If you look at the assignments Kamala Harris has been given during her tenure as vice president, it’s pretty easy to think that she’s getting the short end of the political stick. First, she was tasked with taking on immigration: After mostly staying in D.C. during the pandemic, Harris is on her first international trip, a visit aimed at helping Guatemala and Mexico stem migration. She’s also been assigned to help protect voting rights that are under attack across the country. It’s hard to know what to call her job, why she’s being saddled with the tasks she’s been saddled with, and what this may portend for her future political prospects. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Atlantic staff writer Edward-Isaac Dovere about why Harris’ vice presidency may feel simultaneously familiar and unlike anything you’ve seen before. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: I’ve heard Harris’ résumé described as a high-risk, high-reward résumé, where she could take things that don’t work out—but if she does work something out, it could be great for her. Is that how you see it as well?
Edward-Isaac Dovere: I think being vice president is high-risk, high-reward. Running for president is also very much high-risk, high-reward. I would say the chances that Kamala Harris runs for president again are quite high, right? She’s going to need to show people that she has done some things, and those things are going to need to resonate if she wants to have a successful future campaign, almost certainly.
The issue she has as a vice president is that she asked to not have one portfolio, and to be involved in everything, even as she’s gotten these smaller, additional priorities. That makes it hard to shine a light on any one thing. I was one of the people who asked her questions when she was running for president. I said, there are a lot of people running saying that they’re identified with one big issue—Elizabeth Warren was very much about the economy, Pete Buttigieg was on the generational argument, Jay Inslee was running on climate change. What’s the thing that Harris going to be identified with? She says, I don’t want to be identified with just one thing, I’m for all of these things. That’s correct, but it’s hard because voters need things to attach themselves to. Her campaign started to come apart because people felt like they didn’t have anything to grab onto. Now she wants to give them a variety of hooks in addition to the fact that she’s vice president and she’ll be associated with Joe Biden and she can get a lot of benefit from being connected to his brand if the presidency is successful.
One of the advantages of taking on this immigration challenge is that it gives the vice president foreign policy experience. She’s meeting with heads of state. The question is whether taking on a problem she’s unlikely to solve will help or hurt her.
Right. John Cornyn, Republican senator from Texas, said to me that he feels like Biden handed her a grenade, pulled the pin, and walked away. Politically, no one wants to touch immigration. It’s bad news to try to say that you’re going to fix the problem because it is such a complicated and seemingly intractable problem. That’s unfortunate.
What would success in this role look like for Harris? Is one level of success just getting foreign leaders on speed dial, and then is another level getting something done?
The problem is, let’s say there’s some improvement, not that everything’s all solved, but that things are starting to look better by 2024. For most people, it will look like Joe Biden made things better, and it’ll be hard for her to say no, that was me.
She doesn’t even get the credit.
If there is success, it’s Biden’s success, and if there is not success, it’s mostly Biden’s lack of success. And when it comes to the immigration situation, how much will Harris’ tasks make a difference in people’s perception of what was going on? If she can say, well, we had productive conversations with the leaders of Guatemala and other countries, and that led to some incremental policy changes that hopefully over time will mitigate the migration crisis—that’s a lot harder to say.
That’s what being a vice president is like. You are there to support the president, and so any success you have, the shine goes to him. The failures are on him too. But what’s interesting to me about watching what’s happening with Harris and immigration is that Republicans are trying to make a lack of action her problem. That may be because they have more trouble making things stick against Biden—he doesn’t rile up their base in the same way. There’s a little bit of it that’s a vice president problem and there’s a little bit of it that is just all about her and how she’s perceived.
I think there’s a lot of it that’s about her and how she’s perceived. And there’s an incentive for Republicans who think they will be facing her as a presidential candidate in 2024 or 2028. They can start taking shots at her now and building up negative impressions of her now. Biden has proved largely impervious to Republican attacks.
Immigration isn’t the only intractable issue Harris has on her plate. She’s also been tasked with protecting voting rights at the state and national level. The New York Times actually reported that she asked to be the lead on this topic. It feels like something that is big and hard to do, but does she see it that way?
Well, she sees it as something that you could fail in, but she also sees it as something that she could have success with. It may not be success in getting state legislatures to change voting restrictions, or even in getting something like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act through Congress—but rather in rallying people to this cause. This connects to a woman who has long seen herself as fighting for civil rights, fighting for more political power for people of color. There’s a lot of reason to want to be associated with someone who has been fighting for this cause or will be fighting for this cause. How things will it get done if through a lot of political pressure that is created over this.
What does that look like? Does that look like her going to states with senators who are maybe feeling a little bit fragile on the issue, and rallying people directly?
That would probably be part of it. I think there you see the outside game is going to be a big piece of it. That means not just bucking up Democrats, but putting pressure on Republicans, like, “How are you voting against the John Lewis Act?” If they can create a level of pressure and shame, that is probably the only way this gets passed in the Senate. It’s not going to be because she haggles over paragraphs in the bill. This public role, that seems to me where she could probably be more powerful, than in leaning on Senate relationships.
I wonder a little bit if your perspective is that it’s kind of funny we’re asking these questions. We wouldn’t be asking these questions necessarily about previous vice presidents: What are they doing? Should they be doing more or less, or handling more or less sensitive issues? But because of who Kamala Harris is, she bears this burden of inquiry about what she’s doing and why she’s doing it.
I think that that’s exactly right. These are not questions that were asked of Mike Pence or Joe Biden or Dick Cheney. There were other questions asked about Cheney as vice president. But are a lot of people who look to Harris and want things out of her, want her to be the vessel for progressive politics, want her to be the representative of people of color, want her to be the leader for women, want her to do all these things that they might not be getting out of the Biden administration. She is historic in her role. That pressure is reflected, I think, in the attention to it.
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