Kamala Harris can’t fix her office, much less the border
President Joe Biden has a problem, and her name is Kamala Harris. The vice president has become a comic figure in today’s Washington—a politician given to missteps and unforced errors who inspires neither loyalty nor trust within her inner circle. She might have been Biden’s safest pick for running mate. But now she’s a liability for both the president and the Democratic Party.
It’s not just that Harris is unpopular. Her unique combination of falsity and incompetence generates negative press and endangers her dreams of succeeding Biden. For Harris, the month of June has been an extended replay of highlights from Veep, the HBO comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a clueless and floundering politician on the make. Only Harris isn’t laughing.
Her favorability among registered voters is 7 points underwater in the latest Economist/YouGov survey. Biden’s approval, by contrast, is split even: 48 percent approve, and 48 percent disapprove. More worrisome for Harris is her “very unfavorable” rating. It’s at 40 percent. That’s 3 points higher than Biden’s number—and just 3 points short of Nancy Pelosi’s.
The reason for Harris’s unpopularity is no mystery. It’s her performance. She has a problem following through. She’s fine when working from a script, but she stumbles whenever she must improvise. The classic example came early in the 2020 campaign. Harris attacked Biden during a primary debate for opposing school busing in the 1970s. The moment went viral—and then evaporated. Harris couldn’t rebut Biden’s arguments against Medicare for All. She couldn’t withstand Tulsi Gabbard’s criticism of her record as California’s state attorney general. She didn’t make it past the first week of December 2019.
Last August, when Biden asked her to join the Democratic ticket, Harris took the Hippocratic Oath of running mates: first, do no harm. She lived up to the pledge. She followed the Biden strategy of letting President Donald Trump hog the stage and self-destruct. She made no great mistakes during her debate with Vice President Mike Pence. And she barely made a sound during the presidential transition. The biggest flap concerning Harris was over a Vogue cover shoot that annoyed her Very Online fan base.
It was Biden who set Harris up for a fall. By May, the surge in illegal crossings at the southern border had become impossible to ignore. Biden said the vice president would lead the administration’s response. This was a gargantuan and impossible task. After all, Biden’s reversal of Trump’s immigration policies is behind the increase in illegal immigration. And there’s no way Harris would contradict her boss, even if she wanted to.
Harris immediately distanced herself from her assignment. She recast her mandate as a diplomatic effort to address the “root causes” of migration. (The root cause is simple: America is a better place to live than the Northern Triangle of Central America.) Her evasion was transparent—and Republicans began criticizing her for refusing to visit the border. But the Harris team doubled down, scheduling a trip to Guatemala and Mexico in early June. It was a disaster.
Harris meant to strike a tough tone during her visit to Guatemala City. “Do not come,” she told potential migrants. But her message was undercut: first by Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei, who blamed Biden’s “lukewarm” rhetoric for the rise in migration, and then by NBC News anchor Lester Holt, who asked Harris why she was several thousand miles away from the border. A flustered Harris laughed awkwardly and tried to dodge before blurting out, “And I haven’t been to Europe!” Louis-Dreyfus couldn’t have delivered the line any better.
Harris’s inane reply amplified Republican charges that she was avoiding the real issue. By the time she returned from her trip, it was obvious that Harris would visit the border sooner rather than later. The question was when. On June 25, less than a week before Trump was scheduled to visit Texas, Harris hurriedly went to El Paso. The Democratic bastion is far from the Rio Grande valley that has been the busiest site of illegal activity. But Harris managed to get through her day trip without incident. The fallout didn’t arrive until later.
The voyage to El Paso illustrated another Harris vulnerability: She’s a terrible manager. Leaks and infighting bedeviled her short-lived presidential campaign. Working for her is hazardous to your health. Or at least that’s what an anonymous source told Politico on June 30. The blockbuster story, carrying three bylines and based on interviews with 22 “current and former vice-presidential aides, administration officials, and associates of Harris and Biden,” left no doubt that Harris runs a dysfunctional operation. “It’s not a place where people feel supported but a place where people feel treated like s—,” said a “person with direct knowledge of how Harris’s office is run.” Imagine what they say on the office Slack channel.
Biden adviser Anita Dunn told Politico that the situation was “not anywhere near what you are describing.” Perhaps it’s worse. One of Harris’s former Senate aides said, “The boss’s expectations won’t always be predictable.” Not exactly what you want in a leader. Politico says Harris “excels when those around her project calm and order, creating a sense of confidence and certainty.” Unfortunately, confidence and certainty are precisely those qualities that go missing in the ad hoc, improvisational, contingent, and situational world of global politics.
More interviews and stories like these and Harris will soon be living the politician’s worst nightmare: becoming a punchline. A cynic might say that Biden purposely handed Harris the toughest assignments to redirect negative public sentiment away from the Oval Office and to displace the frustrations and embarrassments he experienced during eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president. Democratic strategists worry that Harris exhibits none of Biden’s strengths, such as they are, while shouldering all his weaknesses. That doesn’t bode well if Biden opts not to run in 2024.
Then again, in the third season of Veep, the fictional president steps down. Louis-Dreyfus’s character becomes president. Think Harris is funny now? The joke might be on us.