Opinion: Kamala Harris is the only viable alternative for Democrats

Editor’s Note: Bill Burton is the CEO and founder of Bryson Gillette, a national political and communications firm. He previously served as deputy press secretary in the Obama White House and has worked on campaigns at all levels during his 25-year career in communications and politics. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

If President Joe Biden is not the Democratic nominee coming out of the August party convention, it will have to be Vice President Kamala Harris. So for Democrats who are still wringing their hands over Biden’s debate performance and wanting a candidate other than Biden on the 2024 presidential ticket, please understand this: Not only would backing a candidate other than Harris miss the fact that the party would pass over our well-qualified vice president, it would be politically devastating for the Democratic ticket.

The work that Harris has done to advance this administration’s economic and national security agenda has been both symbolic and consequential. She has taken on issues such as support for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), maternal health and health disparities in ways that truly matter for the American people. She is a fierce prosecutor of this administration’s agenda, and she has best-in-class abilities, as she has shown in her effective articulation of the administration’s positions and the threat a second Trump presidency would pose.

I have heard so much conjecture in progressive circles and among political punditry about plucking a candidate from somewhere across the country who isn’t Harris, but I have heard very little about how propping up those other candidates could negatively impact us electorally.

African Americans make up about 14% of the American population, yet in 2020 nearly 20% of Biden voters were Black, according to Pew Research Center. In what is anticipated to be a close election this year, the depression of a crucially important community within our party by denying Harris the nomination in a crisis scenario is not only contemptuous and degrading but also politically stupid. Passing over our first Black vice president — who is literally in this job for the specific reason of being ready to step into Biden’s place should the need arise — would create a level of anger and disappointment from the Black community that would completely disrupt our ability to keep together a coalition of voters who could make it possible to beat Trump.

Examine the specific example of Pennsylvania. In 2020, Biden won the state by 1.2% overall — which amounted to a margin of about 80,000 votes, out of nearly 7 million votes total. And that was with Biden winning about 90% Black support in the state and 92% nationwide. This time, Biden is so far trailing Trump by 3 points in Pennsylvania, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll in May. While that is within the margin of error, the poll also found that Biden’s support among Black voters in Pennsylvania was 69% in a head-to-head matchup against Trump — a significant drop compared to 2020. If that figure held in the state, that would mean a deficit of hundreds of thousands of Black voters alone, far larger than the margin of 80,000 he won by in 2020.

If you think our ticket has problems in the Black community right now, imagine pushing our nation’s first Black woman vice president aside for the fantasy of riding a blank slate to victory.

You think the ignominy of Harris campaigning for someone else is going to bring Black voters into the fold? Do you think that extraordinary institutional dismissiveness — when the institution is the Democratic Party — of the vice president is going to help attract either longtime or young Black voters?

Imagine for a moment that in some bruising nomination fight, California Gov. Gavin Newsom wins a convention selection process and becomes the Democratic presidential nominee. The next step would require that the sitting vice president change her voter registration from California to Washington, DC, as the 12th Amendment to the Constitution requires, so that another Californian could be on the ticket. The sheer indignity of the symbolism of changing her state registration for Newsom combined with the vice president serving on another nominee’s ticket, advocating for someone else’s candidacy after being passed over, is insulting and unlikely.

And the notion that Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey or Raphael Warnock of Georgia, or Maryland Gov. Wes Moore would accept knocking the vice president off of the ticket is absolutely preposterous as they all consider their own political futures.

A new CNN poll conducted by SSRS found that if Harris were to take on Trump on the presidential ballot, she would be within striking distance of winning the election; 47% of registered voters surveyed favored Trump while 45% supported Harris. By putting their efforts behind Harris, Democrats can close that 2% margin.

Then there are the logistics of the matter. The vice president is in the best position to receive Biden’s campaign funds, since her name is already listed on the campaign account. That is not an insignificant matter when the timing is so tight.

It’s important to note that none of the mentioned contenders to potentially replace Biden — aside from Harris — have gone through a national vetting. None of them have been tested at a level that could assure us of who can make it under the Klieg lights that are our national politics.

There was a time when many Democrats thought that former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who was the 2004 vice presidential nominee, should be coronated as our nominee. More recently, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in support of the “rising” Republican candidacies of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Are we prepared for our unvetted, untested Democratic nominee to flame out in the most important election of our lifetimes? I’m not.

Finally, it is worth noting that the American people have already spoken on the subject of who should replace Biden, should it come to that. More than 81 million Americans cast a vote for him — and his judgment that if something happened to him, it should be Harris in the Oval Office.

So, if you want to engage in the conversation about replacing the president on the ticket, fine — but understand that the only feasible alternative would be the nomination of Harris. Any other option kills our chances before the first balloon drops at the convention.

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