For weeks after she was sworn in as vice-president, an Italian restaurant in Washington displayed no fewer than 10 portraits of Kamala Harris across its patio. Spread over half a block, the pictures tracked her life from student to state office holder to next in line for the grandest job on Earth. Older Washingtonians can tell you if Dan Quayle received the same billing.
Harris's case is an odd one. Democrats dearly want to believe she is a plausible winner of the White House in 2024, when Joe Biden will turn 82. At the same time, whispered qualms abound. Bad reviews of her public performances can be put down to taste. Gossip about strained relations with the president could be idle.
Harder to forget is the fact that she quit the party’s 2020 primaries early for lack of funds – some feat for a California senator. Among those who outlasted her was the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city. At times, it is hard to know what is more troubling: that her presumptive-nominee status is fading, or that it is holding up.
It is not too soon for Democrats (and democrats) to start worrying about 2024. Absent health or legal trouble, a twice-impeached Donald Trump is the likeliest Republican candidate. If he is to lose again, the alternative will have to sell well in Michigan, Wisconsin and other decisive states. It is not clear that Harris or, after three more years of wear and tear, even Biden will meet that test. Everything about the Democratic Party's ingrained culture suggests it will field one of the two regardless.
In its internal politics, the party is not so much left or right as deferential. Biden and Hillary Clinton, its past two White House hopefuls, were the establishment or at least default picks. Al Gore in 2000, the outgoing vice-president, was another whose turn it simply was. John Kerry was the grandee in the so-so field of four years later. It took the lustre of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to buck the party's innate drift to convention. No one of their gifts is likely to show up before 2024.
The liberal urge to curtsy goes beyond politics to culture. It was there in the fawning over “Camelot”, that tellingly feudal shorthand for the Kennedys in the 1960s. It was there in the idealised president of The West Wing, a Founding Father-descended moral giant and crack linguist who no doubt took stray cats in, too.
‘Eight to go’
As odd as it was to walk past, the Harris portraits were of a piece with the wider need of liberals to make heroes of their leaders. For the most part, it is harmlessly weird. Every four years, it can cause political ruin. This is a party that would let Harris or a shrunken Biden fight the next election to avoid the unconscionable lèse majesté of a contested primary.
In normal times, the Democrats might be left to get on with it. But an election in which Trump is on the ballot is existential for the whole system of constitutional government. Exactly a year on from his defeat to Biden, he still disputes it. Were he to repeat the trick in 2024, there might be a Republican Congress to assist him. What passes for the party’s anti-Trump wing thins out by the month. Of the 10 Republicans in the House of Representatives who voted to impeach him in January, two are standing down (“Eight to go,” says Trump).
In other words, mere victory over Trump is not certain to be enough: an incontestably large margin might be necessary. The Democrats have to put themselves in the minds of those legion voters who want to avoid a Trump revanche, but not at any cost. In the near term, that means taking immigration as seriously as the eternal saga of Biden’s spending bills. Before long, it will mean confronting the question of personnel.
A hotly contested primary in the incumbent party would be rare. A better candidate than Harris or a then octogenarian Biden (Trump, just three years younger, wears his age better) may not even be on hand. Whatever the teleologists say, a nation's history can hinge on the right person showing up at an opportune time, or failing to. Senator Amy Klobuchar, transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg, congresswoman Ayanna Pressley: none of the mooted challengers emits a "person of destiny" aura.
But that has to be tested, not assumed. The alternative is that Trump faces a beatable opponent through sheer Democratic inertia. In scouting for a candidate, the party must be open-minded. The hopefuls must be sharp-elbowed. The stakes are as large as anything the party might legislate before then. Tuesday’s Virginia governor election has revived the trope that US politicians campaign too much and govern too little. Democrats should beware the inverse sin. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021