Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times
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A few weeks ago, one of France’s most famous public intellectuals, Bernard-Henri Lévy, gave an interview to The Times on his new documentary, “Slava Ukraini,” and he said something that helped me understand why, as I approach my 70th birthday, I still want to be a journalist.
Asked why, at age 74, he dodged rockets in Ukraine to bring home the savagery of the Russian invasion, Lévy said, “In Ukraine, I had the feeling for the first time that the world I knew, the world in which I grew up, the world that I want to leave to my children and grandchildren, might collapse.”
I have that exact same fear.
Which is why the focus of my columns these days has been very tight. There are three things that absolutely cannot be allowed to happen: Israel cannot be allowed to turn into an autocracy like Viktor Orban’s Hungary; Ukraine cannot be allowed to fall to Vladimir Putin; and Donald Trump cannot be allowed to occupy the White House ever again.
If all three were to happen, the world that I want to leave my children and grandchildren could completely collapse.
Israel, the only functioning pluralistic democracy in the Middle East, tempered by the rule of law, albeit imperfect, would be lost.
The European Union — the United States of Europe, the world’s other great multiethnic center of free markets, free people and human rights — would be at Putin’s mercy.
And the United States of America, with a vengeful Trump back in the White House, effectively pardoned for his many attacks on our democratic institutions and his assault on the integrity of our elections, would never be the same. Trump would be unchained — an utterly chilling thought.
It’s through this lens that I want to talk about Joe Biden’s announcement on Tuesday that he is running for re-election, joined again by Kamala Harris. Biden’s ability to finish his current term and successfully navigate another one is critical to all three scenarios mentioned above. Which is why, now that Biden has declared that he is running, he absolutely has to win.
But while you may think the 2024 election is very likely going to be a rerun of 2020, that is not the case for the Democrats. This time, Biden’s running mate will really matter.
We are always told that, in the end, people vote for the candidate for president, not for vice president. But because Biden would be 86 at the end of a second term — and therefore the chance of his health failing is not small — people will be asked to vote as much for his vice president as for him, maybe more than in any other election in American history.
The most recent FiveThirtyEight average of all the Biden-Harris approval polls found that 51.9 percent of Americans disapprove of Harris’s job performance and 40 percent approve, about the same numbers as Biden’s.
Let me be clear: I voted for Joe Biden, and I do not want my money back. He is a good man, and he has been a good president, better than the polls give him credit for. The Western alliance that he put together, and has held together, to counter the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a master class in alliance management and defending the democratic order in Europe. Ask Putin.
The way Biden has told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he is not fooled by — and will not be indifferent to — Netanyahu’s judicial coup d’état masquerading as a “judicial reform” has been a tremendous source of encouragement for the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have taken to the streets to defend their democracy.
And on the domestic issues I care about most — rebuilding America’s infrastructure, ensuring American leadership in the manufacture of the most advanced microchips that will power the age of artificial intelligence, and incentivizing market forces to deliver the huge scale of clean energy we need to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change — Biden has delivered beyond my highest hopes.
Joe Biden would be my candidate, no matter what his age, as long he was physically and mentally able, because I see no other Democrat with his blend of political skills, his core belief in the necessity and possibility of national unity, his foreign policy savvy and his ability to disagree with Trump’s supporters without trying to humiliate them. He authentically wants to get the poison out of our political system.
But … I am keenly aware that plenty of Americans don’t share my views. I realize that the roughly 30 percent of Republicans who are Trump devotees are most likely beyond reach — and nothing Biden can say will bring them around. However, they will not decide the next election.
As Axios reported on April 17, Gallup polling in March “found that a record 49 percent of Americans see themselves as politically independent — the same as the two major parties put together.”
This means that there are many moderate, principled conservatives and independents who will not, or prefer not to, vote for Trump again. Just enough of them demonstrated as much in the 2022 midterms to prevent virtually all of the major Trump election deniers running for state and national office from gaining power. Their votes helped to save our democracy.
If the 2024 race comes down to Biden vs. Trump again, we are going to need those independents and moderate Republicans to show up again. But this time around, because of his age and the possibility that he might not be able to finish a second term, Biden’s vice president will be much more consequential in their minds.
It’s no secret that Vice President Harris has not elevated her stature in the last two-plus years. I don’t know what the problem is — whether she was dealt an impossible set of issues to deal with, or is in over her head, or is contending with a mix of sexism and racism as the first woman of color to serve as vice president. All I know is that doubts among voters about her abilities to serve as president, which were significant enough for her to quit as a presidential candidate even before the Iowa caucuses in 2020, have not gone away.
Given the stakes, Biden needs to make the case to his party — and, more important, to independents and moderate Republicans — why Harris is the best choice to succeed him, should he not be able to complete his term. He cannot ignore this issue, because that question will be on the minds of many voters come election time.
At the same time, Harris has to make the case for herself, ideally by showing more forcefully what she can do. One thing Biden might consider is putting Harris in charge of ensuring that America’s transition to the age of artificial intelligence works to strengthen communities and the middle class. It is a big theme that could take her all over the country.
I wrote a column more than two years ago suggesting that Biden make Harris “his de facto secretary of rural development, in charge of closing the opportunity gap, the connectivity gap, the learning gap, the start-up gap — and the anger and alienation gap — between rural America and the rest of the country.” It would have been a substantive challenge and would have enabled her and the administration to build bridges to rural Republicans. Never happened.
I am terrified of going into this election with a Democratic ticket that gives moderate Republicans and independents — who are desperate for an alternative to Trump — any excuse to gravitate back to him.
And beware. Trump is no fool. If he’s the G.O.P. nominee, I can easily see him asking a more moderate Republican woman, like Nikki Haley, to be his running mate, knowing that her presence on the ticket could be an incentive that gives at least some of those Republicans and independents who are down on Trump an excuse to plug their noses and vote for him another time.
Make no mistake, the vice presidency is really going to matter in an election that is really going to matter. Because I don’t want Biden to win this election by 50.1 percent. I want it to be a landslide rejection of Trumpism and the politics of division. I want it to send a loud message around the world — to the Putins and the Netanyahus and the Orbans — that there are way more of us Americans on the center-right and the center-left, way more people who are ready to work together for the common good, than there are haters and dividers.
That’s an America worth handing over to our children and grandchildren.