Down the Hall: The VP Weekly, Harris Issue 1: March 25, 2022
With Alex Weinberg (UMCP ’24)
Hoo-boy, this week was not the week to start a publication on the vice presidency. Between Harris’ travel and appearances and the exit of her national security advisor (VPNSA) Ambassador Nancy McEldowney there was a lot of news. Then, some hot gossip of West Wing tensions between Biden and Harris (and their staffs) dropped from This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future a new book by New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns. But before we get into it, we bet you have questions.
What is this thing?
Down the Hall is a weekly analysis on the doings of the Vice President of the United States. We’re not reporters, we’re not going to break news. There are a lot of great reporters out there covering the VP’s doings. We are big fans of the folks at Politico and Noah Bierman at The L.A. Times, but there are many others. What we’ll try to do is place the news in context, building on our knowledge of past vice presidents. We’ll also do analysis, trying see how the vice presidency is evolving and what the VP’s doings tell us about the administration.
Why are you doing it? Does the world need this?
We are obsessed with the vice presidency – we’ve got a whole website devoted to the topic and a PhD dissertation. But we believe there is analytical value to studying the office as well. The role of the vice president has expanded dramatically over the past 45 years, but it has few formal powers, and its influence is strictly defined by the interests of the President. So why would a regular analysis be useful? First, the change in the vice presidency is interesting. The expansion of the vice-presidential role coincided with important shifts in the presidency. These are macro-level analyses. The most salient and immediate area of interest is that the vice president’s role is a window into the priorities of a particular president and into the presidency itself. It is not a complete view, but it is a useful, unique, and interesting one.
Will this only be about the current vice president?
Mostly, but not exclusively. While we are definitely crushing on VP Harris, we’ll note interesting doings by other vice presidents (living and dead) as well as interesting research on vice presidents and the vice presidency.
What’s with the title?
One more thing, is it always going to be this long?
Nah, usually it’ll just be a page or so.
Top Story: Rebooting VEEP or mean-spirited leaks?
New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns tell of big tension between the Biden and Harris teams in their new book This Will Not Pass. The invaluable Politico’s Playbook and West Wing Playbook have a lot of juicy tidbits. None of them make VP Harris look good:
- Harris was upset about the Vogue photo shoot and her team complained to the Biden team about it, who responded with an eye-roll
- Harris was perturbed that White House staff didn’t stand when she entered the room
- Harris was frustrated with the VP portfolio, which included no-win issues like the immigration crisis
- Harris was frustrated that when she took on voting rights, Biden didn’t back her fully by advocating for changes to Senate rules
- Jill Biden wondered why her husband bad to select the one person who had really gone after him on the campaign trail
Harris is coming off as a Selina Meyer-esque figure here. But, as the preacher says, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Update: Before saying anything else, it’s important to note that these are all anonymous sources. We don’t know what really happened or the context in which things were said.
Relations between presidents and vice presidents are often fraught, and the relations between staff even more so. Carter and Mondale got along well. But when things started going badly and the Dems were killed in the 1978 mid-terms, Mondale (who had been on the campaign trail) took a lot of the blame. At other points Mondale considered (at least briefly) resigning.
In the Reagan White House, VP Bush was suspect because he criticized Reagan’s economic plan as “voodoo economics.” Nancy Reagan, her husband’s biggest defender, never warmed to the Bushes.
Ancient history? Here’s a 2013 book detailing tensions between Obama and his vice president… Joe Biden.
- The White House – even when things are going well – is not a chill place. Everything is urgent and everyone is intense. Things are not going well. Both the President and VP have low approval ratings and the fundamental problems – COVID-19 and inflation – are intractable. Add the hyper-partisan divide that has stalled their legislative agenda and little wonder that folks in the West Wing are testy. It is easy to imagine frustrated people making angry statements in the heat of the moment… in the presence of more junior staffers who take it all too seriously.
- The vice presidency is a strange role. The position is ill-defined, but highly public. The occupant usually has a very limited relationship with the boss. Further, people who become VPs are usually successful politicians who are used to being in charged, suddenly they are the staffer-in-chief, with tremendous limitations on what they can do. For most of U.S. history, the vice presidency has been the butt of jokes. This has changed, but it isn’t always easy to pull this off.
- Harris is a DC outsider. Over the past 45 years Americans have elected DC outsiders as presidents. These outsider presidents selected DC insiders as running mates. (This is big and at the very core of the dissertation mentioned above.) DC insider VPs knew how DC worked, had observed presidents and VPs up close, and had experienced DC staff to support them. (More on the staff below.) Harris as an outsider has less of a sense of how all this stuff works and she has not acquired a coterie of DC experienced staffers to help her. Poor staffing can lead to all sorts of missteps.
- Harris is a woman of color. If you don’t think this makes all the above more complicated and difficult, then you haven’t been paying attention.
We may take formal White House declarations of support and praise for the VP with a grain of salt. Politico Playbook also excerpts from the book that when leaks about Harris began (after her trip to Guatemala) the President told senior staff that if: “he found that any of them was stirring up negative stories about the vice president, Biden said, they would quickly be former staff.”
In this, Biden is echoing his predecessors and supporting his VP. Whatever influence a VP may exercise flows from directly from the Oval Office.
What’s the VP Doing
The vice president had a generally successful trip to Poland and Romania last week. This is on top of a visit a few weeks ago at the Munich Security Conference. General reviews of her trip (including by yours truly) have been positive. The administration did her a favor by squashing the talk of transferring Polish MiGs to the U.S. and then to Ukraine so that the VP wasn’t forced to address this issue.
Context and Analysis
Vice presidential travel abroad can serve several purposes. Top-line is the symbolism: a visit from the Vice President of the U.S. is an important demonstration of American support. Poland and Romania are frontline states in the Russia-Ukraine War. They are accepting lots of refugees and a lot of risk in aiding the Ukrainians. Both countries have a long history of conflict with Russia. The practical demonstration of U.S. support is important to the leaders of these countries and to their people. It also reassures the world of the U.S. commitment, so that other allies will continue their support.
VPs also do a bit of diplomacy. A vice presidential trip is a forcing mechanism. Government programs – weapons transfers, aid programs – are cumbersome and bureaucratic. Important initiatives can get held up (for innocent reasons, busy people can’t get to everything.) VPs can’t visit empty-handed, and this attention can break these logjams. The VP can also take messages and information directly to the president – and messages from the VP can be taken as coming directly from the president.
While the Second Gentleman tested positive for Covid test, so the VP’s public activities slowed – just a bit. Here are a few recent events where the Vice President has spoken.
- March 16 Vice President Harris announced grants for HBCUs to aid them in dealing with bomb threats. Since the beginning of the year over 80 threats have been made against dozens of the HBCUs. Harris is an alumna of Howard University, the first VP to have attended an HBCU.
- March 21 Vice President Harris traveled to Louisiana to announce a broadband infrastructure grant.
- March 23 Vice President Harris announced the establishment of the Interagency Task Force on Property Appraisal and Valuation Equity (PAVE) to counter racial bias in home appraisals.
- March 24 Vice President Harris discussed the administration’s efforts under the President’s Executive Order on Promoting Access to Voting. The Voting Rights Act may be a dead letter, but this White House statement outlines administration efforts to expand access to voting through the executive branch.
In each of these events, Harris is appearing with other top administration officials and delivering the goods to key administration constituencies. Harris’ presence alongside the various cabinet secretaries who work these issues, demonstrates the administration’s commitment, and makes media coverage more likely. Vice Presidents (going back to at least Nixon) have played the political role of attending to core party interest groups, freeing the president’s time.
This is all politics 101. What is interesting in terms of vice presidents, is the many dimensions in which they can operate. Most administration officials operate in a domestic sphere or an international sphere, and cabinet officials have limits on their political activities. The vice president is a unique asset because they can do all of the above – often at the same time.
The trip to Louisiana is notable because the vice president is the administration’s lead on expanding broadband access. Unlike the immigration crisis, this issue presents opportunities to deliver on a bipartisan popular issue. Unlike voting rights, the legislation has passed and there are billions committed under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. As with most government programs, the devil is in the implementation. Domestic programs can also be stymied by bureaucracy and competing interests. Money for broadband access may go through Commerce and the FCC, but multiple agencies have will be engaged including Interior (for tribal broadband), Agriculture (for rural broadband), HUD (for urban broadband), Education (for remote schooling), and HHS (for telehealth). Actual work on broadband will occur at the state and local level, which each bring their own complications. Even with the best of intentions, there will be inter-agency and inter-governmental disputes. The Vice President, who will be presumed to be speaking for the White House, is well-placed to adjudicate these issues and make sure that the program delivers.
Influence on SCOTUS Pick
Messenger and envoy are important vice-presidential roles (presidents also spend a lot of time on this). The really interesting area is vice presidential influence, that’s the inside baseball of where and how a vice president shapes policy. That is the topic of the dissertation. It is very hard to study. It can be difficult to understand how a major decision was made – even when the relevant players are open about the process. Usually, the relevant players are some combination of discrete and self-interested. Instances of vice-presidential influence often emerge years later through memoirs and interviews.
Influence cannot exist without access to the policy process (ask vice presidents of earlier eras who rarely even saw the president, let alone attended White House meetings.) Access is easier to discern, particularly when the President specifically mentions the VP’s role.
This is precisely what Biden did when he announced his nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. He explicitly said that both he and Harris had interviewed the three final candidates.
Update: VP Harris also consulted with former Presidents Obama and Clinton about the Supreme Court Pick. Former presidents can be a valuable resource to sitting presidents, and the VP can play a useful role as liaison.
Context and Analysis
We can’t know if Harris’ input influenced Biden’s decision. Biden, having spent his Senate career on the Judiciary Committee knows his brief. This is a fundamental challenge Harris faces as a DC outsider VP to a deeply experienced insider President. Nonetheless, Harris had access to the process and perhaps just as importantly the White House emphasized her role. Biden was VP and most of his senior staff worked with him when he was VP. One indication of White House efforts to ensure Harris is fully included in the process is her weekly meeting with White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain (who had served as CoS to vice presidents Gore and Biden.) Private lunches between POTUS and Veep have been standard since Carter-Mondale established them in the Seventies. But the one-on-one with the White House CoS is a new innovation.
Turmoil at Team OVP?
Where to begin…
This first edition has gotten much too long. I’m going to save this discussion of the Office of the Vice President (OVP) for next week. There’s just too much to talk about. With the announced resignation of VPNSA Nancy McEldowney 10 key officials have left the OVP since June. Along with this high rate of staff turnover, there have been reports, going back to her time in California, that Harris is a difficult boss.
One particular staffer complaint caught our eye. Harris likes to markup documents and would be perturbed if staffers did not have her favorite Pilot V7 pens on hand. As an aficionado of the even finer tipped Pilot V5 – we totally get this.
Harris may be a tough boss, but there are some other things going on as well. Tune in next week for context and analysis.
News of other Veeps
Kamala Harris is not the only vice president around. There are currently five living former vice presidents – some of whom (remain in the public eye, or at least try to (cough, Mike Pence.) Occasionally interesting items new items arise about more did VPs. This section is devoted to the doings of the other vice presidents and this one is devoted to an item on Joe Biden.
As VP, President Obama assigned Biden as point person on Ukraine. He identified strongly with the nation’s struggles and wanted to help them counter Russia’s invasion of Crimea and Donbas. When the Ukrainians asked for Javelin anti-tank missiles, according to The Washington Post Biden was sympathetic:
Biden’s efforts were not successful, Obama was worried about escalating the conflict with the Russians. This incident, however, will be a data point if the dissertation ever becomes a book. And of course, it provided the title for this newsletter.
That’s all for now, tune in next week. Same Veep channel, same Veep time (well, actually a bit earlier next!)