WASHINGTON — The 2024 presidential campaign has a new kind of message from Republicans: A vote for Joe Biden, age 80, is a vote for a President Kamala Harris.
Historically, incumbent vice presidents are political afterthoughts. They are there to rally the party base by promoting the administration’s accomplishments, and attack the opposition while the president takes the high road.
While Harris is often fulfilling that role, Republicans are fighting hard to highlight her record and perceived lapses. On paper, at least, they have a lot to work with.
Its starts with the president. Biden, already the nation’s oldest chief executive, would be 86 at the end of a full second term. (Former President Donald Trump, the Republican front runner, isn’t far behind. He would be 82.)
Then there is Harris. Her favorability ratings in polls are dismal. She has a recent history of appearing awkward and even confused on the national stage.
As the first woman of color to serve as vice president, she represents the future of the Democratic Party, and perhaps the future of any winning coalition. And, while polling can’t directly measure racism and misogyny, it comes through clearly in some conservative commentary.
So she’s a popular target for GOP candidates and their allies.
“A vote for President Biden, it’s actually a vote for Preisident Harris . We are running against Kamala Harris. Make no bones about it,” former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, told “Fox and Friends” last month.
“He’s (Biden) stuck with someone who’s about as popular as toxic waste. Would you fly an airplane if the pilot was old and rickety and the co-pilot couldn’t land it?” asked Fox commentator Jesse Watters on “The Five” a few weeks later..
Jessica Millan Patterson, California GOP chairwoman, has a more measured view.
“In addition to President Biden, there is certainly a focus on Vice President Harris,” she said. “Not only is she the other half of the Biden-Harris administration, but she’s also the next in line to the presidency and should be held accountable for her role and record in this failed administration.”
Harris’ campaign sees all this as an effort to avoid talking about the administration’s successes.
“Republicans are resorting to the same tired, failed attacks on Vice President Harris that they tried in 2020, 2021, and 2022 because they can’t argue on the merits against the Biden-Harris administration’s successful record of delivering for the American people and fighting for freedom,” said Kevin Munoz, spokesman for the Biden-Harris campaign.
Others believe that while the spotlight on Harris will be brighter than usual for a vice president, her popularity with the Democratic base — Black voters, White suburban women and liberals — means she is still a political asset.
“I’m not at all convinced she’s a liability,” said Joel Goldstein, professor emeritus of law at St. Louis University and a scholar of the vice presidency.
“She may be very helpful. She’s been the administration’s most frequent and vocal and forceful voice on issues of importance to Democratic constituent groups.”
In February, Biden’s physician said the president was “fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency, to include those as chief executive, head of state and commander-in-chief.”
According to the Social Security Administration’s life expectancy calculator, Biden is likely to finish a second term. A male alive today at 80 can expect to live another 8.4 years.
How people age, of course, varies widely. Some continue robustly into their 80s, others slow down considerably.
The public is clearly concerned. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last month found that only about a third of voters thought Biden has the “mental sharpness” to serve as president effectively.
Americans are not used to seeing elderly presidents. Ronald Reagan was 78 when he left the White House in 1989, but had a thick head of dark hair and a demeanor largely unchanged since his days as an actor in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
Age was briefly an issue in his 1984 campaign, as no incumbent that old had ever sought the presidency.
Reagan, already on his way to a landslide victory that year, deftly ended the discussion during his second debate with Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale, then 56. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” Reagan said. Even Mondale laughed.
Reagan announced in 1994, five years after leaving office he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and died in 2004.
Conventional political wisdom is that vice presidential candidates help or hurt a ticket only at the margins. The rare modern exception was 1960, when Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson proved crucial to President John F. Kennedy’s narrow victory.
Other controversies burned brightly for a time but ultimately made little difference at the ballot box — Dan Quayle’s bumbling, Dick Cheney’s push for the Iraq war, Spiro Agnew’s gaffes and attacks on liberal elites.Their running mates all won, though George H. W. Bush and Quayle lost their bid for a second term largely because of a sluggish economy.
The analogy closest to today’s situation could be 1955, when Richard Nixon was a deeply polarizing figure thanks to his fierce anti-Communist crusades.
He became vice president in 1953, at the age of 40, second-in-command under President Dwight Eisenhower, 62 — an age then considered more advanced.
Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in September, 1955, when such events were more often regarded as life-threatening. After a round of golf at a Colorado course, Eisenhower “complained of chest pains which he thought was minor indigestion from a hamburger with onions that he ate earlier in the day,” according to an account by 9News in Denver.
He spent six weeks in an Aurora, Colorado, hospital. “Media waited day and night, catching glimpses and photos of Eisenhower in a wheelchair from the sundeck of the building,” 9News said.
Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson and running mate Estes Kefauver reminded voters that “if Eisenhower is re-elected, it was almost certain Nixon would become president,” said Goldstein.
Eisenhower won in a landslide in 1956. He died in 1969, long enough to see Nixon become president, and outlasting Stevenson and Kefauver by four and six years, respectively.
Today politicians face a vastly different media culture. Every image, every statement, every gesture and facial expression can go viral on social media.
When Biden stumbled on some steps in May on his way to a photo shoot with world leaders, or tripped and fell handing out diplomas at the Air Force Academy last month, critics trumpeted what they called fresh evidence that he was too old.
Conservatives have strung together videos illustrating what they call Harris’ “word salads.” They got a new entry earlier this month when she defined culture.
“Well, I think culture is — it is a reflection of our moment in our time, right? And — and present culture is the way we express how we’re feeling about the moment,” she recently told the Essence Festival of Culture in New Orleans. “And — and we should always find times to express how we feel about the moment that is a reflection of joy, because every — you know, it comes in the morning.”
“When I see her talking, two things strike me. She sounds like a politician, and nobody likes politicians these days,” said Carter Wrenn, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based Republican strategist. “She doesn’t sound particularly competent.”
Harris has a strong electoral resume. She was elected San Francisco’s chief prosecutor in 2003 and 2007. She won three statewide elections in California, as attorney general in 2010 and 2014 and as a U.S. senator in 2016.
Harris foundered as a national candidate three years later. Her presidential bid started on a promising note as she announced her candidacy before a spirited crowd of about 20,000 in her hometown Oakland. A lack of money and support quickly doomed the effort, and she dropped out in December 2019.
Her campaign’s failure had little to do with Republican attacks.”She had trouble raising money and finding clear policy stances to excite voters. Although she started strong, these issues and the internal turmoil within her campaign led to its implosion,” said Kamy Akhavan, executive director of the University of South California Dornsife Center for the Political Future.
In California, Republicans continue to depict Harris as someone who did not lead on big issues but waited until they were politically safer before expressing support.
As a prosecutor, she opposed a 2004 ballot proposition to soften California’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In 2019, as a U.S. senator, she backed a criminal justice reform agenda that would end the policy.
When she was state attorney general, she was against a 2010 initiative to legalize marijuana. Ten years later, she said she strongly supported legalization.
In 2015, Harris didn’t back a push to require all law enforcement officials to wear body cameras. Though she had agents in the state Department of Justice do so, she said it was up to local governments to decide.
Shortly after arriving in the Senate, Harris declared herself an enthusiastic supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All plan, calling it “the right thing to do.”
But when she ran for president in 2019, she had a different view. Harris said in a piece for the Medium web site “We will allow private insurers to offer Medicare plans as a part of this system that adhere to strict Medicare requirements on costs and benefits.”
The changes in positions all add fuel to the argument that Harris is not a good politician, Republicans say.
“No one knows Vice President Harris’ long history of failures better than Californians,” said state GOP Chairwoman Patterson.
Vice presidential running mates are historically chosen to fill a deficit in the presidential nominee’s background or provide geographic or political balance. Ronald Reagan was an actor who became California’s governor; when he ran for president in 1980 he picked Bush, a consummate Washington insider.
When Bush became the Republican nominee eight years later, he selected Quayle, a U.S. senator from Indiana 23 years his junior. Bush regarded him as a rising star of the younger generation, calling him “a man of the future.”
Barack Obama decided on Biden in 2008 because of the then-veteran senator’s decades of Washington experience. Donald Trump, who had never held elective office, was attracted by Mike Pence’s experience as a congressional leader and governor as well as his close ties to the Christian evangelical community.
Biden had pledged to put a woman on his ticket in 2020, and no one checked every political box like Harris.
He was said to be considering former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, but she had never run for office. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was reportedly in the mix, but was only seven years younger than Biden.
Florida Rep. Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief, and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams were also in the mix. Abrams, though, narrowly lost her 2018 race, and some Democrats were concerned about Demings’ tenure as police chief.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer received a look, but controversy over how she dealt with the COVID pandemic was viewed as a negative. Karen Bass, then a congresswoman and now mayor of Los Angeles, was regarded as too liberal.
Harris had her flaws. Her presidential campaign ended early and in chaos. Then there was the angry jab at Biden in a June 2019 debate, when she cited his 1970s opposition to school busing to achieve racial integration.
“There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me,” she said to him.
By summer of 2020, though, the pragmatic Biden was looking for a running mate who would help him win.
Harris had the resume. She could claim two wins as attorney general and one for the U.S. Senate in the nation’s biggest state. Her identity as a Black woman and woman of South Asian descent excited the Democrats’ multi-racial, multi-cultural base.
The optics and communicated the desired contrast: Biden, the measured, experienced statesman, and Harris, the face of the party’s future.
Harris’ favorability rating in five national polls since May is below 40%. In the Economist/YouGov survey conducted earlier this month, 39% of registered voters viewed her very or somewhat favorably. Forty-three percent regarded her very unfavorably and another 12% said she was somewhat unfavorable.
Among all women, 39% viewed Harris favorably and half unfavorably. Men like her even less — 36% favorable, 56% unfavorable.
While she does well among Democrats, only one in four independents have a favorable opinion.
“These numbers represent opportunities to GOP strategists,” said Akhavan.
“They want independent voters to fear the possibility of liberal elite Kamala becoming POTUS should something happen to Biden in his second term,” he said, and raise doubts among some older, left-leaning centrists “who think she’s been ineffective, unpopular, and a drag on the Biden ticket.”
Kathy Frankovic, a YouGov consultant and veteran pollster, sees the Harris negatives as the product of a polarized environment.
“It’s our politics today,” she said. “Typically you expect the vice president to be kind of linked to the president, but not inherit some of the bad stuff the president gets.”
People don’t see Harris much, so views of her are easily linked to their views of Biden, Frankovic said.
How much, if at all, Harris’ race and gender affect her favorability is unclear. Pollsters say that’s nearly impossible to gauge, because voters historically will not cite those factors as reasons they like or dislike a candidate.
For years, though, there have been instances where candidates of color have performed well below what polls predicted. It was called the “Bradley effect.”
In 1982, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley was the heavy favorite to win California’s governorship. But Republican George Deukmejian, upset him, as white support for Bradley proved to be far less than polls predicted.
The effect was evident for years. Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, who is Black, had a significant lead in polls when he ran for the office in 1989, but barely won. That same year, David Dinkins, who is Black, enjoyed a big advantage over Republican Rudy Giuliani, but won by a small margin.
Today, experts see a diminished Bradley effect, if there’s one at all. Barack Obama won popular vote majorities in 2008 and 2012, the first Democratic presidential candidate to get more than 50% since 1976.
Most Republicans stay away from talking about Harris and the Bradley effect, but conservative commentators sometimes don’t..
On “The Five,” Fox News’ popular afternoon talk show, panelists recently spent nearly 10 minutes tearing into Harris. They began talking as “Worst VP Ever?” flashed at the bottom of the screen.
“If you’re a black woman and you got an education you have a golden key that unlocked everything. If you get inside and you can’t achieve anything, that’s on you,” said host Greg Gutfeld..
“For a woman who had it handed to her on a silver platter because she checked off all the boxes, for her to literally fail on this job is really a sad commentary on her abilities,” former Judge Jeanine Pirro chimed in.
Harris fights back
Harris has spent nearly all of her public time lately before friendly audiences or explaining Biden administration initiatives.
She’s become arguably the party’s leading spokesperson for the right to an abortion and the need for diversity and inclusion.
Munoz, the Democratic spokesman, explained that Harris “will continue to be a leading voice on the issues that matter most to American people, and hold MAGA Republicans accountable for their extreme positions on reproductive rights, health care, and our very democracy.”
Immediately after the Supreme Court’s June 30 ruling that a Colorado woman did not have to serve a same-sex couple who wanted to use her website wedding design business, Harris issued a lengthy statement emphasizing “All people deserve to live free from discrimination.”
The decision was viewed as a setback for gay rights and other laws barring discrimination.
On abortion, Harris has spoken repeatedly about the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that provided the constitutional right to an abortion.
“The consequences of these abortion bans and extreme laws have been heart-wrenching. Women’s lives have been put at risk, as care is denied because providers fear prosecution for doing their job,” Harris said in April after voters elected a judge who supports abortion rights to the state Supreme Court.
When the issue of “President Harris” comes up, she says simply that she’s running for vice president.
In an interview earlier this month with NPR’s Miichel Martin, the host cited Republican attacks on the vice president and said “the fact of the matter is the president’s age puts you into play.”
Harris calmly responded “The president is running for re-election as president, I am running for re-election with him as vice president. And that is my focus.”
For Harris-bashers, making her unpopular is an investment in the future. Win or lose next year, she’s likely to start the 2028 presidential campaign as the Democratic frontrunner.
Harris is also the most prominent non-white candidate in a party that has thrived on building a multi-racial coalition.
“More than any VP in recent history, Kamala Harris embodies her party’s future coalition, not its past,” said Matt Moore, former South Carolina Republican chairman. That “makes her a natural foil for Republicans,” he said.
Bring it on, said Democrats. The more Republicans insult and disparage the first Black and South Asian American to be vice president, the more it will motivate those voters to turn out, said Antjuan Seawright, a Columbia, S.C.-based Democratic strategist.
“A lot of the criticism is rooted in racism, bigotry and hate,” he said. “That’s going to generate a level of enthusiasm among parts of the Democratic base.”
The Republican attacks on Harris also are a reminder that “We are the party with many women in top positions,” said Robert Mulholland, a veteran California Democratic strategist.
“The Republican Party is a white male dominated party, “ he said, “and to many people these are typical men from the 1950s,” when women were often expected to stay home and raise children.
As the campaign unfolds, the focus will still largely be on Biden. After all, he’s the president.
But he’s also the 80-year-old president.