June 21, 2022
Down the Hall: The VP Weekly (er… monthly?), June 21, 2022
With Alex Weinberg (UMCP ‘24) and Rohan Sharma, UMCP ‘23)
So we are way, way behind on things and the news cycle is just passing us by. We never claimed to break news, but we are hoping to provide valuable context and perspective. Meanwhile, co-author Alex has a cool summer internship and Rohan is stepping into the breach.
Top Story: Committee Work
VP Harris has a number of major committee assignments: immigration, space, broadband, and labor rights. Immigration has gotten the most attention (much to the chagrin of the administration, because it is an intractable issue), but she’s done important work in the other domains. In our last issue we discussed her game-changing move on space policy. The work continues as she’s since signed up some new participants to the Artemis Accords, an effort to establish norms for behavior in space. There has also been movement in the VP’s other committee assignments.
Big Events on Broadband and Border
On May 9, in a major White House event, featuring the President and Vice President, the administration announced an agreement with 20 major internet providers to expand access to low-cost internet, subsidized by the government.
At the Summit for the Americas, on June 7, Harris announced $2 billion in private investment for Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras (the main sources of illegal immigration to the U.S.) Harris’ assignment is to address the root causes of immigration which are generally seen as a combination of criminal violence and economic privation.
Labor Rights Buddies
Compared to these major public announcements, Harris’ work as co-chair of the administration’s efforts on labor rights seems like a bit of a sleeper. But The Washington Post had an odd story about the unlikely friendship between Vice President Harris and the committee co-chair Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. It was a bit on the fluffy side, but with some real policy juice buried within. The story focused on how Walsh, the working class Irish Boston mayor, and the VP, a woman of color and children of immigrants, have not only become political partners but also become friends.
YAAAAWWWNNNN – the plot of every “cop buddy” movie ever. It’s 2022, America is diverse and these kinds of friendships are pretty common, particularly considering that politicians are professionally likable. So why wouldn’t a pair of talented politicians become friendly?
The policy juice is that they are meeting weekly. Sure they may like one another, but high-level politicians don’t just chat over Dunkin (from Marty’s Boston.) They do stuff. They’ve issued a report with detailed recommendations on actions the federal government can take to enable “worker power, worker organizing, and collective bargaining.”
Harris and Walsh have also done lots of events, hitting the road and even had a presidential drop-in at a White House meeting for the labor organizers behind the Amazon and Starbucks campaigns. (The presidential drop-in is a long-standing practice in which the formal meeting was scheduled with the VP, but the president comes by – it’s a big boost personally and politically for the attendees.)
The first truly modern VP, Walter Mondale (we really can’t write anything about VPs without talking about Mondale) eschewed line assignments. He preferred acting as an across the board advisor, he’d also watched his mentor Hubert Humphrey and his predecessor Nelson Rockefeller, weighed down with committee work. But Mondale’s successor George H.W. Bush took on a number of these formal assignments including the administration’s de-regulation effort and a counter-terrorism working group (as well as chairing the administration’s crisis management committee.) Other VPs have continued to take on key issues for the president. Gore headed REGO – reinventing government. Cheney headed an energy commission. Biden oversaw the 2009 stimulus expenditure. Assigning the VP to a task is a sign that the administration is taking the issue seriously. Sometimes the results are substantially significant, but they are always politically significant.
What do these assignments really entail? Your lead author has a day job that includes planning workshops for a government agency. I just did a very well-received two-hour online event. Putting together a two hour event involved probably at least ten times that for planning. There was background research, getting buy-in from all the participating agencies, recruiting speakers, organizing the format, developing flyers, and much, much more. That was a two hour workshop. Now imagine a major White House event. There are teams of people working for weeks on this. And that’s just the event… the actual policy is a whole order of magnitude in time and effort.
For example the broadband effort involves the U.S. government paying telecoms to provide low-cost broadband. The U.S. government cannot simply write a check. Spending federal funds is a hugely complex process with innumerable details that need to be squared away with each of the twenty companies. There are meetings on top of meetings with innumerable small and large decisions to make. The VP sits on top of this process, making sure it comes to completion and making final decisions.
The private sector money for Central America is the opposite, the VP has to solicit the companies to contribute. With labor rights, developing the recommendations of federal actions on behalf of union organizing is also a massive, time consuming operation. It isn’t that the VP is combing through regs looking for options, but she is ensuring that the writers exhaust every possibility. Simply inventorying government authorities and programs to produce viable policy options is a major process. On all of these items, having the VP lead puts the weight of the White House behind the effort, which helps to ensure it is given adequate attention both within the government and for the public at large.
Besides space all of these committees face real limitations. Congress appears unlikely to authorize large-scale aid expenditures to Central America. Among other things, the governments are problematic and may not be eligible for many aid programs, again there are many limits on how the government can spend money. On labor rights, without major new pro-union legislation the impact of executive action alone is limited. In broadband, the expansion of low-cost high-speed internet will certainly expand access (and the larger subsidy for broadband in tribal communities will make a big difference.) But the real issue is expanding the broadband networks, not increasing access to the existing networks. The funds available to expand broadband networks cannot be spent until the FCC approves a map highlighting the nation’s broadband coverage. Those maps won’t happen as long as the FCC lacks a fifth commissioner. Ostensibly the nomination of Gigi Sohn for this position has been held up due to her views, but the reality is that telecoms are rent-seeking and prefer a divided FCC that can’t take major policy actions. (This is a reminder of the adage that in policy-making amateurs talk personality, professionals study institutions.)
While there may be practical limits on what any of these committees can conceivably accomplish, while Harris was receiving extensive negative attention, she was quietly working on some pretty big stuff.
What’s the VP Doing
A lot, to put it mildly. The VP has been doing innumerable events and interviews – we can’t hope to provide a full list. We’ll note a few and do some deep dives below. A core role of vice presidents in any administration is to serve “political red meat” to the base and many of these events, either articulating administration policy or announcing benefits, fall into that category.
- June 16, the LA Times Noah Bierman reported that the VP announced the expansion of postpartum health programs for low-income mothers to three additional states and D.C. Fifteen states are now covered, with about 250,000 eligible families, and several more have applied to participate in the program. Maternal health has been a Harris priority.
- Also today, the VP inaugurated a new task force to develop recommendations to counter online harassment – this initiative is in direct response to the recent mass shooting in Uvalde. The perpetrator had engaged in vicious behavior online. As discussed above, Harris has her hands full with committee work, so she isn’t chairing this effort. Her appearance at its launch does lend stature and credibility to its efforts, and highlights that the administration is acting response to the tragedy in Uvalde.
- VP Harris and the Second Gentleman made a surprise appearance at the D.C. Pride festival on June 13. Harris is not stranger to Pride events, they are de rigueur for Bay area politicos. (Too bad she didn’t break out her legendary rainbow beaded jacket.)
- June 1, VP Harris announced the cancellation of student loan debts of about 560,000 former students of Corinthian Colleges, a predatory for-profit college that closed in 2015. The debts total about $5.8 billion. As the California’s Attorney General, Harris secured a judgement against the institution that resulted in $1.1 billion in relief for former students. The original complaint against the school alleged it targeted poor Californians via ads and marketing campaigns that misrepresented the likelihood of students finding jobs.
- On May 24 VP Harris swore in Deborah Lipstadt as the State Department Special Envoy to Combat and Monitor Anti-Semitism. Last year Harris spoke to the ADL on combatting anti-semitism. Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff is Jewish (and held the first known Seder at the Vice President’s residence), and has also been outspoken on this issue – which hits close to home.
- On May 23, VP Harris joined Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in a visit to Children’s National Hospital, where they announced initiatives to address mental health issues among healthcare workers. This is part of a national effort to address mental health issues, but the pandemic stresses have led to a large-scale mental health crisis within the healthcare field. Who heals the healers?
- On May 18, VP Harris gave the commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy where she urged cadets to adhere to the rules and norms that underpin the United States. Semper Kamala!
- At the two-day ASEAN summit, VP Harris held a working lunch with South East Asian leaders on May 13 to discuss regional responses to climate change, energy infrastructure, and maritime security. Harris had traveled to the region last summer where she criticized Chinese claims in the South China Sea as undermining international law and sovereignty. This meeting reinforced this message.
- On May 10, VP Harris cast the tie-breaking vote to confirm Lisa Cook as a governor of the Federal Reserve Board. Professor Cook will be the first African-American woman to serve on the Fed board. That this vote required the VP to be the tie-breaker (usually Fed nominees have strong majorities) is important. We’ll discuss Harris’s historic tie-breaking role in-depth next issue.
- Vice President Harris’ May 3 keynote address to Emily’s List, a political action committee devoted to electing women to office, had been scheduled well in advance. But days earlier, a draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked and Harris used this address to criticise the Supreme Court decision and took a lead role as the administration’s spokesperson for reproductive rights. There have been numerous follow-on events and meetings on the potential implications of overturning of of Roe v. Wade. This included presiding over a vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act in the Senate – a strictly symbolic act, as the bill was doomed to fail.
- On April 29, VP Harris had a virtual meeting with 15 Caribbean leaders. Harris is well-suited to the role of Caribbean outreach, not only because of her own links to the region (her father is Jamaican), but because these smaller nations often don’t get the high-level attention they require. Presidents have a great deal to do, smaller states such as Suriname or the Dominican Republic – to say nothing of mini-states like Saint Lucia – can slip through the cracks. They are in our region and their issues can become our issues. Vice presidential attention both earns credibility in the region, and can also ensure that issues that may require high-level attention aren’t lost in the shuffle.
“You Die, We Fly”
Bush Sr. made this joke as VP, and many commentators have derided the VP funeral duty. Yet, there is a bit more to it than merely standing around and looking mournful. These trips are both symbolically important and can be practically important. Both of these aspects of the role can be seen in VP Harris’ recent trips to attend the funeral of the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates and to comfort the families of those murdered in Buffalo at the funeral of Ruth Whitfield.
Context and Analysis
VP’s had long been assigned “surrogate mourner” duty. There was some (mock) concern that the ebullient Hubert Humphrey wouldn’t be a good fit for the office because of an inability to be sad. Mondale, in re-shaping the office pushed back against the purely symbolic duties, but he did attend the funeral of Yugoslavia’s long-time president Josip Tito. Yugoslavs were offended that the president did not attend, but it was an opportunity for the VP to connect with leaders from around the world.
Bush Sr. may have quipped about his funeral duty, but actually used his attendance at state funerals (including three in the Soviet Union) to learn the political lay of the land and build personal connections that both helped Reagan and enabled his own major foreign policy achievements.
Harris’ trip to the U.A.E. was in the same vein. U.A.E. is a critical ally in the Middle East, but relations have been tense as the Biden administration seeks to engage with U.A.E.’s enemy Iran and to get the oil-rich emirate to increase production. Harris’ visit it both a chance to show respect and to engage the nation’s new leadership.
The visit to Buffalo is symbolic, but symbolism matters. Harris spoke at the funeral of the oldest victim of the massacre in Buffalo, but only did so at the behest of Rev. Al Sharpton. She called for unity, overcoming hate, and for increased firearms regulation. A symbolic act is not a substitute for action, but action is more likely if people see that you care.
What’s Doug Doing
There are some topics even too niche for us (which is saying something.) We always thought the doings of the second spouse would have to be taken on by some other enterprising academic. But our nation’s first Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff seems to have jumped into the role and is taking on quite a lot. He’s clearly relishing the public appearances that are part and parcel of being a political spouse, but leading the U.S. delegation to the inauguration of South Korea’s president was a whole new level of second spousing.
There is a modest (albeit gossipy) literature about First Ladies, including a recent Showtime series (sorry, I don’t subscribe so no reviews.) Some exceptional women have occupied the role – women who in other times would have risen far in their own right, such as Abigail Adams and Dolly Madison. Other propelled their husbands on, such as Florence Harding. Woodrow Wilson’s second wife was, when he was incapacitated by stroke, defacto president. Eleanor Roosevelt set a new standard for First Ladies as a major political asset. Other recent First Ladies have played significant roles: Jackie as a symbol of political Camelot, Nancy as a critical inside player, and Hillary tried to play an Eleanor Roosevelt role.
Second spouses have played a less significant role. John C. Calhoun’s wife Floride’s social shunning of Peggy O’Neill Eaton – wife of Andrew Jackson confidant a Secretary of War John Eaton led to the Petticoat Affair. It tied into the Nullification Crisis and the final breakdown of the patrician politics of the founders. For the next major role of a Second Spouse, we jump ahead to Garrett Hobart, VP to McKinley, and his wife Jennie Tuttle Hobart. Jennie was a charming socialite and talented hostess. McKinley’s wife suffered from epilepsy and was sometimes unable to fulfill her duties as hostess, Jennie stepped into the breach in a modest manner, avoiding any appearance of usurpation.
In more recent times, as the VP has grown in stature so has the role of the Second Lady. Insider VPs tend to bring politically experienced and savvy wives with them. Unsurprisingly, the big jump in the role of the Second Spouse occurred under Mondale (more on him below), as he re-invented the vice presidency. Mondale gave four of his staff positions to his wife. An artist, Joan Mondale was nicknamed “Joan of Art” for her advocacy for the arts and served as chair of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities. She managed to get GSA to put money into art in federal buildings and for the Department of Labor to expand opportunities for unemployed artists. As VP, Mondale fought to restore funding for the arts, when asked for his justification he replied, “Because I wanna stay married.”
Barbara Bush had a frosty relationship with First Lady Nancy Reagan and her role was limited, as was that of Marilyn Quayle (who was in fact very politically savvy.) Tipper Gore and Lynne Cheney were prominent figures in their own right. Jill Biden, who had been a Senator’s wife for decades stepped easily into the Second Spouse role. What is most remarkable about Dr. Biden is that she maintained an intense teaching load at Northern Virginia Community College, (and was an active and well-regarded faculty member), while also attending to her duties as Second Spouse. Finally, Karen Pence, an experienced political spouse, played a more active role given Melania Trump’s reticence in the public eye.
South Korea is a major ally with which we have an extensive joint warfighting capability. One would expect the delegation to be led by the Secretaries of State and Defense to lead, if not the President or Vice President – not the Second Gentleman and the Secretary of Labor. But it turns out Biden was traveling to the region just a few weeks later, so as a matter of protocol it was not appropriate to send top level officials to the inauguration. The South Koreans were in no way offended by the standing of the U.S. delegation. Emhoff did a bit of symbolic diplomacy, touring Seoul’s Gwangjang Market with Hong Seok-cheon, a South Korean celebrity who is gay. The Incoming South Korean administration has been less than enlightened on LGBTQ issues and this was an important message of support.
The bigger picture is the emergence of another asset. Time is the most valuable commodity for anyone, but particularly national leaders. The VP has emerged as a critical presidential surrogate. (Harris’ summit with Caribbean leaders is a good example of how the VP can fill gaps with constituencies and interests that the White House might overlook.) If the Second Spouse can take on some of the more symbolic duties, that’s another useful piece on the board.
VP tracker extraordinaire (and LA Times political reporter) Noah Bierman had a good column about the decline in frequency Biden-Harris lunches. Since Carter and Mondale revamped the vice presidency in the late 70s, the private lunch between the two has been sacrosanct. For the vice president, it was both a symbol and conduit of influence. Biden promised Harris the same deal he had with Obama, but Bierman finds the regular weekly lunches of their first year in office have become far less frequent (twice between January and May. Harris has been struggling in the polls, with staffing, and other issues. Is this, as some administration critics have reported, a sign of her diminished role in the administration?
Much of what is written in the newsletter comes back to Walter Mondale and his work re-defining the vice presidency with President Carter. In his memo to Carter proposing how to make the vice presidency a more useful and effective office, Mondale proposed a weekly private lunch. Carter agreed and while Mondale initially prepped and brought agendas, he ultimately found it was a great way to simply build a relationship. They could “let the hair down” and just talk about whatever was on the president’s mind. Sometimes it was political, but it could also be personal. The Mondale model of the vice presidency was generally seen as a success and presidents since have kept the weekly lunch with the vice president – including Obama and Biden. Gore, who liked ot maintain a disciplined schedule, would wait on the less punctual Clinton – sometimes having lunch at 3pm. Across the board, Vice presidents have found these lunches useful for building a working relationship and sometimes even a friendship. It was at one of their lunches that Biden told Obama about his son Beau’s cancer.
VP’s have also been diligent about not leaking the contents of the discussion. President’s don’t like leaks and will be hesitant to confide in anyone who violates their trust.
If these lunches are so important, and Harris is no longer having them so frequently, what does that mean for her position in the White House? Through much of early 2022, her vice presidency was receiving a great deal of criticism. (As written here before, some of that may have been ordinary growing pains, and further the situation has appeared to have stabilized as she’s brought in new staffers.) Was Biden’s distancing himself from a failing VP? This doesn’t seem terribly likely, his own popularity rating are a mere fraction above those of Harris. The country is suffering from high inflation and a range of other ills, Harris’ misteps were peripheral to these big policy problems.
It is also possible that Biden just doesn’t really like Harris much. Nixon couldn’t stand to be in the same room as Agnew. According to the LA Times tracking of the VP’s schedule, lunches and other meetings (such as receiving the PDB) haven’t picked up recently (although they lunched on June 15 and will lunch again today – June 21). But they did meet consistently in their first year in office, and given everything known about Biden, it probably isn’t that hard to build a connection with him.
The simplest explanation is probably best, quite simply they were both busy with travel (also Harris had to isolate with COVID). Both have been doing frequent events out of DC, both to prepare for the midterms and to deal with international affairs. Finally, when they are both in town, they have ample opportunity to speak, they can always pop-in on one another as her office is just down the hall.
Speaking of travel, another reporter who covers the VP’s doings, Politico’s Eugene Daniels, wrote an interesting article on Harris’ travel. She made a lot of trips to places not in swing states to announce initiatives. Daniels reports that there are several reasons: first to reach people who are often overlooked in DC, second to get ideas and feedback that inform her on policy, and finally to build her brand. The last is interesting because it includes both building her image by bypassing the DC-centered media but it also lays groundwork for future presidential primaries. The MIssissippi Delta, Alabama’s Black Belt, and southern Maryland may not be swing states, but they do vote in the primaries.
Analysis and Context
In the article Harris’ team stated that poor rural and urban areas can be overlooked in big policy initiatives. The VP’s travels to these places can bring attention to them and their needs and gives her information needed to inform policy-making. In short, it supports her committee work. According to the article she has brought specific proposals to relevant cabinet officers based on these trips.
The VP’s travel and increased media activity (and far fewer reported missteps) suggest that her staffing and communications challenges have been addressed and that the OVP is running more efficiently.
News of other Veeps
Pence vs. Trump
Former VP Pence is in open warfare with his former boss, President Trump. The January 6 Commission has highlighted Pence’s break with Trump over election certification. This feud has continued as both men prepare to run for president in 2024. In some quarters, Pence is being hailed a a hero, although it is unclear if this will be helpful in the GOP primary where it appears that the base remains enamored with Trump. Historically, whatever tensions exist between the President and the Vice President, they are usually kept under wraps. Sure Nixon couldn’t stand Agnew, Herbert Hoover didn’t like Charles Curtis, and Woodrow Wilson thought Thomas Marshall “a very small-caliber man.” But they didn’t say it in public. The great feud between Presidents and Vice Presidents was John Calhoun (mentioned above.) He served under both Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson and went to war with both of them. In these conflicts, presidents (even former ones) will generally win.
Putting that aside, a memorial service for former Vice President Walter “Fritz” Mondale was held on Sunday, May 1 at the University of Minnesota. No less than President (and former VP) Joe Biden spoke, remembering his long friendship with Fritz. They were political allies, of course, but Biden spoke movingly about their support for one another in their times of grief. Biden lost his wife and daughter shortly after being elected to the Senate and spoke of how Joan and Fritz helped him in his early days in the Senate. Later, Biden lost his son Beau to a brain tumor in 2015. Mondale lost his daughter Eleanor in 2011 to brain cancer. Both Senators from Minnesota spoke, describing how Mondale helped give them their start in politics. Politics is ultimately about people and politicians are people. They great politicians touch many both through their politics and personally.
When Mondale ran for President in 1984 he was portrayed as a bland politician in contrast to the charismatic Reagan. In fact, he was really funny and most speakers mentioned his quips.
Walter Mondale is central in the world of Veepology, he helped revamp the position. But in Mondale’s long political career, he had a string of achievements in criminal justice reform, civil rights, and on the world stage. May his memory be a blessing.
Haters Gonna Hate
We started this feature on the most outrageous criticism of the VP in our last issue, taking a light-hearted look at an article calling Harris the worst VP in U.S. history. This installment is a bit more serious. Bot Sentinel, founded by the enterprising Christopher Bouzy, is devoted to fighting disinformation and targeted harassment on Twitter. They issued reports both on Twitter’s Response to Abuse and Bigotry Directed at Vice President Kamala Harris and 1363 Abusive and Problematic Tweets Directed at Vice President Kamala Harris. As anyone who is or has followed the treatment of women of color on social media will know, the contents of this report are very much NSFW. The racial and sexist slurs on the VP are vile. The report states:
For the first 135 days of 2022, we identified 4,265 abusive and problematic tweets
disparaging Vice president Kamala Harris. We observed accounts flagrantly using
bigoted and obscene language, and we also observed accounts sharing
manipulated photos depicting Vice President Harris in lewd sex acts.
The report, however, isn’t just about the content, it is about Twitter’s response. 40 offensive Tweets were reported to Twitter, but only two were removed – one of which called for assassinating the vice president. While the Tweet was removed, the account was not suspended. Another tweet stated: i m going to kill kamala harris.
Twitter did not find that this was in violation of their terms of service. Under media pressure sparked by Bouzy’s research, over 1000 abusive tweets were removed.
It is Twitter’s prerogative as to how it will enforce its own standards – or whether it wishes to have standards at all. We’re not engaging on that issue here. It would be interesting to note how Twitter’s treatment of offensive tweets about the VP compare to their treatment of offensive tweets about other prominent individuals.
We are sharing this report only to highlight the racism and misogyny that the VP faces daily. If you think this doesn’t matter – you are wrong. Words matter.