Down the Hall: The VP Weekly, Harris #2: April 1, 2022
With Alex Weinberg (UMCP ’24)
Top Story: Tight Circle or Closed Loop
Becoming vice president as a DC outsider creates additional challenges for an already tough gig. A story from the Los Angeles Timesby Noah Bierman and Melanie Mason discusses Harris’ limited social circle in DC. Most of her closest friends, the people she can really talk to, are back in California. Harris has been talking to Donna Brazile, Hillary Clinton, and (before she recently passed away) Madeleine Albright. But staying in touch with her old California confidantes has been difficult.
This is separate from, but overlaps with Harris’ staffing challenges, which are discussed below.
Is this a minor story, just a bit of gossip? Does it matter?
Making friends as vice president is not easy. Frankly the VP doesn’t have many peers – and a great many of those peers (other politicians say) may approach the relationship in a self-interested manner. Politicians tend to be personable, but that doesn’t always translate to friendship. And people do need friends – especially people occupying a difficult, awkward, very public job. And even more so if the holder of the position is both the first woman and first person of color to hold the position.
DC insiders, like President Biden, have accumulated a coterie of DC friends to go along with their staffers. Anyone who has moved to a new city for a new job can relate to the vice president’s challenges.
Whether or not this affects Harris’ performance as VP is difficult to measure. As we’ve noted elsewhere, her standing in polls to a great extent reflects the lousy public mood as much as any specific actions she has taken. But this article highlights a fundamental challenge to researching vice presidents, illuminated by this quote from the article:
Identifying the people most frequently contacted by Harris is tricky. Those she calls and meets are discreet, so they can maintain their access. Former contacts who lose touch can be cagey, lest people think they are no longer players.
“Anybody who publicly brags about how much they talk to somebody is either embellishing or not a confidant,” said one former advisor who, like many others, requested anonymity to speak candidly about Harris and to avoid sounding like a hypocrite.
The VP’s actions – travel, public appearances – can easily be studied, but influence is opaque. The VP doesn’t talk about what they tell the president and smart confidantes don’t talk about any of this either. The first VP to exercise influence was Martin Van Buren, back in the 1830s under President Andrew Jackson. Van Buren, whose byword was discretion was an ideal figure for the role, it was said:
He rowed to his object with muffled oars.
What’s the VP Doing
No foreign travel this week, but a host of domestic appearances. Here are a few:
- April 1, VP Harris visited a small business in Mississippi and spoke about economic development programs
- March 30, VP Harris met with the Prime Minister of Jamaica – perhaps not the most important U.S. ally – but big news given Harris’ Jamaican heritage
- Also on March 30, VP Harris spoke at a Howard University at a meeting of the Greater Washington Partnership, which has pledged to invest $4.7 billion into minority-owned businesses and other programs to address wealth inequality
- On March 29, VP Harris met with the PM of Singapore (who also met with President Biden
- Also on March 29, VP Harris joined the president for the signing of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law and made a statement on the historic significance of the bill
Update: Apparently I’ve picked up some KHive followers and they are not shy in letting me know about important VP doings that I missed. I love them for this! They told me that on March 29, Vice President Harris held an event at her residence to celebrate Women’s History Month.
Also, this evening Vice President Harris will appear on MSNBC and be interviewed by Joy Reid. We’ll report on that next week.
Context and Analysis
This is the nuts and bolts of political work – showing up, delivering a message, repeat. If you look at Biden’s calendar it is full of the same. A bit more on that below.
Meetings with Joe
According to the invaluable Politico West Wing Playbook, the vice president received the President’s Daily Brief with the president on March 28 and March 31. She also had her weekly lunch with Biden on March 30.
Context and Analysis
Anyone interested in the President’s Daily Brief – the top secret report prepared by the intelligence community (IC) for the president should check out the work of David Priess. While VPs going back to Humphrey received the brief, it was only with Gore that they began to do so in the company of the president. Gore and Cheney, with their extensive experience with the IC helped their presidents to work with the IC. It was also an opportunity to set the foreign policy agenda for the day and beyond. Biden is familiar with the IC, still it is a chance for Harris to better understand his priorities and inject her own.
The lunches were instituted between Carter and Mondale. Initially VPs prepped for the lunches, preparing an agenda of items to discuss. Often both found that it was just a chance for the President and Vice President to talk, get to know one another. That being said, Quayle mentioned that cabinet officials often brought items before his lunches hoping he would raise them with the president.
These meetings, the casual exchanges they enable, are the essence of vice presidential influence.
Lots has been written about the turmoil at the Office of the Vice President. Here’s a summary of the turnover at the VP’s communications office. We teased these issues in the last edition of Down the Hall. There have been allegations of a toxic workplace. These stories got worse with the announced departure of the Vice President’s National Security Advisor (VPNSA) Amb. Nancy McEldowney. (More on that next week…)
Here is a rather lengthy quote from Chase Untermeyer about his time as executive assistant to VP Bush:
My day-to-day experience on the Vice President’s staff was to sort of just be there, and being there wasn’t merely the West Wing but on the many trips which George Bush took…. I got to do all sorts of marvelous things of the sort that would fill anybody’s life of Washington experiences…
So these were all glorious experiences, plus many, many others that took place. But, frankly, I began to get very anxious to leave, because it was clear to me that what I needed to do was to get into one of the departments and agencies where there was substantive work being done, the real governing of America, that the staff was wonderful and no doubt I could have stayed and continued going on trips and meeting all these people, but it lacked the substance that I wanted.
After all, the Vice President is himself kind of staffer to the President and assistant to the President, so we were only helping somebody who was helping the President. It was what I like to call living on a diet of whipped cream. It was very rich and thick and delicious but not much to chew on.
The point is that there are a lot of reasons why someone would leave a position at the OVP. There are better jobs, there are jobs that suit the person better, and jobs at the White House in general are burnout inducing.
Here’s another lengthy quote from the LA Times article discussed above:
Another factor that supporters say has hindered Harris is that her operation has markedly few longtime aides. Allies say Biden administration officials insisted she jettison aides who worked on her presidential primary campaign, which was marked by staff infighting and a sharp attack on Biden’s record on desegregation that left some bad blood with his inner circle.
The result is a staff that has turned over and is not steeped in her political history or deeply familiar with Harris’ strengths and weaknesses as a politician.
A high-level politician is perhaps akin to a race car driver. The politician is behind the wheel and has to make the split-second decisions – but they need a really good pit crew to win. Good staffing ensures the principal has the information they need, when the need it, in a format the principal can ingest. They ensure the schedule is making smart use of the principals time, while not wearing them down… and much, much more.
Harris needs a staff that knows DC and knows her. Outsider presidents have also wrestled with this challenge – bringing in DC insider staffers to run the White House (Baker for Reagan and Panetta for Clinton). Unfortunately, Harris has to grow this talent on the fly in full public view.
News of other Veeps
Harris’ predecessor, Mike Pence is attempting to establish his leadership of the GOP, issuing a Freedom Agenda, which hits all the old Republican tropes of low taxes, cutting regulations, and ending federal funding for abortion. He also mixes in some Trumpism and culture war stuff. The records of VPs to defeated presidents is not great. After Carter’s 1980 defeat, Mondale took control of the Democratic party, offered all the standard Democratic policies (from which Carter had edged away) and went down to a massive defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan. Pence’s fellow Hoosier, Dan Quayle, did not run in 1996 and his 2000 campaign lasted into summer 1999.
Mondale at least got up to the plate, he was well-placed to lead the Democratic party after Carter’s defeat. Pence may be more akin to Quayle, facing a host of powerful rivals and former President Trump who, unlike most of his predecessors, refuses to depart the scene. It is difficult to see Pence’s effort gaining much traction. His refusal to overturn the 2020 election makes him persona non grata to big chunks of the GOP, while his long record of social conservatism makes it unlikely he’ll be able to effectively tack to the center.