On Friday, July 2, President Biden and Vice President Harris had their weekly lunch. The conversation should have been interesting. Harris appears to be struggling, with a poorly received interview about the immigration crisis, being handed impossible to solve problems, and swirling rumors of disarray at the Office of the Vice President (OVP). All of this is raising deeper questions about whether Harris is ready to be the Democratic standard bearer in 2024 should Biden choose to not run for re-election.
Appears to be is the operative word. There isn’t too much substance to any of this, but in Washington, appearances matter as much (or more) than reality.
Before unpacking these issues, more than a few observers have noted that the biggest issues here is that Harris and her now much criticized chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, have committed the unpardonable sin of being African-American women in positions of authority. Women are subject to greater scrutiny than men, and people of color are subject to greater scrutiny than white people. Harris and her team are, in the perceptions game, are in effect starting several points down.
Another factor is that the deeply experienced Biden White House is not making as many missteps, leaving White House correspondents less to report on, particularly after the chaotic previous four years.
Regular readers will not be surprised that my own thought is that this reflects the DC insider/outsider phenomenon that is at the core of my work. Since Carter and Mondale established the modern vice presidency over forty years ago, almost all of our presidents have been DC outsiders. Their insider VPs have been sources of expertise on how things in DC work. Congress has been a central challenge for outsider presidents, but so has DC media, federal bureaucracies, and foreign governments. My fondest ambition is to build out my work to get a better understanding of the insider DC knowledge that VPs can provide.
Biden-Harris, however, reverse this paradigm. We have never elected a president with comparable experience to Biden. He was in the Senate for 36 years and he was VP for another eight. He has been there, done that, and bought the tee-shirt. Further, Biden has a vast coterie of staffers who have been there and done that with him. Harris, on the other hand, is a DC outsider. She’s an experienced politician (seven years as San Francisco DA, six as California AG, and four as a U.S. Senator.) But her time in DC is limited. As I’ve written elsewhere, she faces a significant learning curve to being an effective VP and national politician. This doesn’t mean she can’t do it, of course, only that there’s a lot to learn – that is what we are seeing now.
Harris was assigned the task of addressing the root causes of immigration from Central American’s Northern Triangle. This is not a small task, but Biden took on the mission himself when he was vice president. It is also not an attempt to put an albatross on the neck of the VP. This is a critical issue that if it is not managed will have significant consequences for the administration. It is also the sort of complex, multi-sided issue that is well-served by vice presidential attention.
It is a difficult issue. The fundamental mechanisms of U.S. aid and policy are not geared to addressing the root causes of Central American migration to the U.S. It is not, however, an impossible problem. It is possible that, like many issues, immigration flows will slow because of macro reasons, and U.S. programs may encourage that trend. It is entirely possible that a year or so from now, Harris will appear to have been effective.
A corollary of working on this issue is that the GOP has tried to paint Harris as responsible for the border. She isn’t responsible for it and desperately wants to avoid being tagged as the border czar. This has led to the bizarre DC dance in which critics insist that the Vice President visit the border, while she tries to explain that her visiting the border is not particularly useful and helpful. This tension led to her flat-footed interview with NBC.
In substance, the VP is right. Her going to the border does not mean or resolve anything, and her political reasons for not visiting were sound. But they also weren’t cutting it – even some Democrats were pushing for her to visit the border (and of course she finally did.)
Meanwhile, she had a substantive trip to Mexico and Central America, but it was overshadowed by her lousy interview. (And also her message to Central Americans to not come to the U.S. – although that was necessary for domestic political consumption.)
The whole situation, and her flip answer in the interview, are emblematic of the whole outsider phenomenon. Most politicians are very charming, it’s part of the job. They have to be able to get people to like them. I’ve met many politicians. I remember Tom Daschle (a Senator from South Dakota) simply radiated friendliness and warmth. Others have to work at being likeable. They use a certain tone, position themselves in a certain way, ask certain questions. This isn’t being phony; it is part of their job. It works and but it is work – and they wouldn’t have gotten far if they didn’t have some inherent likeability.
Kamala Harris is, by all accounts, super charming. She is good friends with her husband’s first wife. If Kamala Harris wants to be your friend, you are going to be her friend. Here’s the thing, what works in a room doesn’t translate. In person, according to his biographer, George H.W. Bush was charismatic, and he made fast friends everywhere he went. On TV, he was awkward and goofy.
In 2004, Vermont Governor Howard Dean was running for president and leading the polls. After the Iowa caucus, rallying his volunteers he shouted to pump them up. In the room, it worked. On TV, it came off as weird and a little disturbing. It sank Dean’s candidacy. The late Charles Krauthammer put it well, writing:
Dean’s ultimate weakness was that he was the classic anti-McLuhan candidate. I suggested back on Sept. 5 that “Dean’s passion is well-suited to the early campaign . . . the one-on-one, town-hall-meeting, retail-level campaign so far. Dean’s problem is television, famously a cool medium. . . . As the campaign becomes less retail and more national — and therefore more televised — Dean’s rise will be challenged.” What I could not have predicted was that he would actually explode on national television.
Dean was always passion and anger. Passion and anger don’t wear well on television. They are too hot and, under the pressure of the first defeat in his entire political career, he simply combusted — into a manic eruption that within 24 hours had been memorialized in song.
Harris’ flip answer might have been compelling in a one-on-one or to a small group, but on TV it looked terrible. Part of mastering DC, is understanding how in a much bigger arena, personal charm has limits and that asides or off the cuff utterances can be amplified under the microscope and take on a life of their own.
Besides immigration, Harris has taken on voting rights. It should be clear, Biden didn’t assign it, rather she asked for it. It is unclear what her strategy is. In her four years as U.S. Senator, Harris was serious and hardworking, but she does not appear to bring any particular legislative acumen to obtaining the GOP votes to pass voting rights legislation. Her plan of rallying outside support also has limited efficacy, the constituencies she can rally will probably have little influence on the key Senators needed to pass the legislation. (Going public is not always an effective strategy.)
There could be other stratagems, rallying voters so that restrictive state legislation doesn’t destroy the Democrats’ chances in 2022 and beyond.
Harris also has other assignments. One of the big ones is broadband access. This isn’t an easy job, but there are huge political wins delivering broadband access to underserved communities both rural and urban.
First, there was a report on CNBC that a big(ish) donor couldn’t reach Harris. Then, Politico had a huge story about staff turmoil and disorder at the OVP. Blame seemed to center on Harris’ chief of staff Tina Flournoy, who was accused of restricting access and being imperious.
More than a few have questioned the sources of these articles, noting that no one was on the record and that the job of the chief of staff is manage access to their principal.
One detail highlights this, the donor who was unhappy had given “hundreds of thousands, maybe millions.” For the California AG, that’s pretty big bucks. For the national campaign, not as much. Donors are important, of course, and big donations bring access – although this complaint, that your donation didn’t buy a phone call seems a bit tin-eared. But more importantly… it’s DC the game has changed.
It’s tough to know exactly what is going on. Harris did not have a great reputation for keeping staff and her presidential campaign was somewhat disordered. Some of that is growing pains. Flournoy – and a host of other pros – were brought in to address this. It is possible that some of her California people are displeased that they are no longer in key slots. It is also possible that her new team just isn’t that used to working with her and this is going to take some time.
One positive sign is that Harris has a weekly meeting with White House chief of staff Ron Klain. When Mondale was working with Carter to build a new vice presidency, Mondale’s chief of staff Richard Moe focused on building a good relationship with Carter’s top aide Hamilton Jordan. Having the VP themself meet with the White House chief of staff is an interesting innovation – and it may not need to be institutionalized. But, Klain has been chief of staff to two vice presidents (Gore and Biden). So he brings some unique insight into the vice presidency. It is also a good sign that Biden and the White House are committed to helping the VP grow into her national role. There are so many unprecedented things about the Harris vice presidency, this is yet another.