What to do about Harris

Bradley Tusk

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Electorally speaking, vice presidents don’t matter. Due to a lack of anything new to talk about, the media spends an inordinate amount of time speculating on who the pick might be, but the choice rarely impacts the outcome of the election itself. There are a few exceptions. LBJ stealing Texas for JFK was helpful. Palin probably cost McCain votes, but Obama was winning that election either way. And maybe on an extremely tertiary level, the pairing of someone young and someone with experience (Bush/Cheney, Obama/Biden) or doubling down on what the campaign sees as a strength (Clinton/Gore, Ford/Rockefeller) helps at the furthest margins. But generally, who the VP is just doesn’t really matter. Except this time, it does.

Joe Biden, if he wins re-election, will be 82 when he takes the oath of office. He’s already our oldest president ever. It is not unreasonable for Biden voters to worry that he may not make it through the term. In fact, a recent NBC News poll showed that 70% of voters think Biden should not run again because he’s too old. Which means that a vote for Biden very well may also be a vote for Vice President/next President Kamala Harris. And given Harris’ numbers, that’s a problem.

FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls currently has Harris sitting with a 38.7% approval rating and a 49.9% disapproval rating. That’s pretty bad. The LA Times average has it at 41%-53%. Harris’ numbers are well below where previous vice presidents like Biden, Cheney and Gore stood at the same point in the term (Pence’s were bad but everything Trump-related is an outlier so it’s hard to factor that into trends).

Harris is currently an electoral liability. And to be clear, while many of Harris’ problems are of her own making, there’s no question that she is judged more harshly and held to a higher standard because she’s a black woman. But in an election that is going to be close — even 2020 was ultimately decided by just tens of thousands of votes in a few key states — Biden can’t afford to give voters another reason to stay home or to vote for his opponent.

To be fair to the White House, how to manage Harris was, at least initially, trickier than it seemed. Biden is like every politician ever — he desperately craves power and will do anything to hang onto it for as long as possible. If Harris became the star of Biden’s first term, then team Biden runs into the backup quarterback problem — everyone saying that Harris is ready for the big job and Biden is too old to keep going so he should step aside in 2024. It’s understandable, from a pure political perspective, why team Biden didn’t want that to happen. And maybe that’s why they saddled her with dumpster fire issues like the migrant crisis. But they waited too long to rehabilitate her, and now it could sink them.

So what should the Democrats do about it?

First, Project Harris Rehabilitation has to start today. There’s still over seventeen months until the 2024 general election. Team Biden can’t afford to wait another day. Harris famously has a hard time keeping staff. It’s impossible to make Harris more palatable to voters without very talented people managing the process on a minute by minute basis. So Team Biden needs to take a few very talented, very tough, very emotionally secure people and tell them that they have to do this job through the election no matter what and that their future depends on it. Many top operatives will resist because they know what working for Harris is like and because the odds of failure are high. That’s what makes this all the more important.

Second, give her a singular winning issue. Tech regulation is a good one. Making the internet less toxic, giving people more privacy and control over their data, and not letting companies like Meta or Amazon run roughshod over consumers is very popular. Every parent worries about what their kid is doing on the internet. Virtually every parent knows they can’t really control what happens, so they need the government to step up and reshape the rules themselves.

For example, repealing Section 230 of the Telecommunications Decency Act of 1996 would stop providing platforms like YouTube, Instagram and TikTok with liability protection that prevents them from being sued for content posted by users. As a result, their every economic incentive is to make their platforms as toxic as possible, because negative content drives far more eyeballs — and therefore advertising revenue — than positive content. But if the platforms lose their liability protection and mega-billion dollar lawsuits start coming by the dozen, their incentives change and content moderation suddenly becomes a genuine priority. If Kamala Harris can help rid Instagram of groups that show teenage girls how to cut themselves or purge after eating, she’s a hero. And repealing Section 230 has broad bipartisan support, so it’s not an impossible task. Give it to her and let her run with it. Even banging the drum and making some progress will help.

Third, double down on choice. Democrats did better than expected in the midterms not because they ran great campaigns but because Dobbs motivated people to vote. When Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, the right to an abortion was at risk but it still existed. Now it doesn’t. That’s the best thing Biden has going for him and having the first and only female VP ever constantly pounding away on this issue can only help.

But that means more than issuing pro-choice tweets or speaking at Planned Parenthood galas. Harris needs to bring the battle to the enemy. Hold pro-choice rallies in Omaha, Raleigh, and Tallahassee, testify at state legislative hearings to ban abortion, be the face of state constitutional amendments and referendums to guarantee choice. This is the issue that brings out independents, which is especially important given how bad Harris’ ratings are among independent voters (31–61 disapprove according to YouGov). It’s the issue that lets voters forgive themselves for voting for someone they know is probably too old for the job. It’s the issue that keeps Republicans either on their back foot or causes them to make stupid mistakes. It’s the Democrats’ best bet.

Maybe history will repeat itself and who the Vice President is just doesn’t matter. That would be great for Biden. But in a country this divided, in an election that will be decided on the margins, just expecting and hoping for the status quo isn’t a strategy. Kamala Harris has to become a better option. It won’t happen by accident. It will take a tremendous amount of work. And that work must begin today.

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Bradley Tusk

Venture capitalist, political strategist, philanthropist and writer.