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Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Opinion I’m fine with Biden’s age because I’m fine with a President Harris

Opinion I’m fine with Biden’s age because I’m fine with a President Harris

President Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Vice President Harris and Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. make their way to the Rose Garden of the White House on May 25. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post) 

“I’m not going to spend the next 13 months pretending I’m confident that an 86-year-old (Joe Biden’s age in November 2028) would be up to being president of the United States. You shouldn’t either. The answer to questions about Biden’s age is simple: “Yes, there’s a chance Vice President Harris becomes president — and that would be fine.”

Is that hard to say? Apparently. During separate interviews on CNN last week, former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), two normally very confident speakers, seemed to dodge saying directly that Harris is a strong running mate for Biden.

A clear majority of American voters, including a huge bloc of Democrats, are worried about Biden’s age. That naturally invites more discussion about Harris than her predecessors, who weren’t serving under 80-something presidents. But instead of acknowledging concerns about Biden’s age and the resulting attention on Harris, the Democratic Party appears to be going with a two-pronged strategy: confident statements about Biden’s health and aggressive dismissal of those who raise this issue. They claim it’s a media-driven obsession, even though my friends and relatives who bring up Biden’s age are the ones who consume the least political news.

This approach is not only normatively bad (“To save democracy, no one should talk about the potential dangers of having an 86-year-old president”) but also probably fruitless. It’s almost certainly not going to stop people from talking about Biden’s age. (Donald Trump being 82 in 2028 is also not ideal, and we should also closely scrutinize his running mate if he wins the Republican presidential nomination.)

A few months ago, my colleague Matt Bai called for Biden himself to be direct about the prospect of a Harris presidency. “I’d make her a constant fixture at Biden’s side in public events and in the kind of extended interviews she’s mostly avoided doing. I’d turn the campaign into what Hollywood calls a ‘two-hander’ — a show with two protagonists,” he wrote.

I respect Bai’s view, but I’m not sure that casting Harris as essentially a co-president is the right approach.

Instead, no matter what Biden and official Democratic Party officials say, the 81 million or so of us regular citizens who voted for him in 2020 — and will do so again — should be upfront about Biden’s age and what it means. If you are talking to a friend who is undecided or probably voting for Biden, but worried about him being so old, try something like this: “President Biden is flying around the world, giving long speeches and making tons of complicated decisions. He’s very up to the job right now. I hope and expect he will be able to serve his full four-year second term if reelected. That said, he’s 80 — so no one can promise he will be in great health in 2028. But Vice President Harris of course could step in if needed. She has plenty of experience — and the presidency isn’t a single person anyway. All of the people helping Biden would be by her side, too. And a President Harris would be much better than a President Trump.”

This is obviously a more honest answer. Think about the 80-year-olds in your life. I assume you are closer to politely asking them to stop driving than asking whether they will run for city council or mayor, let alone president. I get that Biden is no ordinary 80-something. But I would have said the same thing about Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in 2019 or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last year — and now both are struggling with health problems.

Why aren’t Democratic officials already being straightforward about the potential of a President Harris? They probably think some swing voters in Michigan and Wisconsin would back Trump over Biden if the incumbent signaled Harris could be taking over in a year or two. I’m skeptical there is a decisive number of such voters, but Hillary Clinton, the only female major-party presidential nominee in American history, did lose Michigan and Wisconsin to Trump. I happen to think a more convincing message to those voters is that Harris would be a better president than Trump, rather than promising Biden will be in great health in 2027.

But there are two other, more troubling explanations. One is that the Democratic Party has a personality cult problem. Democrats mock the Republicans for being obsessed with one man (Trump). They should look in the mirror. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the opinion striking down Roe. v. Wade, accomplishing a long-cherished goal of conservatives. I haven’t seen Republicans purchasing “the Notorious SAA” merchandise. (The late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a liberal icon in her final decade on the court.) Former Republican House speaker Paul D. Ryan pushed through a huge tax cut. He didn’t stay in the House very long after his speakership ended, nevermind be given an honorary title like “Speaker Emerita” by his colleagues. (Pelosi.) Democratic Party officials send Barack Obama to campaign in nearly every major statewide election, as if it’s still 2008.

Biden is the new Democratic superhero. Over the last few years, party officials have acted as though he personally slew Trump, saved democracy, fixed the economy and made Washington bipartisan again. They can’t easily flip on a dime, and admit perhaps other candidates could have defeated Trump in 2020, the economic policies of the administration emerged from the party’s intellectuals, not Biden, and the staffers who actually cut deals with Republicans on Capitol Hill could work under a President Harris too.

The second issue is that I suspect many Democratic officials don’t actually think Harris is up to being president. There has been constant sniping about her the last four years within the party. “Her campaign was bad”; “How did she blow that interview?”; “Why are so many of her staffers quitting?” I assume a lot of party officials have internalized the Harris bashing and now have an overly negative view of the vice president.

I would have preferred a super wonk such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to be the vice president and potentially Biden’s successor. Harris isn’t known to be a leading thinker on policy issues. But most of our previous presidents haven’t been that either, and Biden is no exception.

It’s hard to imagine a President Harris would make as many policy decisions thatlook bad in retrospect as Bill Clinton did, never mind the catastrophic tenures of George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Harris can be a competent president. In fact, I would prefer Harris as president to Biden in some ways. She seems less fixated than Biden on recreating the past, with bipartisanship in Washington, a manufacturing-centric economy and a Democratic Party strong among White voters without college degrees. She seems more willing than Biden to acknowledge and fight the growing radicalism of the Republican Party.

So I’m going to spend the run-up to the 2024 election being honest: Biden is a solid president but not indispensable; neither he nor Harris are transformative leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; Harris might end up in the job because Biden is so old.

If the fate of American democracy depends on pretending that we are not at all concerned about an 80-year-old-president, then we were already doomed. I can’t predict the future about Joe Biden’s health and I don’t need to — I will be voting for Joe Biden for president and also Kamala Harris for president if Biden can’t serve.“

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