Can the Democrats “Rehabilitate” Kamala Harris? They May Have No Choice

Like it or not, if Joe Biden does decide to step down, or is somehow forced out of office, there’s only one person who can possibly replace him:  VP Kamala Haris.  Thanks to the Democrats’ abject refusal to pressure Biden to step aside last year, and to Biden’s own Mexican-style kibosh on the idea of a genuinely competitive primary, other possible replacements aren’t well known enough to stand in Biden’s place.  Sure, there are some highly competent governors out there, with solid track records – among them Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer or Maryland’s Wes Moore – but they have no real standing with the voters.  California’s Gavin Newsom is the best known of the bunch:  he’s handsome, smooth and articulate and has even made some foreign trips – including one high-profile visit to China – to suggest a familiarity with global issues. But his popularity at home has cratered; it’s doubtful that he could make a credible claim that his track record in California thus far has qualified him for the presidency.

The fact is, even if the party thought any of these state executives could be quickly catapulted into the limelight in the space of just four months, and passed off as presidential timber, Democrats would still face an enormous credibility gap with their hardest core base voters, namely Black women, who adore Harris, and are insistent that she be considered as Biden’s only legitimate heir apparent.

Black women feel this way for good reason. They are, and have been for some time, the moral conscience of the party as well as its primary mobilizing support network, especially in key election battlegrounds like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan, which they helped deliver to Biden in 2020.  Black women, unlike Black men, who have begun drifting increasingly toward the GOP under Trump, are dyed in the wool Democrats, voting more than 95% for the party’s standard-bearer, year after year, almost regardless of the candidate and his complexion, White or Black.

Many Black women in the party are aware – as are Democrats generally – that Harris hasn’t always acquitted herself well in her current VP role, but they feel that Biden hasn’t utilized her properly – assigning her one token high-level portfolio after another and preferring to use her as scapegoat or lightning rod for his own failed policies – for example, on the border,  Some even accuse the president and his team – which has often been at odds with Harris’ senior staff – or setting her up to fail.

So can Harris now be rehabilitated in the eyes of swing voters including many Democrats, who have quietly written her off as a viable replacement for Biden?  I think she can – and indeed, the party may have no choice.

In fact, Harris’ approval numbers have climbed steadily in recent months, largely because for the first time she has assumed a public role for which she seems better suited – advocacy on behalf of reproductive rights.  She’s also become a fervid advocate for a tougher stance toward Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza, denouncing the killings and explicitly calling for a ceasefire.  While Biden has awkwardly tried to straddle support for Israel with greater humanitarian concern over Gaza war victims – and has publicly criticized Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for his intransigence on peace and a crease-fire – Harris has sought to counter-balance that stance with a more explicit tilt toward the Palesitinians – a position closer to that of younger voters and minority voters increasingly disaffected from Biden.

Is this really just a version of good-cop bad-cop – allowing Biden to seem less pro-Israel than he really is?  Perhap, but it’s also given Harris a much more credible political role – not as a campaign prop or figleaf, or worse, a widely ridiculed stooge for Biden’s failures, but as an active participant in shaping not only administration policy but also its presentation to key voter groups and to the world at large. It’s made her the kind of VP that people were hoping for all along.

Some of the latest approval numbers for Harris are indeed striking, given where she once stood.  Last year, Harris had sunk to a woeful 34% in a New York Times/ Siena poll, considerably lower than Biden’s rating at 42%. But she’s been slowly climbing back up ever since – and is starting to look even better than her boss.  A just-released pre-debate Data for Progress poll finds Trump and Biden with net negative approval ratings of -10 and -11, respectively.  These are actually some of Biden’s best numbers relative to Trump.  Other polls have both men with lower ratings, but Biden trailing the former president by as much as 4 points

But Harris has a slightly lower net negative approval rating than either Trump or Biden.  She stands at just -7,  which is a breakthrough.  Even more striking, perhaps, Harris only trails Trump by 3 points in the poll’s head-to-head contest, 45% to 48% – the same close margin as Biden, and within the poll’s margin of error.  And in a must-released CNN poll, conducted post-debate, she still trails Trump by just 3, but Biden has fallen to 6 behind – a deepening sign of her potential electability advantage over the current president.

Compare these results to where Harris was back in 2022.  In a Harvard-CAPS poll that March, she trailed Trump by double-digits, 49%-38%.  A McLaughlin & Associates poll as recently as this January had her at 42%, compared to 50% for Trump, a slight improvement, but still trailing significantly.  But all of these polls were conducted prior to her latest emergence in the public limelight alongside Biden, when she’s been acting and speaking out independently on abortion and the war in Gaza.

It’s not really clear what impact, if any, Harris is having.  Is she effective as a Biden surrogate with key voter groups?  Pollsters have detected a slight uptick in support for Biden in the very latest polling – a 2 point shift back his way in some of the swing states where he was trailing badly, especially Arizona, Nevada and Georgia.  Was the shift due to a belated reaction to Trump’s conviction in the Stormy Daniels hush money case, as some pundits suggest?  Perhaps – that’s one explanation.  But Harris has been very visibly barnstorming those very same states over the past month, which means her efforts may be having a real impact on the balance of the race.

One of the key questions about Harris is where her new support is coming from – and how much she might be able to expand it moving forward.  A CBS News/YouGov poll of 2,335 voters last September found that just 10 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of independent voters approved of Harris, compared to 78 percent of Democrats.  More regent polling suggests that she is gaining on favorability among both Democrats as well as independents – with 18% of voters still undecided or saying they don’t know how they feel about her.  Which means with her net favorability rating now slightly higher than Biden’s or Trump’s, the vice president may still have considerable room to grow.

If Harris replaced Biden, she wouldn’t have to shoulder the burden alone. One critical way to bolster her candidacy would be to find the proper VP candidate to stand beside her.  It’s often forgotten now but back in 2008, Democrats were worried about Barack Obama’s favorability among the general electorate, and his ability to prevail over Republican John McCain.  As broadly attractive as he was, Democrats were concerned about a backlash among White voters, especially independents that could sway a tight election. Obama, after extensive consultations within the party, decided to find a Democratic “graybeard” – someone trusted by the political mainstream to vouch for his credibility – and of course, he chose Joe Biden, an establishment stalwart who had once cast aspersions on Obama’s youth and inexperience – and indeed, his racial background.

It was a wise choice, one that Obama would later recall as the “the single best political decision I’ve ever made.”  While Obama stoked the base and preached national unity, Biden covered his vulnerable conservative flank. The Obama-Biden team rolled right over McCain.

Who might play a similar role for Harris?  Some prominent centrist Democrats like Ohio’s Tim Ryan – defeated by Trump acolyte J.D. Vance in the 2022 governor’s race – come to mind.  He previously challenged Nancy Pelosi for the party leadership – and failed.  Ryan is a moderate on abortion and could help stoke populist working class voters in the Rust Belt, offsetting Vance if Vance were to become Trump’s VP, as is now widely rumored.  Another possible candidate might be Andrew Yang, who ran in 2020 in the Democratic primary but like Harris, failed to gain traction. He was associated with the No Labels campaign and might also appeal to independents but still lacks powerful name recognition – to say nothing of a track record in office.

A better source of VP support for Harris might be one or more of the Democratic governors that some are promoting as alternatives to Biden.  The best, I think, would be PA governor Josh Shapiro, who is less well known than either Newsom or Whitmer but has the perfect profile, and is less likely to upstage Harris (besides Whitmer being another woman).   Shapiro is younger than Harris, just 51, and a first-term governor who ran in 2022 and won.  He previously served as Pennsylvania’s attorney general (like Harris in CA) and is a staunch defender of the rule of law – especially useful in a battle with a convicted felon who still faces outstanding charges.

Shapiro’s already popular in the state — in fact, far more popular than his four predecessors, according to authoritative polling by Franklin & Marshall.  Shapiro still faces a hostile Republican Senate but he’s fast gaining experience as a bipartisan negotiator. He even won GOP kudos for his handling of the state’s recent transportation disasters.  Pennsylvania is the biggest swing state in the nation – with 19 electoral votes.  It’s critical to victory in November.  Trump currently leads Biden by less than 3 points, and while the race is still volatile, Trump’s been gaining.  He won the state just barely in 2016 but Biden flipped it back in 2020 here. So, with any luck, active campaigning by Shapiro might help keep the state Blue.

And there’s something else worth noting – Shapiro is Jewish and proud of it.  America has never had a Jewish vice-president, let alone a Jewish president, so there’s a fresh precedent to be set.  He might also have something special to say to Jewish voters concerned about the Gaza war.  An extra degree of support and credibility, perhaps, for Harris to pressure Netanyahu to agree to a ceasefire.  All in all, Shapiro’s presence could lend some additional heft and buzz to a Harris-led ticket.  A sense that another historic breakthrough was in the making..

Shapiro is clearly a skillful communicator.  He recently appeared on the national news networks to defend Biden’s debate performance – and came across as a supremely articulate defender of the president as well as a rising party star.  Wearing his trademark black-rimmed glasses, he comes off as a geeky, sober and unflappable spokesman – firm in his defense, but not strident.  He states matter of factly that Biden’s record in office, not his sub-par debate performance, is what matters most.  “Here’s the bottom line: Joe Biden had a bad debate night, but Donald Trump was a bad president,” Shapiro told CNN last Saturday.  Rather than “worrying,” Democrats “need to get back to work,” he said.

It’s pretty clear Shapiro isn’t defending the president as part of an audition to replace him.  He did just become his state’s governor.  But his recent media appearances – which are likely to escalate in the weeks ahead – have formally introduced him to voters. Despite some of the hype about Shapiro in party circles, he’s far too green, and utterly lacking in foreign and defense policy experience, to be considered a serious presidential candidate in 2024.  But as a potential VP candidate for Harris, he might balance as well as amplify the ticket.

The upshot?  Democrats have every reason to think that it’s time to replace Biden as its party standard-bearer.  But it should be done in a way that preserves political continuity and the policy gains achieved by the current administration.  Harris is not only Biden’s heir apparent – she’s Obama’s.  In fact, the former president actively promoted her back in 2020, one reason hopes for her future were so bright that year. She failed to perform well in the primaries – and indeed, alienated many in the party when she turned on Biden, accusing him of racism for his past opposition to school busing.  Some also called her out for having supported a tough sentencing for drug crimes while serving as California’s attorney general.  Most of this criticism faded once Biden selected her as his running mate.  She seemed ideally suited to bolster a Biden-led effort to defeat Trump while ushering in  a bold new era of gender and race diversity at the very top of the Democratic party.

Is the party still committed to this course – or is it now so cowed by Trump’s resurgence that it’s willing to turn the clock back yet again out of a renewed sense of strategic expediency?  The party got away with expediency in 2020 – but just barely.  Biden beat Trump by a combined margin of 41,000 votes in just three swing states – Arizona, George and Wisconsin –  allowing him to prevail in the electoral college.  But the cost in terms of grassroots enthusiasm and passion for the party’s long-term vision has been great.   Biden has stoked progressives selectively – on abortion, immigration and green energy – but has utterly failed to coalesce the Obama coalition of old, or to galvanize the party to win.  Some angry base voters – including youth, African-Americans and Hispaniucs – are drifting further toward Trump or clinging to RFK, Jr. whose calls for a party more committed to national unity are striking a chord. Enthusiasm for Biden’s re-election is fading fast.  Biden’s horrific debate performance will likely accelerate those trends.

The party desperately needs a jump-start. Harris is far from perfect – no question. In fact the country might have been better served if Los Angeles mayor Karen Bass or Susan Rice, a long time national security expert, had been chosen as VP – and Harris had been named instead as Biden’s attorney general, a position for which she’s eminently qualified.  The party may have saved itself considerable angst, confusion and disarray about its leadership future ever since Harris seemed to perform so poorly.   But we’re not in the same place now.

Harris has stepped up and Democrats are out of good options.  Even if Biden remains in place, and the party tries to limp to victory in November, Harris isn’t going anywhere,  She’s still his VP.  Passing Harris over – indeed, leaving her out of the conversation entirely, which is happening presently – may well reflect a not-so-subtle racism and sexism about a Black woman’s ability to serve as the nation’s president.  It’s certainly a slap in the face to the men and women of color who have fought so hard for Biden and for the country these past four years.  It’s up to Democrats to honor and respect Harris’ role and place in the evolving leadership transition.  It can work.  It’s up to true Democrats to try to make it work. But it shouldn’t be imposed by fiat – as Biden’s nomination threatens to be.

Might the Democrats lose with Harris as their standard-bearer?  Of course, they might.  But there’s a huge risk of losing – and perhaps, a bigger one now – if they pretend that last week’s debate wasn’t a game-changer.  Staying the course is not an option anymore, but at the same time, it would be dangerous to think that the party can simply wipe the slate clean. and invent a new administration from scratch, with four months to go, based on calculations by party elites about which Biden-like candidate might prove more acceptable to the broader electorate.

The answer to the party’s dilemma is simple:  Lean into Harris.  It’s what most of the party wants, judging from every poll taken for well over a year.  She has the  name recognition, the stamina, the political clarity and the rising approval of the general electorate to lead the party to victory in November.  Let her emerge from Biden’s shadow and continue to step out on her own. With the party’s support, her confidence will continue to grow, and many disaffected base voters will feel recharged and maybe even electrified for the first time in years.  It could well make or break the Democrats; precarious hold on the Senate and could also determine their success in regaining the House.  Both are now in serious jeopardy with a badly wounded Biden at the helm.

Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, said that politicians should never “waste” a crisis.   He was referring to the Big Crash of 2007 and the opportunity it gave Democrats and Obama to make bold policy changes.  Democrats now face an internal crisis and should likewise use it wisely.   Biden’s demise was inevitable – if not now, it would come eventually, perhaps early into his next term. “Bidenism” – attempting to deflect Trump with a broad establishment “front” – is failing.  With Schumer and Pelosi, and even Sanders and Warren, well into their seventies, the party’s fast running out of its elder statesmen – and women.

Harris – who represents both the old and the decidedly new – may be just the bridge the party needs to inspire a younger, far more diverse generation to reclaim the party’s mantle of leadership for the country as a whole.  If the Democrats lose, at least they will lose with dignity, with the party ranks fired up to launch a counter-offensive.  If they win, it could well include victories in the House and that could allow the country to move beyond Trump – and Trumpism – for good.

Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at