Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan argues that when it comes to the "Harris is Incompetent Stories… more would be overkill."
As true as that may be, history shows it's still a tough road from the Naval Observatory to the White House. Even, that is, for competent seconds-in-command.
Nine vice presidents have become president after their bosses died in office or resigned. Barring such tragedies, vice presidents have tried for the promotion the more old-fashioned and democratic way: by running for president as nonincumbents. That's happened 19 times. Seven of those failed even to get their party’s nomination. Ten made it that far, and two were nominated twice. But in those 12 instances, the former vice president only won the general election six times, including President Joe Biden.
As historian Tevi Troy has pointed out, until George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988, no sitting vice president had been elected president since Martin Van Buren in 1836. Harris should mind that 152-year gap.
Sitting vice presidents' chances once looked stronger. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both made the jump. But Jefferson only beat Adams in 1800 after the closest election in U.S. history, and the House had to cast 36 rounds of ballots after a never-repeated Electoral College tie. The last battle of the veeps was 1968, Humphrey v. Nixon. And that was a slog.
Vietnam forced President Lyndon Johnson not to run. Biden making such a statement would likely be a prerequisite for Harris in 2024. But even then, Humphrey only got the nod after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and a violent convention in Chicago.
By 1968, Nixon had already lost a national election once. JFK defeated him in 1960. He lost again in 1962 in his bid for California governor. After that, he’d told a group of reporters, "You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore … This is my last press conference."
If Harris challenges Biden in 2024, the closest modern precedent is 1940. President Franklin Roosevelt was getting older. He’d be running for an unprecedented third term. He hadn’t made his intentions known. So, Vice President John Nance Gardner jumped in.
But his own boss humiliated him at the Democratic Convention. A voice over the loudspeaker exclaimed, "The president has never had and has not today any desire or purpose to continue in the office of president." After eight years of the New Deal, the Democratic Party faithful sat in stunned silence. A voice then chanted, "We want Roosevelt!" The crowd joined. This created the appearance that though he wasn’t looking for the nomination, there was a grassroots draft-Roosevelt movement.
FDR handily defeated a challenge from his own veep. And it turned out the unknown voice was the head of Chicago’s Department of Sanitation, a Roosevelt ally. The incident became known as "the voice from the sewers."
Besides Biden, the most recent vice president to make a run for the presidency was Al Gore. Gore distanced himself from the popular but scandal-plagued Bill Clinton as George Bush ran on a promise to "restore decency" to the White House. At one point, Gore wouldn’t even take the president’s phone calls. We’ll never know, but with Clinton’s help, Gore may have won.
The vice president’s job has long been thankless but hopeful. John Adams once said of the job, "I am vice president. In this, I am nothing, but I may be everything."
Down but not yet out, one can imagine similar remarks whispered by Adams's successor this holiday season.
Wilson Shirley served in the Office of Policy Planning as a speechwriter to the U.S. secretary of state and is a former U.S. Senate staffer. You can follow him on Twitter @wshirleyiv.