There have been presidents who have dropped their reelection bids when the writing was on the wall, such as Lyndon Johnson. And there have been vice presidents dropped from the ticket—Henry Wallace and Nelson Rockefeller, among others. But has there ever been an election in which a party alternated between publicly encouraging its president to drop out and telling its president to run again but drop his vice president?
The bizarre message from Democrats toward their 2024 ticket has been: Will one of you please leave?
The question came to mind today while reading a Washington Post story on President Biden making clear to his team that he doesn’t like being unpopular and would in fact prefer to be popular. The thesis felt a bit obvious.
But then I got to the part of the story that said “Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who is running for the state’s open Senate seat, has expressed concern to allies that she may not be able to win her race if Biden is at the top of the ticket, according to people familiar with the conversations.”
Curious wording, that. If Biden were at the “top of the ticket.” Now, of course it’s possible that Slotkin meant “top of the ballot” and just misspoke. (It’s also possible the phrasing was the reporter’s.) But the fact remains that if Biden were to drop out of the 2024 race, Vice President Kamala Harris would be the frontrunner for the nomination. There is no reason for the vice president to decline to run as well. Which is to say, suggesting the president should drop out is, unless otherwise specified, suggesting only the president drop out.
And it is a verbal formulation we’ve gotten quite used to hearing. Biden has a primary challenge from a sitting Democratic congressman, Minnesota’s Dean Phillips; Barack Obama’s campaign guru David Axelrod is publicly nudging the president toward the door; and a recent CBS News poll found that even at this late stage, four out of ten Democrats think Biden shouldn’t run.
What do Democrats think is so great about Harris? That is unclear. We’ve already watched Democrats publicly float the trial balloon of encouraging Harris to drop out. They dared not do so explicitly, of course—they would never disrespect the first female and minority vice president that way. Instead, they took the more courteous route and simply humiliated Harris publicly.
Is Harris, Anderson Cooper asked Nancy Pelosi in September, the best running mate for Biden? “He thinks so, and that’s what matters,” Pelosi responded, sounding like a mother trying not to hate her son’s girlfriend. Asked the same question again, Pelosi responded by calling Harris “politically astute” three times in her 30-second response—the third time saying that Harris did something “politically astutely.” A trying-not-to-smile Cooper asked a third time—do you, Nancy Pelosi, think so? Pelosi responded by confidently declaring that Harris “is the vice president of the United States.” Pelosi concluded her attempt at making everyone supremely uncomfortable by volunteering that sometimes people ask why Harris isn’t doing “this or that,” which is a silly question because when you’re the vice president “you don’t do that much.”
After that debacle, if you were a Democrat going on CNN, what do you think you’d be asked? Yet the following day, when Jake Tapper posed that question to Jamie Raskin, the Maryland congressman responded with a rambling monologue about how Republicans are trying to gum up the works of government. Tapper tried again, asking the question directly. Raskin said “that’s President Biden’s choice” and that Harris “is an excellent running mate.”
Tapper tried a third time. Raskin said “I don’t know what else I can say.” Tapper said “You could say yes.” Raskin seemed to find that amusing. He did not say yes.
Not that things have gotten too much better for Harris since then. The recent CBS poll asked Democrats who they’d want instead of Biden and 65 percent “did not name someone.”
Democrats appear to believe they can meaningfully improve their electoral prospects by dumping half of their current ticket. But they have publicly expressed their doubts about both halves. If there’s a strategy here, it has yet to reveal itself. Unless the rest of us just aren’t “politically astute” enough to see it.