Opinion If Biden doesn’t run, Democrats have plenty of strong candidates for 2024

President Biden walks to Marine One outside the White House on Dec. 8. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
President Biden walks to Marine One outside the White House on Dec. 8. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

There’s real uncertainty about the 2024 Democratic presidential ticket — and that’s leading to an unjustified obsession with every move Vice President Harris makes. But there’s no reason for the angst.

In 2019 and 2020, the Democratic Party had a fairly tortured, dramatic primary process before landing on Joe Biden. But the president, struggling to get his agenda through and slipping in the polls, isn’t a sure bet to run again in 2024, when he’ll turn 82. Meanwhile, the Republican Party seems likely to nominate an extreme figure such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or even Donald Trump — and that person could well become president.

Which brings us back to Harris.

Before she dropped out in 2019, Harris was a lackluster presidential candidate, so many Democrats are wary of her being the party’s 2024 nominee. At the same time, the party prides itself on diversity and is uncomfortable skipping over an obvious heir apparent who has had a strong political career and is also a woman of color — particularly since many of the doubts about Harris are really about whether some voters would back a White male but not a woman of color.

This tension between the party’s pro-diversity posture and its doubts about Harris as a 2024 candidate led to the weird coverage of the vice president last year. There were long, gossipy articles that made it seem like whether her staffers were feuding and other rather trivial issues were major news. It’s not hard to tease out the dynamic at play: It is easy to imply, as some of Harris’s critics are, that the Californian shouldn’t be the party’s candidate for president if she isn’t up to the job of vice president. It is harder to admit discomfort with her candidacy because of her gender and race, or to acknowledge the even-more-complicated reality that Harris might have shortcomings specific to her but also that her race and gender might make it harder to win the presidency.

Here’s the good news: There’s a process for Harris to prove that she should be the Democrats’ candidate, if it comes to that, as well as for others in the party to question her and elevate alternatives. It’s called the Democratic primary.

If Biden doesn’t run, Democrats don’t need some kind of informal referendum on Harris’s presidential prospects. Several Republicans ran against then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988, former senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) took on Al Gore in 2000, and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton started her 2016 presidential campaign with little consideration for the sitting vice president from her party (Biden himself). If Biden doesn’t run, a Democrat such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) doesn’t need to and, in fact, should not justify her candidacy by suggesting that Harris is a bad vice president or is somehow unelectable. All Klobuchar would need to say is that she would be a great president, that the job is coming open and that it’s not owed to anyone. Could this be more awkward for a White male Democrat? Sure. But Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, for example, could say he was elected and then managed covid-19 in a very red state — credentials few other Democrats can claim.

You might say that a messy, protracted primary is bad for the Democrats’ chances in 2024. But Trump won in 2016 after a hard primary. So did Biden in 2020.

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That said, a 2024 Democratic primary shouldn’t be as fractious as 2020 was. That cycle, there was a real question of where the Democratic Party was ideologically. So candidates such as Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) tried to appeal to voters across the party, while Biden emphasized his centrism and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) ran left. But the 2020 presidential primary and other Democratic primaries in 2021 mayoral and congressional races suggest that the party’s dominant bloc is a multiracial cohort of voters over 45 who are more center-left than left-left. Anyone who wants to maximize their chances will appeal to that bloc, just as Biden himself ultimately did.

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In 2020, there was also a big unanswered question about the general election. Could the Democrats win back a big chunk of White voters without college degrees and carry states such as Iowa and Ohio, as Barack Obama had, or was their path the urban-suburban coalition of 2018? A related question was whether those White voters would return to the Democratic fold if the party nominated a White man. Biden was blown out among White voters without degrees (he did slightly better than Clinton but worse than Obama in his two campaigns) and came nowhere close to winning Iowa and Ohio. So there’s little reason to think Democrats need a White man as their candidate, as opposed to someone such as Klobuchar or Booker who is ideologically similar to Biden.

Finally, when we look at 2021, we can see that Biden hasn’t cracked some magic political code. Despite his White maleness and appeals to unity, Washington is gridlocked, Republican voters hate the president and his party is poised to do poorly in the midterms. It seems entirely possible that Biden runs in 2024 and loses to a Republican challenger. Democrats simply might be better off with someone new.

And they have plenty of candidates who could be as strong as Biden. Here’s a no-doubt-incomplete list of Democrats who have either won a statewide election in a purple or red state or have already proved to be a decent presidential candidate and who could run on a Biden-like policy agenda: Beshear, Booker, former Montana governor Steve Bullock, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), Sen. Maggie Hassan (N.H.), Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), Klobuchar, Sen. Raphael Warnock (Ga.), Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

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These people all have strengths and weaknesses, just like Biden, who after all was not considered a great presidential candidate in his previous two runs. Not included are other potential nominees such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and, of course, Harris — who has never won in a competitive state and made some clear mistakes as a presidential candidate that Booker, Klobuchar and Buttigieg did not.

But the great thing about an open primary is that you can prove you’re a strong presidential candidate by being a strong presidential candidate.

In 2008, Obama hadn’t won in a swing state or run for president before, but he convinced Democrats that he would be a great general-election candidate in part by doing so well in the primaries. Similarly, I think potential candidates such as Warren or Rep. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), who are left of the party’s mainstream — or Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is to its right — could run a strong primary and either move the party in their direction ideologically or else convince Democrats that they would be a good general-election candidate regardless.

A caveat: I understand that an open primary would feature lots of people harping on “electability,” some sincerely and others because they don’t like Harris or other non-White male candidates for less-than-admirable reasons and want to use electability as a pretext for opposing them. That dynamic will make it harder for any woman — and a woman of color such as Harris, in particular — to win. That’s what happened in 2020, after all.

But White women (about 35 percent) and voters of color (40 percent) form the majority of Democratic voters, so I’m optimistic that they will give a fair hearing to Harris and other candidates who aren’t White men. No, I’m not looking forward to endless Democratic primary debates either. But open primaries are good. Harris has every right and reason to seek the nomination if Biden opts not to run — and so do many other formidable Democrats.