Puck for the Win! (Yes, It Can Happen)

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Over at the velvet rope publication Puck, Peter Hamby has a good post puncturing the inane chatter that Kamala Harris will be or should be replaced as Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate. This is a kind of sub-genre of “Biden stand down” discourse, a kind of thinking man’s artisanal small batch whiskey of definitely-not-going-to-happen ideas. Hamby actually finds that there is a political scientist, George Sirgiovanni, who has done a formal study of the history of Dump the Veep talk: the gist is that the chatter happens basically every time things look shaky for the incumbent and the Veep absolutely never gets dumped. Yes, it’s happened in the distant past. But not in the modern history of the presidency or vice presidency. It doesn’t happen. So stop trying to make fetch a thing.

This is a slight statement against interest for me because I’m generally skeptical of Harris’s political chops on the national stage. This comes from initially thinking she might be the candidate in 2020 and then watching as a series of fatal flaws revealed themselves and eventually drove her out of the race. In other words I was chastened because my initial sense of the strength of her candidacy turned out to be all wrong. Maybe she’ll be a great running mate in 2024. Maybe she’ll be a great candidate in 2028. I have no idea. I am not at all invested in the opinion I got from observing her in a single national campaign. I mention this opinion only to note the far more important fact that it completely doesn’t matter. Kamala Harris is Joe Biden’s vice president and running mate. Only an act of God will change that. The whole conversation — to the extent it exists — is no more than a tacit conspiracy of bored editorialists and nervous Democrats, sound and fury signifying nothing that will ever happen.

A few additional factual points as long as we’re discussing this:

There is absolutely nothing about Joe Biden’s character, his treatment of and relationship with Harris during his presidency, or anything else that gives even the slightest bit of indication that anything like this is anywhere in the cards. We’ve had more cynical and conniving presidents who might have been tempted if they thought it would help them. As far as I can understand, the guy that is absolutely not Joe Biden.

There’s also the rather obvious dimension of Democratic coalitional politics. Let’s play this out. Joe Biden, white guy who just turned 80, has weak poll numbers and decides that the solution is to can his Black woman running mate? That should go over great. And in favor or who exactly? Gavin Newsom? J.B. Pritzker? Gretchen Whitmer? I don’t want to make everything about race, gender or coalitional politics but this is just too blindingly obvious not to see.

This gets us back to a broader issue about the whole idea that you’re going to reshuffle the incumbent deck a year before the election. It may be a fun thing to brainstorm about. But the modern presidency and vice presidency are very different from how things worked in 1832 or 1864 or even 1944. Both spots on the ticket represent and in turn nail down a whole series of coalitional agreements, compromises and delegations of power. Start picking that apart and it destabilizes the whole coalition.

Just as importantly, unlike in the distant past, these are coalitional agreements and bargains transacted on the field of mass opinion. When Democratic power brokers compelled FDR to ditch Henry Wallace in favor of Harry Truman, Veeps were generally ignored appendages and they weren’t people the public saw on a near daily basis on their TV screens and computers. The public doesn’t directly get a vote on a presidential candidate’s choice of running mate. But remember that in those days they didn’t get a direct vote on who the presidential candidate was either. The whole modern system of popular choice of nominees is only 60 or 70 years old and arguably not even that old.

Sometimes when I write these posts I’ll hear from readers who say things like “Oh, so we should just keep our mouths shut? Do what the party elders say we should, right?” But it’s really not about what’s right or anything like that. It’s about understanding why these things actually never happen, the party and coalitional dynamics and public opinion that lock these things in place. There’s only so much it makes sense to worry about or to second guess things that aren’t changing. You might as well start trying to remember if you packed your parachute correctly once you’ve already jumped out of the plane.

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