Opinion: Kamala Harris is the key to Biden’s political survival

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the forthcoming book “Our Nation at Risk: Election Integrity as a National Security Issue.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

Following Thursday night’s disastrous debate performance by President Joe Biden, Democrats are in full panic mode, scrambling to figure out what comes next. Although game-changing moments are rare in our era of polarized politics, what went down in Atlanta on June 27 might actually alter the course of the 2024 campaign.

At a minimum, the president’s struggles to articulate his thoughts and his meek physical demeanor have pushed Democrats into a serious conversation about whether he can defeat former President Donald Trump, who many agree is a fundamental threat to our democracy.

But talk of replacing him on the ticket, with a little over a month left before the national convention, has reached a fever pitch. Democrats are already debating who might be capable of stepping in at this late hour — whether it’s Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, California Gov. Gavin Newsom or others — in order for the party to retain control of the White House come November. Down-ticket Democrats are also looking for someone up top who won’t hurt their chances of victory.

But the person who determines what happens next isn’t any of these alternative candidates or Biden himself, who won’t have another serious opportunity to address these concerns until the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in late August.

The most important person is now Vice President Kamala Harris.

Harris, who has been continually scrutinized and criticized, is the only figure who can save Biden’s candidacy at this point. In the coming weeks, she’ll need to demonstrate that she can command the public stage by talking about issues like reproductive rights and offering the strongest prosecutorial argument in favor of the president. She needs to show the kind of gravitas that voters expect of a president, one they trust to handle the problems of the day. The more she can do this, the more confidence she can instill in another term for Biden.

If Harris can shore up confidence among enough persuadable voters in swing states that she would be able to step into the job if necessary, and that she could serve as a governing co-partner to Biden in the meantime, that will do more than anything else to stabilize the party. Similarly to how former Vice President Dick Cheney provided some insurance that a young and untested George W. Bush would be able to handle the responsibilities of the presidency in 2000, Harris can do the same, helping allay the concerns voters might have about Biden’s age.

Besides, if Biden does end up stepping aside, the odds are still that Harris would be the nominee. It would be extraordinarily risky for Democrats to somehow push aside the first Black and Asian American female vice president and put forth a completely new ticket.

In the short-term, Harris needs to make a convincing case that she is energized and more than capable of running a successful administration that builds on the domestic and international accomplishments of Biden’s first term. This will ease the way for Democratic officials and voters to double down on the existing ticket. The vulnerabilities that Biden exposed last night, both as a candidate and a president, will seem less alarming if Harris is perceived as strong and competent both on the campaign trail and as a leader.

For all the head scratching about her tenure as vice president, it is not impossible for her to achieve this goal. As she demonstrated in the primary debates of 2020 and in the Senate, she would be comfortable going toe-to-toe with Trump on the debate stage.

Harris is the key to Biden’s survival. During the next few weeks, her strengths or weaknesses on the campaign might very well determine the future of our 46th president.

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