McKinsey and never advanced, Polis founded his own company at 21 while still in college, selling it for $750 million in 1999 at the ripe old age of 24. Not content to be a young millionaire, he founded a second company, ProFlowers, with the famed Arthur Laffer, the inventor of the Laffer curve, which informed Reagan’s tax cuts, selling it for nearly half a billion in 2005. He served a decade in Congress before being elected Governor of Colorado in 2009.
As Governor, Polis broke with Democratic orthodoxy on COVID-19, suggesting that there was no justification for further restrictions once vaccines were available and that safety was ultimately an individual choice. Polis is without a doubt left-wing, but he breaks with party orthodoxy on issues where it is unpopular, unlike Harris, and he has genuine accomplishments, unlike Buttigieg. He seems likely to cruise for reelection in a state about as blue as Virginia when it elected Glenn Youngkin.
Polis would probably be on the liberal side to win a general election, but if Democrats wanted a liberal and gay candidate, they could do a whole lot worse. His advantage in a primary would be close links with the tech sector as well as a Western base.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer
Whitmer has perhaps a less liberal policy record overall than Polis, but she is far more abrasive. If Democrats are dead set on a female candidate from a Midwestern state, Whitmer appears to have a substantial following. She gained national attention following a kidnapping plot that ended in no convictions for the accused and serious allegations against the FBI. Michigan will be key in any general election.
Whitmer’s major challenge, however, will be winning reelection. That will not be easy. Biden is deep underwater and, unlike Polis, Whitmer locked down her state hard rather than trying to reach a consensus with local governments, which allowed Republican areas to pursue their own course. If she wins, expect her to be the rapid favorite of the national media looking for a female who can win back the heartland for Democrats.
Kentucky Governor Andrew Beshear
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Democrats dreamed of a red state governor, preferably with a southern twang, who would rescue the party from its identification with coastal elites. Over the last decade, the breed has nearly gone extinct. Just three Southern Democrats remain as governors: John Bell Edwards in Louisiana, who is disqualified due to his pro-life convictions even if he was not engulfed in a law enforcement coverup; Roy Cooper of North Carolina, whose profile is held down by the weakness of the governor’s office in the face of a Republican legislature and Democratic frustration with North Carolina’s trends; and Andrew Beshear, the Governor of Kentucky who defeated a GOP incumbent in 2019, and despite a GOP legislature which can override his vetoes by a simple majority, has managed to earn widespread popularity. Morning Consult recently had him at a 59%-36% approval rating.
Beshear would likely have issues breaking through in a primary, especially as Polis and the candidates with coastal bases would find it easier to raise money. But the idea of the Governor of Kentucky heading the ticket would nonetheless appeal to panicked Democrats, and that by itself will provide him with an audience. His father, also a governor, was responsible for setting up a state healthcare exchange under Obamacare, which many Democrats see as a model nationally.
There are, of course, other candidates. AOC will still be too young to run in 2024, and it is hard to see other members of the Squad running as more than promotional schemes. As for the Senate, it is full of those who see themselves as future presidents, but the unpopularity of the institution among Democrats who wish to see it abolished, along with the perception that Senate Democrats have been ineffective, will hurt their appeal in the same way GOP senators struggled in the 2016 primaries. Finally, the leading Senators are getting old. Elizabeth Warren will be 75. Amy Klobuchar will be 64.
Regardless of who earns the Democratic nomination in 2024, they will likely face stiff competition from the Republican candidate – Donald Trump or otherwise. With unified control for the first time in more than a decade, Democrats have proven themselves both extreme on policy and woefully incompetent at governing. The Democratic primary contest may thus already largely be a battle for second place in the race for the White House.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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