Editor’s Note: Lincoln Mitchell (@LincolnMitchell) teaches in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. His most recent book is “The Giants and Their City: Major League Baseball in San Francisco, 1976-1992.” (Kent State University Press, 2020) The opinions expressed here are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
The next presidential election is three years away. Recent reports about early concern over whether President Joe Biden will run for reelection in 2024 and about tension between potential 2024 rivals, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Vice President Kamala Harris are, to some extent, standard Washington gossip that can be safely ignored. Still, there may be something more than that.
Buttigieg is clearly very ambitious, ran an impressive presidential campaign in 2020 and has only strengthened his political skills since then. Harris, as the vice president, is a leading contender to be the face of the post-Joe Biden Democratic Party. Each may see the other as standing in their way as 2024 approaches. This is particularly important because the 79-year-old Biden, despite wisely sending signals that he will seek reelection in 2024, may decide that he doesn’t want to run three years from now.
If Biden does run, as an incumbent, he has an advantage. But if he chooses not to, that doesn’t mean Democrats are doomed.
A primary campaign between Harris and Buttigieg could pit two key Democratic constituencies against each other: African Americans, particularly African American women, and LGBTQ voters. The impact of that fight would be even worse if it began in 2023 and took over the second half of Biden’s current term.
Fortunately, this is a problem that can be easily solved without either politician having to give up anything lasting. Harris and Buttigieg instead could agree that, if Biden does not run again, they would run together in 2024, with Harris the nominee for president and Buttigieg for vice-president. This could put an end to whatever feuding exists between them now, while giving the Democratic Party a very strong ticket in 2024 that would seem like a natural continuation of Biden’s first term.
A Harris-Buttigieg ticket would showcase two dynamic politicians and represent the breadth and diversity of the Democratic Party, and indeed the whole country, while not veering too far left and alienating key swing voters who Biden won in 2020.
This ticket would be balanced with regards to geography: Harris is unmistakably Californian while Buttigieg is from Indiana, and brings with him a deep understanding of the Midwest.
Harris would be 60 years old on Election Day 2024, while Buttigieg would be 42, so there would be generational balance there as well. Both nominees represent important Democratic Party constituencies – Harris is an African American and Asian American woman, while Buttigieg is a gay man. This would help mobilize important parts of the Democratic base. However, both politicians are essentially moderates, so it would be hard for the Republican Party to effectively tar them as radicals, socialists or anything like that – something they would undoubtedly try to do. During, and since, the 2020 election, the right wing has tried to paint Harris as being on the far left, but that attack never got much traction.
A Harris-Buttigieg ticket would also have a fair amount of star power. Although Harris did very poorly when she ran for president in 2020, we have seen glimpses of what she can be, including the first presidential debate of the primary season when she landed some very effective attacks on Biden. Later, during the vice-presidential debate, she more than held her own against a very polished Mike Pence. It’s also visible in the easy and strong rapport she has with many voters. Buttigieg has shined in recent months, as well during the 2020 general election, due to his media skills, fast wit and sharp intellect.
Not every faction of the Democratic coalition would be happy with this ticket. The left wing of the party has long viewed Buttigieg as too moderate and have been wary of Harris due to her work as San Francisco’s district attorney and California’s attorney general. These concerns are legitimate, but by the time they have served four years in the Biden’s administration, what Harris did as DA almost 20 years earlier or as attorney general a decade ago will seem less relevant. Rather, the two will be seen as national leaders whose popularity will be tied to the Biden administration rather than anything they did before that.
By taking the second spot on the ticket, Buttigieg would be putting his own presidential aspirations on hold, but he is so young that he would still have plenty of opportunities to run for president. One way to see this is that if Harris and Buttigieg ticket got elected in 2024 and reelected in 2028, Buttigieg would still be only 50 if he chose to run in 2032.
Harris-Buttigieg could turn out to be a dream ticket for the Democrats while simultaneously avoiding a potentially damaging dynamic both within the administration and in a possible Democratic primary. However, a lot must happen between now and then to make it a reality. In addition to getting buy-in from both people directly involved, it is also important to avoid the appearance that a backroom deal is being made.
This is something to which the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is particularly sensitive. The way to do this is to tamp down any speculation about a deal while at the same time bolstering Harris and making it clear to Buttigieg that the administration is not going to abandon the vice president in the face of media criticism.
When Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running mate, he indicated that she was the future of the Democratic Party. It is natural that other politicians who see themselves as that future might chafe at that. Nonetheless, regardless of how she is viewed by many now, Harris will be a strong frontrunner to succeed Biden. The best way to ensure victory for the party may not be a drawn-out effort to nominate another flawed candidate, but to put together a balanced ticket with two rising Democratic Party stars.