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We are still a year away from the midterm elections and yet much of the talk in DC these days is about 2023 and 2024. Given the current political moment, it does make some sense. With President Biden's job approval ratings stuck in the low-40's and the odds of a House GOP take-over extremely high, speculation about the 2022 midterms isn't as interesting as it could be. Instead, the talk of town is whether Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy will win the House but fail to gain the Speaker's gavel and whether Vice President Kamala Harris has enough support to win her party's presidential nomination —perhaps as soon as 2024.
In this era of unprecedented tumult, it's easy to dismiss this type of long-range speculation as a fool's errand. Raise your hand if you predicted that 2020 would bring a once-in-generation pandemic, the 'double-impeachment' of President Trump and the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Even so, the fact that these two figures — both positioned to take the top two jobs in American politics — are under an intense level of scrutiny — and skepticism — within their own partisan ranks is worth exploring.
Both have seen their attempts at climbing the political ladder dashed. But, they've also found ways to make it out on top. Six years ago, McCarthy abruptly dropped out of the race for Speaker after it became clear that he lacked support from key conservatives, especially those in the Freedom Caucus. McCarthy also hurt himself in an interview he gave in late 2015 when he suggested that the formation of the House GOP investigation into the attacks on the American embassy in Benghazi was done with the sole purpose of undermining Hillary Clinton's political standing in the lead up to the 2016 campaign. What counted as a controversial statement back in 2015 wouldn’t raise much of an eyebrow today.
By November of 2018, however, McCarthy easily won the election to serve as Minority Leader, defeating Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan.
Harris came into the 2020 presidential contest with high expectations, but dropped out in December of 2019 before any votes were cast. But, her lackluster campaign didn't hurt her politically, as she ultimately ended up on the presidential ticket with Joe Biden.
Even so, neither has been able to put their past struggles behind them.
Since he was elected Minority Leader in 2019, McCarthy has worked to prove himself capable of taking the top job. Most notably, he presided over an incredibly successful House recruiting cycle in 2020 that led to a pick-up of 12 seats. Like his two recent predecessors, McCarthy has had trouble keeping the restive Republican conference unified. He has the added pressure of keeping Donald Trump happy. But, as Olivia Beavers reported in POLITICO, the "two worrisome factions for McCarthy in a future vote for speaker: conservatives and wild cards."
While conservative antagonists like Jim Jordan are currently on team McCarthy, POLITICO's Beavers reports that "the right isn't fully sold on McCarthy to lead a future GOP majority." The "wild-cards" is really just one card: Trump. The mercurial former president has a complicated relationship with the man he calls "my Kevin." Predicting how/when Trump will weigh in on leadership elections is impossible.
In the end, however, the best thing McCarthy has going for him is President Biden. The more unpopular he is, the easier it is for him to keep his conference together and focused. Like former Minority Leader turned Speaker Nancy Pelosi, McCarthy also has the advantage of the lack of serious alternatives to challenge him. Sure, both sides may grumble about him, but who else wants the job? And, can put together the votes to win it?
As for Harris, she is in the spotlight precisely because Biden is looking weak. If Biden's job approval ratings were in the 50s, we wouldn't be reading stories like this one from CNN titled "Exasperation and dysfunction: Inside Kamala Harris' frustrating start as vice president." We've also never had a 79-year-old president before. It makes sense that we're paying more attention to the Vice President now than we would if the sitting president were a 52 year-old. And, of course, the fact that Harris is the first woman and first person of color to hold this job means she'll get more attention — and scrutiny — than her white, male predecessors.
As the LA Times' pre-eminent political columnist Mark Z. Barabak, notes, "it remains a fact that the No. 2 job in the White House is inherently a diminishing one. It's neither racist nor misogynistic to point that out when the jobholder happens to be Harris." Furthermore, adds Barabak, the "main job requirement is stepping away from the spotlight, except when cheerleading for the president and his agenda." In other words, there's nothing unusual about the fact that the sitting Vice President has yet to distinguish herself this early in her tenure.
Even so, memories of her failed presidential bid are still fresh in the minds of many Democrats. And, nothing she's done thus far has convinced them that if Biden doesn't run in 2024, she'd be better prepared for a successful run this time around.
But, as with the McCarthy-as-Speaker issue, the question is if not her, than who? Here is where I think we need to take a very deep breath and a big heap of humility. Trying to predict who will win a presidential nomination three years out is an exercise in futility.
Back in 2015, the conventional wisdom put then- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as the odds-on-favorite. Early that year, a Democratic-backed organization sent many of us in the political press a huge opposition research packet that featured information on every possible GOP candidate. Well, all except one. In all those many pages, there was not one mention of Donald Trump.
In 2019, the idea that the mayor of South Bend, Indiana would be a front runner — outlasting Harris and beating out liberal favorites like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in Iowa was inconceivable.
Harris and McCarthy are both well-positioned to climb the next rung of the political ladder. And, both have to exorcise the demons — and shortcomings — that hurt them last time around. But, the most important thing and the thing neither can control is what the political environment will look like a year, two or three from now. Winning tends to make everything better. If Republicans win a bunch of House seats in 2022, it's going to be hard for McCarthy critics to mount a successful campaign against his speakership. The same goes for Harris. In this political environment, every potential Democrat would be an underdog. But, if the economy is humming in 2024, well, things start looking a little rosier for Democrats. And, then, of course, there's Donald "the wild card" Trump. His presence in 2024 will have just as much influence on the Democratic primary as it did in 2020 when Democratic primary voters were driven less by ideology and policy and more on electability versus Trump.