The Kamala ’24 Question

Kamala Harris
Photo by Jabin Botsford via Getty Images
Peter Hamby
November 24, 2021

If you’re jonesing for further proof that Kamala Harris makes for a touchy conversation topic—and heading into Thanksgiving, why wouldn’t you be?—look no further than the fifth paragraph of Mark Z. Barabak’s Nov. 12 column in the Los Angeles Times, the one titled Kamala Harris, the Incredible Disappearing Vice President. Barabak, a mustachioed, sleeve-tattooed Deadhead from NorCal, has covered politics for nearly half a century, with over a decade’s worth of knowledge about Harris dating back to her district attorney days in the Bay. That kind of gravitas usually unburdens a reporter from giving a rip about blowback from internet scolds, especially ones on the left who waste their days tweeting at reporters to “Do Better.” And yet, here was the venerable Barabak in his column, inoculating himself against any suggestion that he was evaluating Harris differently because she’s a woman and a person of color. Harris has shed much of her star power since becoming Joe Biden’s vice president, he wrote, because “it remains a fact that the No. 2 job in the White House is inherently a diminishing one.” And then: “It’s neither racist nor misogynistic to point that out when the jobholder happens to be Harris.”

That much should be obvious to any high school government student. But Barabak, like many other reporters covering Harris, felt compelled to shoehorn this caveat into his copy, a prebuttal to the inevitable accusations of sexism and racism that follow even the gentlest criticisms of the history-making vice president. The press had conditioned itself to this phenomenon during Harris’s lackluster presidential bid, when criticisms of her shaky political instincts, obvious lack of message, and questionable staff management were met with howls of racism and sexism by Harris loyalists and her reactionary defenders in the so-called #KHive. Harris dropped out of the Democratic primary before Iowa, proving her critics, including plenty of people who currently work in and around the Biden-Harris administration, correct. 

Doubts about Harris’ political abilities didn’t suddenly evaporate once Biden added her to the national ticket. But Democrats put whatever concerns they had about Harris on the back-burner. The urgent task of removing Donald Trump from office was all that mattered at the time, and Harris would theoretically help shore up support among women and black voters, cornerstone demos in the Democratic coalition. Many people have told me that Biden and Harris have always had a warm relationship, thanks in part to the V.P.’s friendship with the late Beau Biden, who was attorney general of Delaware when she was doing the same job in California. Biden, back in 2014 when he was vice president, once left a congratulatory voicemail for Harris after she got engaged to attorney Doug Emhoff. Maybe their friendship had frayed by the time Harris was lashing Biden on a debate stage for palling around with segregationists in the Senate, an attack that reportedly infuriated Jill Biden, who said Harris could “go fuck herself” in a call with donors. But presidential tickets are still marriages of convenience, and questions about Harris’ political aptitude, and whether she would be ready to step into the presidency if something befell the 78-year old Biden, well … those would have to wait until after the election. 

The press covered Harris more favorably than in the primary, giving her high marks for her convention speech and her debate showing against Mike Pence. But otherwise, like any vice presidential candidate other than Sarah Palin, Harris quickly faded into the background, doing no harm, just as that job entails. If you remember anything from her campaign travels, it’s probably just a pair of meme-ish videos that bounced around social media: Harris bounding off her campaign plane wearing Chuck Taylors, a portrait of modern style, and that clip of her congratulating Biden on the phone after the election was called: “We did it, Joe. We did it.” 

As with her primary campaign, Harris concluded the general election without giving voters any memorable policy idea or sense of her worldview. Her message was simply her identity, which might have been enough to help Biden win an election at a moment of maximal expediency. But the doubts about her capabilities that first surfaced during her own presidential bid, tucked away for a few months in service of victory, are now coming home to roost, as Democrats begin to fret that Biden might only serve a single term, supposedly making Harris next in line come 2024. As one Democratic operative who worked with Harris in the general election told me: “She was unquestionably the right pick to win an election. But the right person to be vice president? Man, I actually don’t know.”

Maybe it’s her challenging vice presidential portfolio, including the thorny assignment of stemming migration from the northern triangle across the U.S.-Mexico border. Maybe it’s her tumbling approval ratings, currently at a dismal 38 percent, lower than any first-term vice president before her, including Dick Cheney. Or maybe it’s that the cautious tendencies and dubious instincts that reporters witnessed in press gaggles in Iowa and New Hampshire are now surfacing on the global stage. 

Whatever the reasons, the national media have clearly arrived at a place where they feel more comfortable talking about the limits of Harris’ heretofore only-whispered-about political appeal. Harris’ race and gender certainly play a role in some of the frivolous mockery that’s come her way, mostly on the right, where Harris was never taken seriously. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last week that “of course” Harris is the victim of such bias. “I do think that it has been easier, and harsher, from some in the right wing who have gone after her because she is the first woman, the first woman of color,” she said. The problem for the Biden-Harris administration, though, is that doubts about Harris and her future aren’t just confined to race-baiting MAGA memelords. They’re coming from plenty of Democrats, too, just like the one above.

The question of the vice president’s competence is suddenly flaring so prominently because of the unusual situation of her aging boss. Biden just turned 79, and says he will run for a second term, but it’s no sure bet. It’s likely he’ll make that decision around this time next year, over the holidays with his family. That prospect has placed Harris at the center of a bizarre, high-stakes vortex: She came into office with soaring expectations, at a time of grinding partisanship and huge challenges, but in an office that has only limited power and in a city where she lacks deep relationships, never really cultivated during her time in the U.S. Senate. It’s a wild paradox: Harris is the second-most powerful officeholder in American history, but suddenly facing nothing but downside. 

Exacerbating the problem is the way the national press covers the vice presidency. Policy announcements, ribbon cuttings, and factory visits get some local coverage, but rarely make it onto the national news. No one remembers that Dan Quayle ran the Council on Competitiveness, but everyone remembers how he spelled Potatoe. Reporters really only mention the Veep when there’s a gaffe, some bit of juicy personal gossip or a hint of infighting with the West Wing. With Harris, reporters are not only getting all of the above—and so are conservative chaos goblins who watch every speech and media appearance for one more damaging clip they can pump into the social media matrix. 

Harris is in quicksand right now. As with poll numbers, the press feasts on stories about staff feuding, creating a feedback loop of negative gossip that only feeds a larger media narrative about the V.P.’s shortcomings. Reporters are writing about frustrations with Harris inside the administration because—guess what?—there are genuine frustrations with Harris inside the administration. Just last week, Politico reported on the expectation that Harris won’t be able to scare off primary opponents like Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar or Elizabeth Warren if Biden declines to run again in 2024. That same day, CNN reported on the growing bitterness between the White House and the vice president’s office, which believes Harris was dealt a losing hand when Biden passed her a portfolio of unenviable jobs that don’t suit her interests or skills, making Harris uncomfortable off the cuff and leading to a series of unforced errors, like when she stumbled through her answer to an easy gotcha question from NBC’s Lester Holt about why she had not yet visited the border. “You should be putting her in positions to succeed, as opposed to putting weights on her,” a Harris donor told CNN. “If you did give her the ability to step up and help her lead, it would strengthen you and strengthen the party.” There was her speech, too, in Central America, sternly telling migrants “Do not come” to the United States, a clip that could be weaponized against her from the left in a future Democratic primary. “That’s not actually what Kamala would say to refugees in Central America,” another Harris defender in California told me. “Whoever wrote that line sucks.”

The tension between Harris loyalists and Biden advisers has strained relationships between their staffs. Cranky Harris staffers are leaking to the press without names attached, either out of genuine exhaustion from the chaos of their office, or with the de facto blessing of the vice president and her closest confidantes, who want to blame the tumult on anyone but Harris. Either way it looks terrible, dysfunctional and amateurish, and Biden staffers simply want them to shut up and be team players. “They are treating her like a child,” said the operative who worked with Harris in the general election. “I don’t understand why the fuck they are treating her like that. Going out with quotes like to the press complaining like they are, it’s all just baffling to me and it doesn’t help her at all.” Two consultants with Washington pedigrees, Lorraine Voles and Adam Frankel, have been brought in to help improve her public relations strategy. 

Several aides are already leaving or looking for new gigs in town, including her communications chief Ashley Etienne. Stories announcing her departure included the spin that it’s typical for White House staffers to leave after a year on the job. It’s not. “We are seeing a crescendoing narrative about a chaotic and dissatisfied vice presidency. And that is what’s weird,” said one person who worked for Harris as a senior staffer in California. “In political life, there will always be grumpy staff who don’t think they are getting their due by complaining to reporters. This situation is different. The fact that we are less than a year into the administration, and there is a steady drumbeat of complaints and dissent and doubt coming from her own advisors and surrogates? That can only come from one place: the principal. It’s obviously not a narrative that the White House wants. The V.P.’s [job] is to do the stuff the president can’t do or won’t do—it’s not supposed to be fraught and full of positioning and anxiety.”

After stories about that anxiety started popping in the Washington press, Psaki went on Twitter to call Harris a “vital partner” for the president. And Symone Sanders, the vice president’s chief spokesperson, distributed a statement saying that “some in the media” were focused on gossip rather than the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill or Harris’ diplomatic visit for France. I also reached out to Sanders twice for this story but have yet to hear back. Meanwhile, Harris herself was asked about the intrigue by George Stephanopoulous on Good Morning America, who asked if she was being “misused or underused” by the administration. “No,” Harris replied. “I don’t. I’m very, very excited about the work that we have accomplished. But I am also absolutely, absolutely clear-eyed that there is a lot more to do, and we’re gonna get it done.”

But even longtime supporters admit that the last 10 months have not been ideal. The hype and expectations surrounding her rapid ascent have been matched only by the limitations of the office and seismic, never-before-seen challenges facing the country. Brian Brokaw, who managed her 2010 campaign for attorney general and advised her Senate bid in 2016, said that Harris, only a decade removed from being a city prosecutor, is learning the job in real-time, under enormous pressure. “Stumbles along the path are inevitable and like any human, she isn’t perfect,” he told me. “But for someone to have had the success she has had in such a short window of time is almost unprecedented in modern politics. And clearly, she’s doing something right. She’s under a microscope like no other vice president in my lifetime, and she has detractors on the far right and even the far left who seem determined to make her fail. But anyone who has ever bet against her throughout her career—and I admit to being one of them at times—almost always gets it wrong.”

In reporting this story, I spoke to a dozen sources from Harris’ 17-year career in California politics, with the goal of sorting through her fundamental strengths and weaknesses and figuring out whether the recent drama swirling around the vice president is part of a long held pattern, or just a symptom of a first-year administration learning how to govern in the Washington viper’s nest. Some blamed Harris directly for abysmal management skills, noting that the vice president has few close advisers who have been with her throughout her career, outside of her sister Maya and brother-in-law Tony West

Barely anyone from Harris’ presidential campaign or Senate office went on to join her on the Biden campaign or in the White House—either because they chose not to, or because Harris declined to bring them along. Indeed, media post-mortems about her failed primary run were full of angry anonymous staffers sniping and blame-shifting, the journalistic equivalent of that Spiderman-pointing-at-Spiderman meme. “Look at the V.P.’s office, her campaign, her Senate office, her A.G.’s office,” the former Harris senior staffer told me. “They all had issues. Staffers have come and gone. The only constant, the only through-line, between all of those offices is Kamala Harris. It’s like when you hear about a guy who got divorced four times. I mean, maybe the problem is HIM? Problems don’t come from the bottom up. They come from the top down, from the principal.”

Many more allies I spoke to gushed about Harris’ warmth and personal touch, traits that rarely seem to come through in the tightly-managed bubble of the presidency. Michael Tubbs, who served as the first black mayor of Stockton, California, called Harris a mentor and recalled that when she was attorney general and he was a city councilman, Harris would frequently call him to dish and crack jokes. “What’s striking to me is, she is incredibly warm and affable. When my son was born, she called,” he told me. Tubbs was one of several California Democrats who pushed Biden’s team to pick her as the running mate, and said the public might have unfair expectations for Harris, especially given her pragmatic, incremental instincts. “We know that the president respects her, and she says yes to everything the White House wants, because she wants to be a good partner. But I also think the V.P. is more pragmatic than political. She likes to get stuff done, and she knows how to make progress. But everyone wants everything tomorrow.”

Almost every person I talked to about Harris—supporter, agnostic or detractor—spoke about her tendency toward caution. The dynamic is two-fold. Harris is instinctively guarded when it comes to her personal life, a trait she developed as she entered politics, in part to protect her family and in particular her beloved immigrant mother, who died in 2009. “She really is a private person,” said one friend who has known Harris since she was a prosecutor. “I think the transition from her going from law enforcement roles—district attorney and attorney general—into more political roles, that was hard for her. And the expectations surrounding her rise in politics coincided with the rise of social media, where there is more interest in your personal life.” Harris is politically cautious, too, multiple people told me, because of how she came up in politics. Her first elected positions were in law enforcement—district attorney and then California Attorney General—jobs that had to appear politically antiseptic even if they weren’t. And they didn’t have much room for actual policy-making or ideological grandstanding.

And so when Harris made the leap to the Senate, she had all the hype of a rising star, but not necessarily deep grounding in national or international policy issues, beyond the ones that surface in legal briefs. It’s one reason, perhaps, that Harris sometimes comes off as wobbly and unprepared in interviews about subjects that aren’t in her strike zone, like immigration. But it also means that Harris tends to opt for safer, more scripted settings, often with the guidance and protection of staffers. “She wants to hear people’s opinions about her, sometimes to a fault,” said one staffer who worked for her in 2020. Said another: “She is both insecure but also incredibly confident. It’s an interesting combination.” All of that second-guessing can lead to staged moments that seem fake, hollow or just plain Veep-y, like when she appeared in a bizarre video about space exploration with child actors. Or, when she delivered that scripted debate attack against Biden during the primary race, coming close to calling her future boss a racist on national television. 

But the most revealing moment of her spiraling campaign, the one that her once and future Democratic rivals remember well, happened a few months later in an August 2019 debate, when gadfly candidate Tulsi Gabbard eviscerated Harris for her record of prosecuting marijuana offenses in San Francisco, while accusing her of blocking evidence in another case that might have freed a man on death row. On a subject Harris knows best—the law, in California!—she was caught flat-footed, muttering only a limp response, demonstrating once again the frailty of her off-the-cuff political abilities. She tumbled further in the polls before dropping out of the Democratic race in December. 

Unscripted moments like those reveal the truth about a politician’s raw talents. Other Democrats looking to one day succeed Biden know it, too, because there really is no such thing anymore as a vice president being “next in line,” a quaint idea that vanished with Al Gore. Dick Cheney wasn’t next in line, John McCain was. Joe Biden wasn’t next in line, Hillary Clinton was. And Harris doesn’t get to be the next Democratic nominee just because she has an office in the E.E.O.B., or because her Twitter stans or loyalists say she deserves it. As with her last campaign, Harris will only be the Democratic nominee if she climbs back from the depths and takes the trophy from her rivals and critics, finding a way to bend the affections of the electorate, and the media, in her direction. And that’s plainly not what’s happening right now.