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In 2024, it could be Biden, Harris or bust

If either runs, all other Democrats face steep climb for nomination

Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden leave the Capitol following Biden's speech in Statuary Hall on Jan. 6.
Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden leave the Capitol following Biden's speech in Statuary Hall on Jan. 6. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — More than a handful of Republicans are already sniffing around the 2024 presidential contest.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Sen. (and former governor) Rick Scott and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are just some of the Republicans who might launch White House bids if former President Donald Trump doesn’t seek a second term. And some of them might take the plunge even if Trump does seek the nomination again in two years.

The Democrats, of course, have a very different situation. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are incumbents, so the party doesn’t have a long list of hopefuls for 2024.

Given Biden’s age and his current standing in the polls, as well as Harris’ mixed reviews, that’s not an ideal situation for Democrats.

First, let’s deal with the obvious. If Biden wants his party’s nomination in 2024, it’s probably his for the asking. Sitting presidents normally aren’t denied renomination.

The last serious challenge to a sitting president’s renomination came in 1980, when Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy challenged incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter. Kennedy won a dozen primaries, including those in Pennsylvania, New York and California, but Carter piled up delegates in Southern primaries and early caucus states, winning renomination comfortably.

But Biden isn’t your typical incumbent seeking reelection. He’ll turn 82 a few weeks after the 2024 election, and his job approval numbers have been terrible, primarily because the economy’s inflation numbers are terrible. It’s possible that he simply rides off into the sunset (on an Amtrak train, I suppose).

If Democrats lose the House and Senate during the midterms, as most expect, that could change the dynamics for 2024. So could Trump’s entry into the 2024 race.

Either development could allow Biden to position himself as the defender of the political center against Trump, the Jan. 6 insurrectionists and a right-wing, populist GOP that increasingly believes the end justifies the means.

Like France’s Emmanuel Macron, Biden could win reelection if the alternative — from Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Ohio GOP Senate hopeful Josh Mandel to Trump — is frightening enough.

If, on the other hand, Biden retires, Harris automatically starts off as a heavy favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2024.

Harris’ job performance rating is not much different from Biden’s. Each has a job approval of around 40 percent.

The vice president was handed a couple of “jobs” by Biden that seemed (and still seem) impossible.

First, she was “tasked with leading the administration’s efforts to deter migration to the southwestern border by working to improve conditions in the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.” And then, she was tabbed to lead the administration’s effort to protect voting rights, a decidedly uphill task given Republican opposition in the 50-50 Senate.

Overall, Harris has received plenty of criticism. She can’t point to her own successes and accomplishments over the past few years, and she has suffered through plenty of staff turnover. But vice presidents don’t make policy, and they rarely have strong poll ratings if their presidents don’t.

Whatever Harris’ shortcomings, it’s very difficult to imagine her party bypassing her for the presidential nomination in 2024, especially given the party’s demographics and the appeal of electing the first female president of the United States.

The vice president’s job approval ratings among younger voters, the more educated, women and African Americans are better than among other groups, though even among those normally Democratic constituencies her numbers have slipped.

Harris certainly benefits from the fact that few Democratic officeholders come to mind who could defeat her for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar performed well during her 2020 bid for the Democratic nomination, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has charisma and speaking skills. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg impressed some during his 2020 presidential run, as did Elizabeth Warren, who will turn 75 before the 2024 presidential election.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is an obvious name to consider, as is Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, if she is reelected in November.

But would any of them challenge Harris? And if they did, could they raise enough money and have the breadth of appeal to swipe the presidential nomination from Harris? It seems unlikely, if the past is any guide.

So, Democrats seem stuck with either Biden or Harris as the party’s nominee in 2024 at a time when Republicans are on the attack on education, the economy, inflation, crime, socialism and other themes that should benefit the GOP nominee.

None of this means that Republicans are a lock for 2024 — or that Macron’s victory “proves” that Democrats can defeat Trump if he runs again in two years. But Biden and his party certainly are not positioned where they once hoped to be.

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