Essential Politics: A TV interview backfired for Kamala Harris. It was a small stumble with a big lesson

Vice President Kamala Harris and her family
Vice President Kamala Harris, center, her husband, Doug Emhoff, left, and their family arrive at the White House after the inauguration.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

At the end of a segment with Vice President Kamala Harris last week, the news anchor for WSAZ in Huntington, W.Va., pointed out how unusual it was that “the White House actually reached out to us for that interview.”

Indeed, it’s not every day that the vice president calls a small-market television news station looking to chat.

The station was pleased with the high-level access, but the brief video interview backfired on Harris and has become the first public stumble in her short tenure as vice president.


Good morning, and welcome to the Essential Politics newsletter, Kamala Harris edition. As I promised in my first installment on Inauguration Day, I will spend much of my time dissecting Harris’ role and level of clout in the Biden White House.

Today I’ll explain why the West Virginia interview — though hardly fatal — provides an early lesson in how tricky politics at this level is and how many landmines await Harris as she tries to carve out a role in the Biden administration.

All stimulus is local

Let’s back up to Thursday, when Harris recorded two interviews from her office in the White House to sell the administration’s $1.9-trillion COVID-19 relief package.

The segments with stations in Huntington and Phoenix were intended to apply a little hometown pressure — or perhaps offer political cover — to two moderate Democrats whose votes are crucial to passing the bill: Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Harris stressed the “crisis of unbelievable proportion” and the need to get people vaccinated and back to work and school.

Manchin was not happy with Harris’ virtual appearance in his home state.

“I saw it. I couldn’t believe it. No one called me,” Manchin told WSAZ, on Friday. “We’re going to try to find a bipartisan pathway forward, but we need to work together. That’s not a way of working together.”

Why the outrage? Senators don’t like surprises and Manchin does not like to feel pressured.

“He’s the only statewide Democratic official in his state and you’re going to his home turf without even calling him,” Jonathan Deem, Manchin’s former chief of staff, told me. “You’re going to get a little wrist slap for a mistake like that.”

Manchin, perhaps the most independent and conservative Democrat in the Senate, is particularly sensitive to the idea that he would take orders from Washington.


He launched his first Senate campaign in 2010 with an ad showing him using President Obama’s top priority at the time, a “Cap and Trade” environmental bill, as target practice. Before shooting a hole through the bill, Manchin promised “to get the federal government off of our back and out of our pockets.”

In her interview, Harris not only tried to make the case for the big spending bill, but she also answered tough questions about the administration’s environmental policy, which many in the state fear will kill off coal and gas jobs. Harris defended job training plans for phased-out energy workers, something the WSAZ reporter noted skeptically has been promised many times before.

It wasn’t the smoothest interview. Harris stumbled in referring to “abandoned landmines” instead of “abandoned mine lands.”

Deem said Harris could have enlisted Manchin’s help. The senator has criticized aspects of Biden’s spending package. He’s been outspoken on the need to draw in Republicans. But he still appears likely to support some version of the bill.

“The national Democrats have not done a fantastic job of communicating to rural America and making a case to rural Americans why they’re good for them,” Deem said. “I’m sure he was thinking that if they would have come to him, he could have helped them in West Virginia.”

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Manchin is the Senate’s real tiebreaker

In calling out Harris publicly, Manchin was sending Harris and the Biden administration a brushback pitch. Much has been made of Harris’ role as a potential tiebreaker in a Senate that’s divided 50-50 along party lines. But Manchin, perhaps the hardest Democratic vote to get, is reminding everyone that he wields the real tiebreaking power.

Biden and other Democrats have begun a process to try to push through the spending package without Republican support, using a maneuver known as budget reconciliation that bypasses the requirement to get a 60-vote supermajority. Manchin announced Tuesday that he would support using the fast-track process, though he left himself room to demand changes or even withhold support before a final vote.

Harris’ staff did not want to discuss the incident, but an advisor confirmed that she did not schedule the interview without consulting Biden’s team.

“We’ve been in touch with Sen. Manchin, as we have been for many weeks and will continue to be moving forward,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

Deem, who has not spoken with Manchin about the incident, does not believe it’s the type of thing that would ultimately affect his vote.

“There’s no apologies needed,” Manchin told reporters Tuesday. “They made a mistake. And, and we understand. We move on, you can’t dwell on those things.”

But it exposed an obvious blind spot for the administration. Harris, who spent the last four years in the Senate, should have known the delicate politics, even if Biden had forgotten them.

The lack of foresight points to inexperience in building legislative support. In most of her career, she served in executive roles — the attorney general of California and the district attorney of San Francisco. She didn’t spend much time working bills in Sacramento. And her Senate career was marked mostly by her viral moments grilling members of the Trump administration.

And although this may not have been entirely her fault, it hurts Harris’ efforts to prove herself to the Biden team.

Harris does not have a long history with Biden, unlike many of his advisors who have known him for decades. So it’s efforts like these — proving her value as a loyal spokesperson and savvy political advisor — where she has the best chance to gain his trust and the trust of those around him.


Fundraising is another part of her job where Harris can enhance her standing. She failed to meet expectations as a fundraiser when she ran for president. But as a sitting vice president, that should improve, and her advisors say she plans to take an active role raising money to build the Democratic Party.

Unlike former Vice President Mike Pence, who broke with tradition and maintained a political action committee while serving, Harris does not plan to keep a PAC. This will help her dispel whispered suspicions that she is already launching her next presidential campaign or raising money solely to enhance her own profile.

Instead, the money will go toward promoting congressional and Senate candidates who can help Democrats pass their agenda.

“It’s an important role that she can assume and if she does well at, it it’s going to enhance her politically within the administration,” said Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic consultant who advised former Vice President Al Gore when he ran for president in 2000.

And even if Harris is not raising the money for herself, it will help her if or when she runs for president again by building loyalty among state and local Democrats.

The view from California

Harris’ former state director for her Senate office, Heather Hutt, announced on Monday that she is running for state assembly, in district 54 in Los Angeles County.

Harris is not expected to get involved in the race, but it could enhance her profile.

The vice president doesn’t have to run in California elections anymore. But new polling suggests she’d have little problem in her home state, with 56% of voters viewing her favorably compared with 38% who hold a negative opinion.

The poll — by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley — splits largely along party lines. Even as Harris is often portrayed as Biden’s more youthful counterpart, her ratings don’t change much when broken down by age, with all groups giving her ratings of between 54% and 59%.

Any Democrat who harbors presidential ambitions, as Harris does, needs popularity with the nation’s biggest trove of Democratic voters. Harris has a favorable impression among 83% of registered Democrats in California, including 55% who have a “strongly favorable” impression.

There is bipartisan agreement — 55% — that she will have more power than other vice presidents because she can break ties in the Senate, despite the example above showing moderates like Manchin may actually have more clout on that front.

The latest from Washington

Alejandro Mayorkas was confirmed as Biden’s secretary of Homeland Security on Tuesday, filling a key Cabinet post as Washington grapples with the fallout of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and gears up for yet another political fight over immigration policy. Born in Cuba and raised in Los Angeles, Mayorkas is the first Latino and first immigrant to serve as Homeland Security secretary. The Senate also confirmed Pete Buttigieg as Transportation secretary, the first out gay person to take a Cabinet post.

— Biden’s administration pledged early executive action to undo his predecessor’s immigration policies. But Molly O’Toole writes that officials are now pleading for patience, as Biden signs executive orders that mandate the review of, rather than an end to, Trump administration policies.

— House impeachment managers said in a brief filed Tuesday that former President Trump “summoned a mob to Washington, exhorted them into a frenzy and aimed them like a loaded cannon down Pennsylvania Avenue,” putting everyone on Capitol Hill in grave danger, Sarah D. Wire writes. Trump‘s lawyers, however, claimed he was protected by the 1st Amendment.

— Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell denounced Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene on Monday, calling her embrace of conspiracy theories and “loony lies” a “cancer for the Republican Party.” House Democrats are mounting an effort to formally rebuke Greene, a newly elected Georgia Republican who is closely aligned with some of Trump’s fringe supporters, including extremist groups that were involved in the violent Capitol insurrection.

— Harris spoke with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday, marking her first call to a foreign leader since entering the White House. They discussed U.S. aid in pushing for the release of two Canadian citizens detained by China, according to the White House.

The latest from California

— Gov. Gavin Newsom’s job approval rating among California voters has plummeted, driven by dissatisfaction with the state’s pandemic response, report Phil Willon and Taryn Luna. It’s further fuel for the recall effort against him, which Seema Mehta writes has already prompted some Republicans to announce a run for governor. Backers of the effort have raised more than $2.5 million.

— Supply shortages and data problems have plagued California’s vaccine rollout, but Maya Lau and Laura J. Nelson report that the sluggish rollout defies one easy explanation. And now officials are facing new challenges, such as how to prevent anti-vaccine protesters from further disrupting distribution.

— A patchwork of government action is protecting many of the most financially strapped tenants from eviction for now. But it could take these renters — especially low-income ones — years to recover, even as the rest of the economy begins to rebound, writes Andrew Khouri. What happens to the economy when the rent comes due?

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