Kamala Harris tries to hold the line for Biden as Democrats panic over election

Kamala Harris and Joe Biden
Kamala Harris and Joe Biden

Washington | By the time Vice President Kamala Harris stepped into her third fundraiser since President Joe Biden's disastrous debate last week, she had her routine down.

Yes, she conceded to a few dozen donors in San Francisco, the president's performance was “not his finest hour.” However, she said, “the outcome of this election cannot be determined by one day in June.”

It's not the kind of rhetorical two-step that any running mate would want to be practicing just over four months before the election, but Harris has little choice. She's trying to help Biden stave off a death spiral in their campaign for a second term after the 81-year-old president's faltering debate appearance magnified concerns about his ability to beat Donald Trump and serve another four years.

The moment could hardly be more delicate for the 59-year-old Harris, who is the first woman, Black person and person of South Asian descent to serve as vice president. Although some Democrats have pointed to her as a logical successor if Biden steps aside, others are drawing up wish lists of potential replacements that don't include her on the ticket at all.

Depending on how the coming days and weeks unfold, her work on Biden's behalf could lead to a political dead end, or secure her future within the party by providing fresh opportunities to prove her doubters wrong.

Chad Griffin, a member of the campaign's national finance committee, said the White House was fortunate to have a vice president that is “tough as nails” and “out there defending the president and talking about the stakes of this election.”

“They're a team,” he said. “And we're increasingly seeing the other half of that team.”

A wounded Biden appears to be pulling Harris closer. They were scheduled to have one of their occasional private lunches on Wednesday, and the vice president was belatedly added to the schedule for his Fourth of July celebration at the White House on Thursday.

Risks and rewards as Harris elevated

None of this comes without political danger for Democrats. Harris' favorability ratings are low, and she's a frequent target for Republicans, who say she's waiting in the wings in case Biden isn't able to complete a second term. “Vote Joe Biden today, get Kamala Harris tomorrow,” said an advertisement from Trump's campaign.

But for now, Harris is Biden's top advocate as he faces calls to shake up his campaign or end his reelection effort. Her presence has been a balm for some anxious Democrats, such as the donors who gathered for a fundraiser in Los Angeles on Saturday.

Harris paced the stage with a handheld mic — Biden sometimes uses teleprompters even during fundraisers — as she acknowledged “the elephant in the room," meaning Thursday's debate. Then she swung her focus to Trump, who she described as a liar and a threat to democracy.

“You see how much hasn't changed?” Harris said. “So, let's deal with what we've got, right?"

Griffin said “there was this sigh of relief” from donors afterward. Some said “we want to see more of that” or “the gloves are really off.”

Only 39% of U.S. adults have a favorable view of Harris, which is in line with Biden's 40%, according to an AP-NORC poll conducted in June. However, her unfavorable rating is 49%, lower than Biden's 57%, and 12% said they weren't familiar enough with Harris to have an opinion of her.

The numbers mean there's risk and reward in spotlighting Harris, with room for public opinion to swing in either direction.

Next in line for the presidency

There's no easy way for Democrats to force Biden to relinquish the nomination, which is scheduled to be finalized with a virtual vote before the party's convention in Chicago in August. There's also no precedent for a major party presidential candidate to drop out of the race at this point.

But if Biden steps aside, there's a wide array of Democrats who are primed for a shot at the White House, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

However, there are clear advantages for Harris. Under campaign finance rules, she could easily tap the money that's been raised for Biden's reelection. She also has hard-to-obtain foreign policy experience, after crisscrossing the globe on the White House's behalf and meeting with dozens of world leaders.

Some have called for Democrats to nominate Harris or at least accept her as Biden's clear successor.

Former Rep. Tim Ryan, who fell short in his campaign for a Senate seat in Ohio, said that “it's time” for Harris to replace Biden on the ticket and provide “generational change.”

Rep. Jim Clyburn, an influential Democrat from the key primary state of South Carolina and a co-chair of Biden's campaign, said he would back Harris if the president wasn't in the race.

“This party should not, in any way, do anything to work around Ms. Harris,” he told MSNBC. “We should do everything we can to bolster her, whether it's in second place or at the top of the ticket.”

The vice presidency can be a trap for ambitious politicians, and they're more likely to ascend to the presidency because of death than get elected on their own.

Oftentimes they're too closely tied to the current administration to represent a path forward, or voters are accustomed to seeing them as a sidekick rather than a leader, said Joel K. Goldstein, a vice presidential historian.

“The vice presidency is the best springboard," he said. "But being vice president doesn't mean that you're going to automatically get the nomination, or going to get the nomination without an effort."

During an interview with The Associated Press last year, Harris dismissed the idea of her replacing Biden as “hypothetical,” saying “Joe Biden is going to be fine, so that is not going to come to fruition.”

However, she said every vice president has needed to be ready to step in if necessary.

“I'm no different,” Harris said.

Harris' task

Harris and Biden advisers said the vice president's role hasn't shifted since the debate. She was already leading outreach to key demographic groups, such as Black people and young voters, and pushing for reproductive rights after the Supreme Court ended the nationwide right to abortion.

Harris has also helped Biden fend off questions about his age before, such as when special counsel Robert Hur released his report on the president's handling of classified documents. Although Hur concluded that no criminal charges were warranted, he described Biden as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

The following day, Harris called Hur's report “gratuitous, inaccurate and inappropriate.”

But there's no question that the spotlight on Harris has brightened since the debate. A preview came on Thursday shortly after the debate ended.

Her team had previously arranged for a series of television interviews, which is standard practice for big moments like the State of the Union. But as Biden faltered, it quickly became apparent that Harris would be the White House's first line of defense.

She conferred with Biden's braintrust, which was in Atlanta for the debate, and told them that she was going to say that the president had “a slow start” but a “strong finish," according to a person with knowledge of the conversation.

That description was an understatement but one of the first concessions that Biden did poorly. Harris also helped set the tone for the campaign's response to the debate by attacking Trump as having “lied over and over and over again” and shifting the focus to Biden's overall record.

“I'm not gonna spend all night with you talking about the last 90 minutes when I've been watching the last 3.5 years of performance,” she said.

The interviews drew some over-the-top praise from commentators who compared Harris' coherence with Biden's convoluted and sometimes nonsensical answers. That drew some eyerolls from Harris allies.

The vice president "has been right under their nose,” said Jamal Simmons, Harris' former communications director. “This is who she is.”

“People who are on Team Harris are very familiar with her being underestimated," he said.

Top White House aide urges staff to tune out ‘noise'' and focus on governing during debate fallout

Washington | White House chief of staff Jeff Zients urged people during an all-staff meeting on Wednesday to tune out the “noise” and focus on the task of governing as senior aides scramble to contain the political fallout from President Joe Biden's disastrous debate performance.

Even as Zients acknowledged that the days since the Atlanta matchup between Biden and Republican Donald Trump have been challenging, the chief of staff stressed to White House aides the accomplishments and the track record of the administration, and said governing will only become more crucial once the campaign season heats up, particularly after the Fourth of July holiday, according to a White House official.

The president himself began making personal outreach on his own, speaking privately with senior Democratic lawmakers such as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Delaware Sen. Chris Coons and South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, according to a second White House official and others with knowledge of the conversations.

On Capitol Hill, there is increasing anxiety with each day as Biden has been slow to reach out to top Democrats and rank and file members, according to people familiar with ongoing conversations. Democrats are unsatisfied with the explanations of Biden's debate performance from both White House staff and Biden himself. And there is a deeper frustration among some Democrats who feel like Biden should have handled this much sooner, and has put them in a difficult position by staying in the race.

Zients tried to rally the staff's confidence in Biden's reelection apparatus, noting that the president has a “strong campaign team” in place and that the White House's job was to focus on continuing to implement Biden's agenda. He also told staff that Biden has always made it through tough times, despite being counted out over his decades in public office.

The chief of staff also encouraged aides to “continue being a team” and, while acknowledging the increasing political chatter, to “tune it out” and stay disciplined, according to the official, who was granted anonymity to relay Zients' private remarks. Zients also urged White House staff to ask questions and offer feedback.

Staffwide White House calls aren't unusual, but Wednesdays' 15-minute check-in came as Biden and senior White House officials were working to assuage rattled lawmakers, donors and other allies within the party amid sharpening questions about whether the president, 81, had the competency to run for a second term in office.

Biden's reelection campaign planned a staff-wide call of its own and says it will “be using emails and all staff calls more frequently to make sure you all have the latest updates and broader campaign priorities for the day,” according to a memo sent Wednesday by campaign chair Jen O'Malley Dillon and campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez. The memo insists the election between Biden and Trump will still be close, seeking to downplay the lasting effects of the debate.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were also scheduled to hold one of their sporadic lunches on Wednesday, and the president was planning on hosting an assortment of Democratic governors at the White House in the evening.

Among the Democratic governors who were planning to attend in person were Tim Walz of Minnesota, who leads the Democratic Governors Association, J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, Maura Healey of Massachusetts, Daniel McKee of Rhode Island, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Andy Beshear of Kentucky and Gavin Newsom of California, according to their aides. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy were planning on attending virtually.

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