President Biden and Vice President Harris at a White House event Tuesday
SOME DEMOCRATS and progressives appear to have convinced themselves that criticism of Vice President Kamala Harris, especially by Republicans running for their party's presidential nomination, is fueled by racism and misogyny.
Do opinion polls show that Harris is the least popular vice president since polling began? That must be, gender equity activist Lauren Leader argues in The Hill, because Harris is "on the receiving end of . . . deeply ingrained bias." Are Republicans pointing out that given President Biden's age, reelecting him could well mean making Harris the next president? They're doing so, says Ashley Harris, a CNN contributor and former Biden campaign staffer, because "she is a woman, she is a black woman." Is criticism of Harris picking up as the 2024 election draws closer? It is being driven by "the fear of a second black president," explains William Spivey in an essay for Medium.
Perhaps the most unhinged recent expression of this view comes from Jemele Hill, a prominent sports journalist, podcaster, and writer for The Atlantic. When Republican candidate Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, warned that "a vote for Biden is a vote for Kamala Harris," Hill lashed out:
"So part of the reason racism is such a terrible sickness in this country," she fumed to her 1.4 million followers on X (aka Twitter), "is because politicians like this know they can rally a certain base with the fear of OH MY GOD A BLACK WOMAN MIGHT BE PRESIDENT IF YOU DON'T VOTE FOR ME."
The problem with this line of attack is that there isn't a shred of evidence to substantiate it.
Criticism aplenty has been directed at Harris, but none of it has been about her sex or race. Far from resenting Harris's accession as the first Black, Asian, and female vice president of the United States, countless Americans happily and enthusiastically celebrated it. Her selection as Biden's running mate in 2020 received flattering front-page, above-the-fold treatment in newspapers everywhere. Senate Republicans, even those who supported Donald Trump for reelection, didn't hesitate to congratulate her on her victory.
When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, there was considerable speculation that the nomination of a Black candidate would repel some white voters. In fact, Obama's appeal to white voters was unusually strong: He attracted a higher percentage of the white electorate than the previous two Democratic nominees, John Kerry and Al Gore. To the extent that Harris's racial identity had any impact on the election outcome in 2020, it seems plausible that, as with Obama, it boosted support among white voters. Much about the 2020 election was atypical, and it is hard to pinpoint the effect of any specific factor. But the bottom line is clear: In 2016, the Democratic ticket drew 39 percent of white voters. Four years later, Biden-Harris drew 43 percent.
As a new vice president, Harris was liked. For the first six to eight months after Inauguration Day, a plurality of voters had a favorable opinion of her performance. Ever since then, however, her approval ratings have been underwater. She benefited from the honeymoon effect that most new administrations enjoy. Unfortunately for her and the White House, it didn't last. She simply isn't a popular vice president. When she has made news, it's generally been because of infighting and backbiting among her staff or because of her frequently incoherent and wince-inducing comments in interviews and speeches. What hasn't won her headlines is any significant achievement in the policy areas Biden assigned her, including border policy, water supplies, and the space program. Her performance is widely regarded as underwhelming — and it is by no means only Republicans who say so.
Some of Harris's lowest marks have come from fellow Democrats. They haven't forgotten that her bid for the Democratic presidential nod four years ago imploded on the launch pad before a single primary vote was cast. There is no indication that she has improved as a candidate. No wonder Slate bluntly advised last fall: "If Biden Runs Again, He Should Pick a New VP." When Senator Elizabeth Warren was asked if Biden should keep Harris on the ticket, her reply was coolly noncommittal: "I really want to defer to what makes Biden comfortable on his team" was all Warren would say.
Under normal circumstances, this might be dismissed as typical political chatter. But there is nothing normal about the fact that the incumbent president is 80 years old and would be 86 by the end of a second term. No chief executive has ever been so elderly. To put Biden's advanced years in perspective, he was older when he entered the White House than the previous oldest president, Ronald Reagan, was when he left.
More than three-fourths of the electorate thinks President Biden is too old for a second term, according to a new nationwide survey.
According to the Social Security Administration's actuarial tables, a man of Biden's age can expect to live, on average, 7.7 more years. By definition, many 80-year-olds will fall short of that average. It is not bigoted, mean-spirited, or a cheap shot to wonder about Biden's ability to complete a second term. When the president announced in April that he would run for reelection, his press secretary was asked whether her boss intended to serve all eight years. Her answer didn't exactly ring with confidence: "That's something for him to decide."
An overwhelming 77 percent of Americans think Biden is too old to effectively serve another term as president. Even 69 percent of Democrats say so. Of course attention is being focused on Harris — she, more than any vice president since Harry Truman, might well have to take over for a president who is unable to continue in office. That isn't a racist or misogynist observation, merely a practical political one. Harris is an unpopular, unimpressive Veep. She is a heartbeat away from an Oval Office occupied by a man in his 80s whom most voters consider too old for a second term. That and nothing else is why Harris is a political target. The color of her skin is irrelevant to her critics. It should be just as irrelevant to her dwindling band of supporters.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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