Is Kamala Harris Being Set Up to Fail?

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S1: Now, the vice president, Kamala Harris, his first international trip

S2: since taking office, going to Latin, if you flip on the TV this week, you’re going to hear a lot about Kamala Harris on the road. Vice President Kamala Harris arrives right now.

S1: She’s in Guatemala to address the migrant surge at the southern border. And the Democrats

S2: after being stuck in D.C. during the pandemic. The vice president is on her first international trip, meeting with the leaders of Guatemala and Mexico to talk about how to prevent the flow of migrants north into the United States, going to

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S1: Latin America on a major mission to reduce the flow of migrants to the US border.

S2: This is all part of her new role on immigration, but it’s hard to know what to call this job. She’s not the border czar. She’s not fixing the Kafkaesque bureaucracy immigrants face when they come to this country. When this was announced, her new role, they said she’s in charge of the border.

S3: Right. And and that was a mistake.

S2: Isaac Duval has been following Kamala Harris, his life as a politician for a long time now.

S3: That was not how Joe Biden had conceived of it, but that was what came out. And that now, months later, continues to haunt her and I assume will continue to be a problem for her.

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S2: So this is like a foreign policy assignment.

S3: Yes. And it’s like this is a really complicated issue. You take this piece of it. But there were some issues that happened right out of the gate. First of all, a number of Republicans immediately leapt on and have continued to leap on the idea that that should mean that she goes to the border, that she fixes the border.

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S2: When Isaac says Republicans leapt on this idea, it means they got in front of cameras with a milk carton that they’d mocked up to have a picture of Kamala Harris on it. It said she was missing at the border and he means Fox News has been counting each day. The vice president doesn’t have a press conference, even though vice presidents don’t really have press conferences.

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S3: It is a willful, politicized interpretation of what’s going on here. But a lot of Congress has has devolved into stunt politics like that.

S2: To me, the story is like a good example of what’s happening with the vice president’s tenure more broadly, just like it hasn’t really gelled exactly what she’s doing. And there are these questions of what’s going on, like what should be going on.

S3: Yeah, and it’s a tricky thing, right? Because there was never this kind of question about like, well, what is George H.W. Bush’s role within the Reagan administration? You know? Right. This is about our own modern expectations of the vice presidency. And I think importantly, this is about the expectations on Kamala Harris specifically. It’s been a little unclear whether she was ever even in the White House before she went in on her first day as vice president, if she was, it was like for a reception. And actually what her job is as vice president is to learn about all these aspects of government and of the presidency that she did not know about.

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S2: Today on the show, Kamala Harris settles in why her vice presidency may feel simultaneously familiar and unlike anything you’ve seen before. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. If you look at the assignments Kamala Harris has been given as vice president, it’s pretty easy to think she’s getting the short end of the political stick. First, she was tasked with taking on immigration, then voting rights. Joe Biden’s even joked about it, saying she didn’t realize when she signed up for this job she’d be getting every assignment. But Isaac says this is the way Harris wants it. She likes biting off more than she can chew. I’ve heard her resume described as like a high risk, high reward resume where she could do things that don’t work out. But if she does have something worked out, it could be great for her. Is that how you see it as well?

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S3: I think being vice president is high risk, high reward, running for president, as we both expect her to do at some point in the future, is very much high risk, high reward. The chances that Kamala Harris runs for president again, I would say are quite high, right?

S2: I take 100 percent.

S3: So let’s let’s be conservative and say 99 percent. Right. She has run for president before. She clearly wants it. 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 that she has as a vice president is that she asked to not have one portfolio to be involved in everything, even as she’s gotten these smaller, additional priorities. And that makes it in itself hard to shine on any one thing. Except now when she gets these priorities, when she gets these special assignments, that’s where there is the ability to do it. Now, when she’s running for president in twenty, twenty or in the twenty twenty primary campaigns, there’s a lot of hesitation that I that I get into my book about her taking a lead on one thing and saying this is what I’m identified with. The day that she announced she was running for president, she she did an appearance on Good Morning America and then took the train from New York back to D.C. and went to the campus of Howard University, where she went to college and she did a press conference. And I was one of the people asked her questions then. And I said there are a lot of people running saying that they’re identified with one big issue for Elizabeth Warren. It was very much about the economy. I said people to judge its writing on the generational argument. Jay Inslee is running on climate change. What’s the thing that you’re going to be identified with? And she pushes back on me and you can see how she talked about it. Then she says, I don’t want to be identified with just one thing. I’m for all of these things. And that was on the one hand, correct, that she felt like there there’s a holistic answer to all of this, but also it’s hard voters need things to attach themselves to. And so when her campaign started to come apart is because people felt like they didn’t have anything to grab onto. And now she wants to give them a variety of hooks in addition to the fact just that she’s the vice president and that she’ll be associated with Joe Biden and hoping that Joe Biden has a successful presidency and she can get a lot of benefit from being connected to his brand.

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S2: One of the advantages of taking on this immigration challenge is that it’ll give the vice president foreign policy experience. Suddenly, she’s meeting with heads of state, something she wasn’t really doing as a senator. The question is whether taking on a problem she’s unlikely to solve will help or hurt her.

S3: John Cornyn, the senator from Texas, Republican, very much opposed to the Bush administration, said to me for the reporting for this piece that he feels like Biden handed her a grenade, pulled the pin and walked away. Look, 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. And unfortunately, that has been the way that most of the approach to immigration has been by Congress, by administrations over decades here. And and you see that people look at complicated issues in Washington and often walk away from them. And that’s unfortunate. There’s something potentially know. Let’s see what it actually looks like. But at least the effort of saying we’re going to try here to do something actually make a difference, that should be a good thing. But of course, we can all look at it with our political hats on. And why would you want to try to do something that has a pretty high risk of failure?

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S2: So what would success in this role look like for Kamala Harris? Like is one level of success just getting foreign leaders on speed dial and then another level is is getting something done?

S3: Yeah, one of the dynamics that I’ve written about here is that her problem also is that let’s say that it works out that there’s some improvement, not that it’s all solved, but that things are starting to look better by 2020 for, you know, for most people that will look like Joe Biden got things better and it’ll be hard for her to say no, no, no, that she didn’t

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S2: even get the credit.

S3: Right. And that’s her problem as the vice president and vice president, but especially given all the hopes and aspirations and ambitions that are placed on her, in addition to her own hopes and and aspirations on all sorts of issues, that if there is success, it’s Joe Biden’s success. And if there is not success, it’s mostly Joe Biden’s lack of success. But it’s hard for her to be the one to say, hey, I want this is about me, especially because she’s got when it comes to the immigration situation, realistically, a pretty carved out portion of it, right where she. How much will it make a difference in people’s perception, at least 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.

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S2: Well, I guess the interesting thing for me is I think there’s a little bit in what you’re saying, which is just that’s what being a vice president is like. You are in the sidecar and you are there to support the president. And so, yes, any success you have, the shine goes to him. And, you know, in some ways that’s OK, because failures, that kind of is on him, too. But what’s interesting to me about watching what’s happening with Kamala Harris and immigration is that Republicans are trying to make a lack of action, her problem. And that may be because they just have more trouble making things stick against Joe Biden. It doesn’t rile up their base in the same way. And so Kamala Harris may be in this unique situation as vice president, being a black woman, being a South Asian woman, being all these firsts where there’s a little bit of it that’s just a vice president problem and there’s a little bit of it that is just all about her and how she’s perceived.

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S3: I think there’s a lot of it that’s about her and how she is perceived. And I’ll just add one other factor to it. There’s there’s a an incentive for Republicans who think that they will be facing her as a presidential candidate, perhaps as soon as 2024. But if Joe Biden holds to what he said, probably in twenty twenty eight, that they can start taking shots at her now and building up negative impressions of her now, it is a huge piece of this. Joe Biden has proven largely impervious to Republican attacks, to the point that you have Republican senators who are saying, oh, we’d be able to make deals with him if not for his staff, his staff was in charge. Let me tell you something. I have spent a lot of time reporting on Joe Biden reporting on this White House. What is happening at the White House is that Joe Biden’s direction, he is in charge. And despite that and despite the fact that he is pushing for a lot of things that Republicans never thought he would, they can’t really land a punch on him. And I think that that relates to all the things we’ve been talking about, that relates to the fact that he’s an older white guy. And, look, it’s easier for them to to land on Harris. And so that’s what they’ve been doing

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S2: after the break. Vice President Harris takes on voting rights. So immigration isn’t the only intractable issue on Kamala Harris plate. She’s also been tasked with protecting voting rights at the state and national level. And The New York Times actually reported that she asked to be the lead on this topic, which I don’t know if it should have surprised me, but I guess it did, because it feels like something big and hard to do, the same way that immigration seems big and hard to do. So does she see it that way? I’m kind of curious. Like, does she see this as possibly a place where she could fail or does she see something else?

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S3: Well, she sees it as something that she could fail in, but she also sees that as something that she could have success on, if maybe not success in getting state legislatures to change. How many of them have been approaching voting restrictions or maybe not even in getting something like the John Lewis Act through Congress, but in rallying people to this cause? I think this is actually a more natural fit for work that she did before she was vice president. All right. And so whereas in immigration, you see she’s acting as sort of an apprentice, studying up on it and diplomatics up. This is next to a woman who has long seen herself as part of fighting for civil rights and fighting for more political power for people of color. This is this is an important issue. And it’s certainly proving an important issue, both structurally and politically for Democrats. There’s a lot of reason to want to be associated with the one who has been fighting for this cause or will be fighting for this cause.

S2: I hear what you’re saying. But something that stood out to me about this assignment is that a lot of experts feel there needs to be national legislation on the voting rights issue for progress to be made. But being a Senate deal maker is not what Kamala Harris has been known for. And I wonder a little bit if that’s a problem.

S3: Well, I don’t think that we’re likely to see a Senate deal in the traditional sense. You’re not going to have at this moment, right. As 60 votes, 10 Republican senators who support a voting rights legislation, it’s just not going to happen. So the question is, especially when we see Joe Manchin saying he won’t support the larger for the people act is what it’s called, but would want to support the John Lewis Act. Is there a way to create that as a politically viable enough situation that it not only gets Joe Manchin, but actually draws enough Republican senators that they can get that through? That is not going to be done by sitting in across the conference table and making deals. This is not how things work anymore in the Senate. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it will be done if there is a lot of political pressure that is created over this.

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S2: So what does that look like? Does that look like her going to these states with senators who are maybe feeling a little bit fragile and rallying people directly?

S3: Probably that would have to be part of it. I think there you see the outside game is going to be a big piece of it. And that means not just bucking up Democrats, but putting pressure on on Republicans and making it seem like how are you voting against the John Lewis Act? And if they can create a level of pressure and a level of shame, then that is probably the only way that that gets passed in the Senate. Just realistically. Again, it’s not going to be because she haggles over paragraphs in the bill. It’s not what’s going to happen.

S2: It’s interesting because you’re really putting forward a vision for what she might do here with this voting rights priority. That’s a little bit different than how I assumed it would be done, which is, you know, she’s Kamala Harris is known for a kind of prosecutorial style. And what you’re suggesting is that she might lean on that and sort of lean into that rather than some kind of soft touch inside politics, which is, frankly, what Joe Biden might have done in that role.

S3: Yeah, and of course, they come out with very different backgrounds. Right. Part of the reason why Barack Obama picked Joe Biden was because he had the relationships on the Hill. Now, I don’t know that Harris will go and take this public role, but it seems to me like that’s where she could probably be more powerful than leaning on relationships that, as you point out, for the most part, aren’t there in the Senate.

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S2: The advantage Isaac sees here for the Kamala Harris, who may see herself in the Oval Office one day, is that taking to a podium, rallying voters? All of that is a chance to reintroduce herself to Americans, maybe even adjust how she’s perceived right now. He says there’s a public Kamala and a private Kamala, and that’s because she’s spent a good long while protect. ING herself from critics,

S3: there’s a lot in my book about the difference between the politicians as you see them at the podium and who you see behind the scenes. And as I was thinking about it, the one who the divergence is actually, I think the greatest of all the people who ran for president in twenty twenty in the primaries is probably Harris, who is just she’s very different there. All these moments in the book of like she is pressed by people close to her when she’s decided to run for president, what she’s going to say about her record as a prosecutor and the political liability of it. And her response is kind of a joking. She turned the case is made to her and a private meeting and by her brother in law, who is a high ranking official in the Justice Department. And her response is kind of like a laughing, a more lighthearted but a nonchalant. Yeah, I like some amphoras up. She again uses the full words there. And and what one of the things they point out in the book is that she really likes that word. But she also she’ll correct people’s pronunciation on it if the full word she doesn’t like it when you say with hours. So it needs to add with and you know, that’s not something that I think people would think about her.

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S2: Yeah, no, not at all. Oh, definitely. Something would ever come out of Mike Pence his mouth.

S3: Certainly not. But you see that level of looseness to it. And as I’ve done reporting about how she’s been thinking about her role vis a vis Biden, she comes back sometimes from meetings and certainly earlier in the presidency. This was true. It’s she’s got more used to it. And she’ll say she’ll sort of marvel at how he is the same guy behind the scenes as he is in public. And part of the reason why that strikes her so much is because she’s not because she does put up this wall around her. And I think there are a lot of things that go into it. One of the people that I spoke to also was a woman named Kim Fox, who’s the state’s attorney in Cook County in Chicago, a black woman whom Harris had mentored a little bit as another black woman prosecutor. And Fox said to me that, you know, we spend a lot of time thinking about people as they break the glass ceilings, but we don’t spend as much attention on the cuts that they get to their head as they go.

S2: It’s interesting, this whole conversation. You know, we’ve talked about this confusion over, you know, what exactly is Kamala Harris is brief and, you know, how is she going to be able to insert herself in these issues that are pretty nuclear? I wonder a little bit if your perspective, though, is that it’s kind of funny that we’re asking these questions, like we wouldn’t be asking these questions necessarily about the previous vice presidents that we’ve had about like what are they doing? And, you know, 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.

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S3: And I think that that’s exactly right. These are not the questions that were asked of Mike Pence or Joe Biden or Dick Cheney. There were other questions asked about Dick Cheney as vice president. But there is a lot there are a lot of people who look to her 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. They want her to to do all these things that they thought that they might not be getting out of the Biden administration or may still not be getting out of the Biden administration. She is historic in her role. Right. All the people who’ve been elected president, vice president, it’s a lot of men and it’s only one person other than her who’s not quite right. There’s a lot on her. There’s a lot on her. And and that pressure is reflected, I think, in the attention to it. The fact that I’m not sure that I would have set out to write a story about Mike Pence, his vice presidency this soon into the vice presidency. I’m not sure that you guys would have been doing a podcast about it, but it’s part of what comes with being Kamala Harris.

S2: Well, it’s funny because it’s like you made this case that she is one everyone knows. She’s a transformational figure. She’s the first person to hold this role at first for so many people in the United States. But you made the case that she’s actually a pretty middle of the road, typical vice president going into this role, wanting to do the normal vice president things. And so that’s maybe where the disconnect is, where, you know, her optics are first black woman, first woman for South Asian woman. But in reality, she’s there to do the same thing that a bunch of white guys have done beforehand.

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S3: Yeah. And I mean, look, you sort of could play out a counter history to this. What if what if she were aggressive, aggressively pushing herself into lots of different roles? What if she were holding her own press conferences all the time? I think that there might be a lot of attacks on her for, oh, is she a diva? Is she ambitious? All those things that are very gendered and carry a lot of other thoughts within them. So that’s another thing. That’s a real issue for her to try to navigate.

S2: Isaac Veer, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you. Edward Isaac Dover is a staff writer for The Atlantic. His new book is called Battle for the Soul Inside the Democrats Campaigns to Defeat Trump. It is out now. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Linda Schwartz, Davis Land, Carmel, Dilshad, Marie Wilson and Daniel Hewitt. We are helped each and every day by Allison Benedict and Alicia McMurry. And I’m Mary Harris. Stay tuned to this feed. I’m not going to be here tomorrow, but Mary Wilson will be she’s going to give you a total rundown on the New York mayoral race. And I’m so hyped to see what she found. You’re not going to want to miss it. I will catch you back here on Thursday.