Harris-to-Supreme-Court chatter opens window into Dems’ deepest fears

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Shortly after news of Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement, William Owen, a Democratic National Committee member from Tennessee, texted the party chair, Jaime Harrison, with an idea that by then was already all over Twitter: Kamala Harris for the Supreme Court.

There was virtually no chance of it ever happening. Harrison responded that the vice president wasn’t interested. And the White House — facing media questions about the possibility last week — reiterated President Joe Biden’s plan to keep her as his running mate in 2024.

Yet if the Harris-to-Supreme Court chatter was a fantasy, what was revealing was that such an extreme scenario was running through Democratic Party circles at all, and has continued in the days since — not just on social media, but among the party’s professional and political ranks. In interviews with two dozen strategists and party officials for this story, fully half of them either volunteered or said they’d entertained the idea, including both moderates and progressives. Among those who did not, several women and people of color were repulsed that Democrats were even talking about it, viewing it as an affront to Harris.

Some of the Democrats who raised the possibility, including Owen, said they did so in admiration for Harris’ background as a prosecutor and a senator — particularly her sharp questioning of Brett Kavanaugh before his confirmation to the Supreme Court. But most of them expressed a different consideration, reflecting the intense skepticism within some parts of the party about Harris’ ability to win a presidential race if Biden does not run for reelection — and a desire to open the field to other possible successors to a 79-year-old president.

More broadly, however implausible, the Harris-for-Supreme Court discussion laid bare how desperate Democrats have become for anything to reset their dismal midterm election outlook.

For some activists, said Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, “It’s like doomsday every day… Everything is bad — let’s throw everything at the wall to maybe get the base excited.”

Of those activists’ sentiment, she said, “I think it could potentially manifest itself in Kamala, because that’s an easy out for people. But that’s not at the root of it. At the root of it is we’re doing all these good things as Democrats, and yet the voters don’t seem to be on our side.”

Harris is roughly as popular inside the Democratic Party as Biden, with a job approval rating among Democrats exceeding 80 percent, according to arecent CBS News poll.

Yet for all of her appeal, there is an undercurrent of discussion within the party that she is a political liability — an opinion founded in herlow approval ratings nationally, questions about her performance as vice president and, most significantly, the implosion of her 2020 presidential campaign — a campaign that unraveled so abruptly and precipitously that it tarnished her reputation as one of the party’s brightest stars.

Since becoming vice president, she has beenbeset by office turmoil and a portfolio of politically intransigent issues, including voting rights and immigration.

Putting Harris on the Supreme Court would avoid the question of 2024 or 2028 entirely.

“Win-win,” said Steve Maviglio, a former New Hampshire state lawmaker and Democratic strategist from California, Harris’ home state.

“She checks a lot of the boxes: A woman of color, a liberal, being smart on a lot of issues, having experience,” he said. “The other part is that she’s not horribly popular as vice president, like it or not.”

Few critics of Harris’ political prospects would speak publicly due to the ferocity of her support in some corners of the party and, in some cases, their own respect for her. But a Harris appointment to the high court, one adviser to major Democratic donors said, would “solve a lot of problems.” One Democratic strategist in the Midwest joked that she could support a Harris court appointment “if it guarantees she never runs for [president] again.” Another party consultant volunteered a Harris appointment, though implausible, would deliver a “two-fer jolt — Kamala as Supreme Court justice and a new VP to bring in some excitement and change the narrative.”

To the vice president’s allies and former aides, the Harris-to-SCOTUS wish-casting was a trope engineered by her Republican opponents. Symone Sanders, Harris’ former senior adviser and chief spokesperson,said on Twitter that “the ‘VP Harris could be nominated to the Supreme Court’ chatter originated in right wing circles as a part of the narrative that the President wants to remove her from the ticket. So, we probably shouldn’t elevate the idea b/c it is right wing gossip with no basis in facts.”

It’s true that the chatter did find oxygen on the right, fanned everywhere fromBill Kristol toFox News to theconspiratorial rantings of the Newsmax set.

But it was also percolating privately on the left, despite hesitation among Democrats to say anything publicly disparaging to the vice president. One Democratic strategist in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state, said he was “1,000,000 percent” hopeful that Biden would appoint Harris. Another strategist said a Harris appointment — and the subsequent search for a new vice president — would be valuable to “distract the nation from the other s---,” as Democrats amid an ongoing pandemic and legislative stall-outs in Washington confront likely losses in the midterm elections.

Owen said he only considered a Harris appointment because she is highly qualified and would be a talented justice [He came to believe it was a bad idea when he realized the White House would lose a tie-breaking vote in the Senate to confirm a new vice president].

“You could look at this in the negative as people looking to get Kamala out,” said Amanda Renteria, who was national political director of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “Or you could look at it as… where she came onto the scene and where people saw her at her best was in that prosecutorial role in the Senate, and that’s where people got to know her. So, you can’t help but think of her name as you’d think of for the Supreme Court.”

However, Renteria said, “This is just noise. Folks know that this is silly.”

Biden’s nomination of a Black woman to the Supreme Court will fulfill a campaign promise, pleasing base Democratic voters and likely winning Senate confirmation.

“This is squarely a moment where Biden was running, he said he was going to do this, and he’s now going to deliver on this,” Renteria said. “So, getting back to that is really important, as opposed to a conversation of tearing down the vice president who is a Black woman. That to me is a sad statement about the conversation that is happening right now.”
Donna West, the former chair of the Democratic Party in Clark County, Nevada, said it’s “extremely mean that people think we’ve got to move her out of the way.”

“I just think she’s getting a raw deal,” West said. “I just love her, and I love who she is and how she thinks.”

The Harris discussion, however preposterous, was not without consequence. It served as a distraction during a week in which Democrats were celebrating a rare opportunity for Biden to nominate a liberal justice — and deliver a victory to the Democratic base. That’s significant for a party laboring to energize voters in a difficult midterm election year.

The Supreme Court pick Biden will make will be a “positive without question, and it’s something that’s long overdue,” said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an influential South Carolina state lawmaker.

As for recasting the 2024 ticket, she said, “Democrats ought to stop entertaining those kind of thoughts,” “get a backbone” and “stop whining.”

“Stop focusing on 2024 and look at fricking 2022,” she said.

For Harris’ part, the real-world confirmation of a justice may be politically beneficial to her too.

Harris’ office, when contacted for this story, directed POLITICO to public comments Biden made last week when the president said he plans to consult with Harris as he considers a nominee. In advising Biden, Harris, the first woman and first Black vice president, will play a role in what Biden has pledged will be a historic appointment of the first Black woman to the Supreme Court.

Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party, said that Harris’ critics are “too quick to judge.” She is only a year into her vice presidency, and Hinojosa said he’s confident she will “rise to the occasion” in her current role.

“If she does become the nominee” in some future year, he said, “I think she’ll be a great nominee for the party.”