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Down the Hall: The VP Weekly, Harris #3

Down the Hall: The VP Weekly(?) #3

With Alex Weinberg (UMCP ‘24)

We’re a little behind on the whole weekly thing (about 4 weeks). Holidays and travel ate what little free time we had. We’ll see if weekly is sustainable, or perhaps move to bi-weekly (that is publishing every fortnight.)

In the meantime, there has been just a ton, absolute ton, of VP news. Read on.

Top Story: VP Makes Policy… in Space

In a visit to Vandenberg Space Force Base in Lompoc, California on April 18, Vice President Harris made policy when she stated (read text here): “…as of today, the United States commits not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing.”

In simple terms, the U.S. won’t be testing kinetic anti-satellite weapons (ASW). This matters because these tests can create space debris. A 2007 Chinese ASW test created 2800 pieces of debris and a Russian test in November created 1600 pieces of debris. Moving incredibly fast, these small fragments are a threat to satellites in general, and satellites are essential for innumerable military, commercial, and scientific activities including GPS, weather prediction, and global communications. The test ban is embedded in a much bigger policy agenda of establishing norms in space. In the VP’s words:

  • Without clearer norms, we face unnecessary risks in space.  The United States will continue to be a leader in order to establish, to advance, and demonstrate norms for the responsible and peaceful use of our space…We must write the new rules of the road.

This is a pretty big deal as policy and for the VP. 

Context

Policy-wise, the U.S. is the leading space power – not just militarily but also commercially. But the U.S. is not the only space power and if space becomes debris-ridden the U.S. has the most to lose. More broadly, encouraging good behavior, cooperative operations in the domain, and discouraging the weaponization of space are in the U.S. interest. To that end, the Trump administration promulgated the Artemis Accords, which encourages standards of behavior in space. Signing on to the U.S. rules of the road is a requirement for participating in the proposed U.S. moon mission and will enable broader cooperation with the U.S. in space. Eighteen nations have signed on, a figure that has doubled since the Biden-Harris Admin has entered office (although some of this may have been in the works prior to their taking office.) In this context, the ASW test ban was a bold move and part of a longer, more substantive play. Before moving on to the VP’s role in space policy, two other points about the ASW test ban should be noted. The U.S. hasn’t exactly left itself bereft of ASW capabilities. The U.S. is capable of destroying missiles (demonstrating this in 2008), but has emphasized that the preferred modes of space conflict would be jamming and hacking satellites, rather than kinetic options which create debris. Second, Biden came to office with a long record on arms control, but has done little on this front in office (understandably given the other issues on his plate.) The ASW test ban is at least a nod in that direction.

Note: There are legitimate critiques of the Artemis Accords. Most notably it was not developed through international fora, and the Chinese and Russians feel that it is a U.S. move to create blocs in space rather than a good faith effort to establish international norms. The point of this newsletter is not policy analysis however, but rather analysis of the VP’s role in the administration.

Analysis

We’ve been wondering what the VP would do as chair of the National Space Council, and we now have the beginning of an answer and it’s looking pretty big.

VPs have long played a role in space policy. LBJ (more on him below) and Spiro Agnew both chaired councils on space policy. In the Senate, LBJ had been the architect of the legislation establishing NASA, but he was also a convenient scapegoat if there were major failures. Agnew was wooed by NASA to support a mission to Mars. Nixon staffers told Agnew there was no money for this and his job was to kill the Mars mission. The role was moribund until Quayle again took the role, where he did some useful work helping set NASA priorities and forcing out a recalcitrant NASA chief. Gore was heavily involved in space policy, particularly through the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission which facilitated U.S. and Russian cooperation, but he did not formally head a body overseeing space policy. The role was resurrected under Pence. 

Space policy has become a lot more complex since the time of LBJ. The uses of space are more varied, including a host of commercial, military, humanitarian, and scientific uses. Secondly, there are far more players. Many, if not most, nations have space programs and there are commercial entities building satellites and conducting space launches. Space policy is identifying U.S. priorities and the best means to achieve them, while balancing these many competing interests. The U.S. wants to develop a regulatory policy that encourages safe and sustainable commercial development in space. Given the number of international players, however, this is not just done domestic, but internationally. Much of this work is nuts and bolts diplomacy, but as Space Council Chair the VP would have been seeking a bold move that made use of her high public profile as VP.

Identifying and making a move like the ASW test ban is a complex process. She would have solicited and evaluated a number of proposals and had to run it by the president. Then, once a move was identified, it would need to be coordinated with the relevant agencies so the administration can deliver a consistent message.

The ASW test ban also strengthens the VP’s position as a diplomat. She has been urging nations to sign on to the Artemis Accords. The test ban makes the U.S. a more attractive partner and gives nations more incentives to sign on, and participating in space missions is a nice prestige builder. At the same time, diplomacy is not a simple compartmentalized affair. When countries expand their relations in one domain it can have all kinds of useful spillover effects. The Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission dealt with an array of issues, but also created new communications channels between the U.S. and Russian leadership.

What’s the VP Doing

A ton, a lot. The VP has been traveling and fundraising and meeting. We’ll go into some details next week, since her activity will slow given her catching Covid-19 (hoping she gets better soon.) But there is one public, highly symbolic event, Vice President Harris presided over the Senate’s confirmation of Kentaji Brown-Jackson as the newest member of the Supreme Court and first African American woman to hold the role. This is all symbolism, but sometimes (see below for more) symbolism is the substance.

Also, former President Barack Obama stopped by the White House to commemorate the signing of the Affordable Care Act, which gave us these great pics!

Inside Baseball

There’s also been a lot going on over at the Office of the Vice President (OVP). The OVP has been characterized as dysfunctional and beset by high staff turnover. This may be true, although as we observed last week, there are a lot of reasons why people might leave positions at the OVP. There’s also a fair amount of staff turnover at the White House as well. We’ll discuss it next week, but the VP has been doing a lot of press and it appears that the communications office has stabilized.

Leadership Change at the OVP

Tina Flournoy is stepping down as the Chief of Staff to the Vice President. Just a few weeks ago, the deputy Chief of Staff Michael Fuchs also stepped down. Flournoy came in for a lot of criticism, both for the general appearance of dysfunction and specifically for limiting access to the VP. We can’t know if this criticism is deserved, we’re inclined to think that there is a learning curve for everyone involved.

Context and Analysis

Flournoy is a very experienced political operative but her White House experience was limited to the Office of Personnel (which is pretty important). She had worked closely with a number of high-level political figures, including former President Clinton, but they were all insiders (at least when she worked for them.) Further, she had neither deep relations with Harris beforehand or Biden’s coterie of aides and advisors. So we have a bunch of converging learning curves. Harris was learning DC while Flournoy was learning the White House, Biden world, and learning Harris. Maybe Flournoy wasn’t the right fit, or maybe no one was given these challenges. 

These types of shake-ups are not unusual. Gore had four chiefs of staff in his eight years as VP. Clinton’s first chief of staff, Mack McClarty had no DC experience and wasn’t really right for the job. They brought in senior DC-hand David Gergen to help stabilize things but ultimately McClarty was eased out and replaced by the uber-effective Leon Panetta. (We’ll leave Trump’s parade of officials to the side for the moment.)

Flournoy’s replacement, Lorraine Voles, had been communications director for VP Al Gore (which might come with a good working relationship with White House chief of staff Ron Klain – who also worked for Gore.) Voles was brought in to consult on the communications issues and may have helped stabilize the process. But she’s also dealing with a principal who is growing into her role.

Staffing Up on National Security

There is just a whole lot of news here, and we’re really excited about it since the role of the National Security Advisor to the Vice President (VPNSA) and national security staff at the OVP is front and center in the PhD dissertation. We’ll do a quickie analysis and do a deep dive in the next edition.

First, VPNSA Ambassador Nancy McEldowney stepped down and was replaced by her deputy, Phil Gordon. Gordon’s new deputy is Rebecca Lissner, who had been acting senior director for strategic planning at the NSC. But that’s not all. In an office of firsts already, the VP added Navy Captain Shanti Sethi to her staff as a defense advisor and executive secretary.  The addition is notable for both Sethi’s accomplishments in her military service but also her identity as an Indian-American woman, the first to command a U.S. warship. Harris also added Dean Lieberman as the OVP’s first foreign policy speechwriter.

Analysis and Context

The OVP is building a strong foreign policy team. McEldowney was a deeply experienced foreign policy professional, but so is Philip Gordon – who was Assistant Secretary of State for Europe under Obama. Next week I’ll do a deep dive on the evolution of the OVP national security staff, but suffice to say that someone of Gordon’s experience taking the role of Deputy VPNSA is a marker for the increasing prominence of the OVP. Lissner is a well-regarded and experienced foreign policy professional as well. McEldowney leaving the OVP has not left VP Harris bereft of foreign policy advisors. Also, I’ll just repeat this for those in the back, there are lots of reasons why someone might leave a job, particularly someone at the end of a career and particularly someone working in an intense environment like the White House. 

More than that, adding a speechwriter devoted to foreign policy and a military advisor are all signs that the VP is expecting her duties on the international scene to expand. A safe bet both considering the current state of the world and the role she is taking on space policy (see above.)

News of Other Veeps

At the Midwest Political Science association, there was a paper on JFK’s role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The speaker noted that LBJ, deservedly, gets a great deal of credit for its passage but that before his assassination JFK had done a great deal of the spade work that made LBJ’s historic achievement possible. Your scholar of Veepology asked if LBJ had any role in advising and bolstering JFK’s commitment to civil rights. LBJ was renowned for his legislative acumen and was a southern Democrat who supported civil rights. The speaker had no answer and my research shows little evidence of it. Kennedy felt that giving LBJ a prominent role in legislative affairs would reduce Kennedy’s own stature, as Johnson had been Senate Majority Leader while Kennedy had been a rather junior member of the Senate. The main source was an excerpt published in The New York Times from Robert Dallek’s Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and his Times, 1961-1973.

More research is needed (including delving into Robert Caro’s magisterial The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. IV). Johnson was miserable as VP, having gone from one of the most powerful figures in Washington as Senate Majority Leader to political cipher as Vice President. Nonetheless, there were some intriguing items that require more investigation including Johnson’s work as head of the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity (CEEO) and chair of the National Aeronautics and Space Council (there is little new under the sun…) The CEEO was an attempt to use executive power to combat discrimination by advancing equal opportunity and African-American hiring within the federal government and by federal contractors. It had modest success, but was no substitute for major legislation. 

One particular item stuck out, highlighting the importance of Vice Presidential visits. In August 1961 the Soviets built the Berlin Wall to prevent the mass exodus of East Germans to the west. This was at the height of the Cold War. Building the wall left the people of West Berlin, an island of freedom surrounded by Soviet-backed Communist East Germany, threatened and isolated. It raised fears throughout the Western Europe of Soviet encroachment. To highlight American resolve and support for West Germany, Kennedy instructed Johnson to travel to Germany and West Berlin and deliver a message of support. Not as well remembered as Kennedy’s own visit to West Berlin in 1963, nonetheless Johnson was greeted by massive and enthusiastic crowds who were heartened by his declaration that “…in the long run this unwise effort will fail…. This is a time, then, for confidence, for poise, and for faith–for faith in yourselves. It is also a time for faith in your allies, everywhere, throughout the world. This island does not stand alone.”

The next morning, Johnson was on hand as 1500 U.S. troops arrived in Berlin. The president had ordered the troops deployed as a further show of American commitment arrived. The people of Berlin greeted them with cheers and flowers. The American commander compared the spirit to the liberation of Paris.

This newsletter focuses on the inside baseball of influence, but the public aspect of the vice presidency is powerful and can make a difference. Sometimes symbolism is the substance.

Haters Gonna Hate

This is a new feature that picks the most outrageous criticism of the Vice President. There are a lot, lot of contenders. But the winner has to be this op-ed from Merrill Matthews in The Hill that calls Harris the worst vice president in history. Dr. Matthews writes, “It’s remarkable, since the U.S. Constitution gives the vice president almost no duties to fail at — and yet failing she is.”

Matthews admits that these rankings of best and worst are pretty subjective, but, to his credit, he provides some criteria for worst. He writes, “Harris hasn’t fulfilled a VP’s first task of not embarrassing the president.” He cites her poor performance in managing the southern border and her oft-cited “word salads” to place her in the same league as Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle.

Judging by Matthews’ own criteria, if not embarrassing the president is the top job of the VP, there are some other VPs who almost certainly jump ahead of Harris in the race to the bottom. Two vice presidents have shot people while in office (Aaron Burr and Dick Cheney.) That seems rather embarrassing. Richard Mentor Johnson (Martin Van Buren’s VP) spent his vice presidency tending bar in Kentucky. Andrew Johnson was drunk at his vice presidential inauguration. Henry Agard Wallace, FDR’s second vice president, got into a public spat with the Secretary of Commerce and gave a speech calling for a “people’s revolution.” John C. Calhoun was VP to both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He got into very public spats with both of them. Schulyer Colfax had some dodgy financial dealings as a Congressman that came out while he was VP, a House Resolution to impeach failed on a party-line vote. Grover Cleveland’s first VP, Thomas Hendricks, was known as “Vice President of the Spoilsmen” for his efforts to secure federal patronage positions for Indiana Democrats — while the administration was trying to advance Civil Service Reform. That is 10 pretty embarrassing VPs, so at this point Harris isn’t even in the bottom quintile. This is giving a pass to VPs who while not politically embarrassing at the time, were staunch advocates of slavery (John Breckinridge), just generally political ciphers (Thomas Marshall or Adlai Stevenson), or screwed up in presiding over the Senate (Charles Dawes.)

This publication is analytical, when the VP messes up we’ll discuss it objectively. We’re sympathetic to politicians not always speaking with perfect clarity. Imagine if your job required speaking all the time and there was media tracking you constantly and just waiting for you to mess up? That being said, the VP has had clear missteps, it happens. But declaring Harris the worst VP ever seems a bit strong, certainly this early in the administration and given the rather impressive competition.

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