Inside Story

Next-in-line time?

And why vice-presidential choices matter

Lesley Russell Colorado 10 July 2024 1413 words

Backing Biden or replacing him? Kamala Harris (centre) and Jill Biden watching the American president speak at last week’s Fourth of July celebration on the South Lawn of the White House. Tierney L. Cross/Pool/Abacapress

  1. This week Joe Biden is hosting global leaders in Washington for the annual NATO summit, this time on the alliance’s seventy-fifth anniversary. Those leaders will surely be looking for reassurance in the face of Donald Trump’s threats, during his presidency and since, to withdraw from NATO. Will the United States continue to play a leading role in the confrontation with an increasingly aggressive Russia?

This pivotal time in American politics — nationally and internationally — has been engulfed by the fallout from Biden’s dreadful debate performance. The oxygen has been sucked from the room by fevered discussions about Biden’s age and health and the viability of his re-election campaign, by calls from members of Congress for him to go or stay, and by the question of how deluded Biden’s family and staffers might be about his mental and physical capacities and polling numbers.

Despite the urgency of the war in Ukraine and the need to shore up NATO financing, even Biden has said that his work at the summit will be judged in the context of his continued ability to do his job.

The White House has just announced that the president, together with NATO allies, will deliver new weapons to strengthen Ukraine’s air defences to help protect their cities and civilians from Russian strikes, and Biden has just signed a bipartisan bill aimed at bolstering the nation’s nuclear power. Yet White House media briefings have become sparring matches over Biden’s health, and the media are more interested in a letter released by Kevin O’Connor, Biden’s personal physician.

This is a nightmare for the Democrats. It severely detracts from their ability to campaign against Trump, to highlight the consequences of a convicted felon — a felon granted almost complete presidential immunity by the Supreme Court — again occupying the Oval Office, and to promote the achievements of the Biden presidency.

The coverage of the presidential debate intensified this lopsided view of the American political world, with the emphasis much more on Biden’s problems than on Trump’s endless lying. The situation has only worsened since.

Just this week, ahead of next week’s Republican convention, the Republican National Committee adopted a new party platform. Lost in the focus on Biden’s health was the fact that the document was drafted by Trump staff, was approved behind closed doors, and now more closely aligns with Trump’s views, including on key issues such as a federal abortion ban, which has consistently been unpopular in public polling.

Only the more liberal media are challenging Trump’s claim that he knows nothing about the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025, the extremist provisions of which are currently being pushed by those who see themselves as part of his second administration.

The question of who Trump will nominate next week as his vice-presidential running-mate has also been neglected. And barely anyone has noted that Trump was not seen on the campaign trail for almost a fortnight until he appeared in Florida today.

The focus on Biden’s capacity to be president now and through a second term also turns a spotlight on vice-president Kamala Harris. She is, after all, the next in line to the presidency.

Two points are worth making. The first is that Harris is very effectively assisting Biden in pitching key policy issues, including the stark contrast between Biden and Trump on reproductive health and gun control. After a rocky and much-criticised start, observers note that she has become an effective communicator and skilled advocate on these issues. Her specific campaign task is to reach out to critical Democratic constituencies, especially women and African Americans. She is also at the forefront of the party’s outreach campaign to Asian-American voters.

Second, Harris has clearly had Biden’s back during this current crisis. She routinely drags the focus back to beating Trump and away from concerns over Biden’s health. She has resisted questions about whether he should withdraw and hand the baton to her.

As calls grow louder for the president to step aside, though, some high-profile Democrats — including South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, who helped Biden win in 2020 — are unifying behind Harris as the candidate to replace him. Congressman Adam Schiff of California told NBC’s Meet The Press that the imperative was beating Trump; Biden must “win overwhelmingly or he has to pass the torch to someone who can.” Harris, he added, could “very well win overwhelmingly” against Trump.

At this point that seems a very optimistic statement. Harris’s current favourability ratings are low (no better than Biden’s) and she’s a frequent target for Republicans. “Vote Joe Biden today, get Kamala Harris tomorrow,” says an advertisement from Trump’s campaign. Latino voters will play a decisive role in this election and their support for Biden is increasingly eroding; but they are not sure about Harris (or any other Democrat) either. Reports are mixed about whether Harris’s efforts to reach out to young voters are succeeding.

Still, some polls offer hope. In a CNN survey released on 2 July that found voters favour Trump over Biden by six percentage points (49 per cent to 43 per cent), Harris trailed Trump by just two points (47 per cent to 45 percent), which is within the margin of error. The same poll found that independents support Harris over Trump (43 per cent to 40 per cent) and moderate voters of both parties prefer her too (51 per cent to 39 per cent).

Only Biden can decide if he will go, and at this stage that still seems unlikely. Should “the Lord Almighty” convince Biden to quit the race at this late stage, essentially only two possible mechanisms exist for choosing his replacement. As my partner Bruce Wolpe has pointed out, they both come with huge transactional costs.

The first — and arguably the most logical — would be for Biden to step aside and direct his convention delegates to support Harris. That would look like Biden playing the kingmaker in defiance of party (and voter) wishes.

The second is that Biden could release his delegates and let the party decide whom to nominate. As proposed by Democratic advisor James Carville, this might be done in a sort of mini-primary based on a series of public events and debates. That sounds to me like a recipe for chaos, a situation that would benefit only Trump and Republicans.

If something happened to cause Biden to withdraw after his nomination at the convention, then party rules give the Democratic National Committee the power to fill the vacancy after its chair consults Democratic governors and congressional leaders. In this case, Harris would be the simple choice, but there is no guarantee. It would probably be another terrible mess that would affect Democrats down the ballot in the congressional elections.

To continue with these hypotheticals, all of which fly in the face of Biden’s commitment to stay on: it has been suggested that, if Biden does quit the race, he should resign the presidency and hand it over to Harris. This would at once relieve Biden of the problems associated with being a lame duck president and better position Harris to win from incumbency in November.

Meanwhile, who will Trump put forward on his vice-presidential ticket? The Trump campaign has sought documents from at least eight potential running-mates, but who knows how the final choice will be made when it rests with a man as volatile, narcissistic and insecure as Trump. The pundits posit that Trump is looking for someone who is a successful fundraiser and that he sees the process as the casting of a co-star (although presumably not someone who would steal his thunder).

It would make political sense to choose a woman, a person of colour and/or someone who would help Trump win votes in a swing state. Given all these factors, that might put Tim Scott, a Black senator from South Carolina who has worked hard to ingratiate himself, at the top of Trump’s list. But perhaps that’s just too logical.

In the end we must worry as much about who Trump chooses to be his vice -president as we do about Biden’s continuing candidacy and Harris’s chances. Why? Because Trump’s state of health is unknown, his mental capacity is clearly failing, he is a convicted felon with more charges awaiting adjudication — and because his choice may eventually (like his previous vice-president Mike Pence) be the ultimate decision-maker on American democracy. •