Essential Politics: Misunderstood, set up to stumble — or neither? Making sense of Kamala Harris’ standing

Vice President Kamala Harris at a microphone
Vice President Kamala Harris — shown speaking to the Generation Equality Forum on June 30 at the White House — is entering what may be a turbulent period in her tenure as vice president.
(Associated Press)

This is the July 7, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Is the Biden administration setting Vice President Kamala Harris up for failure? Is she a historic figure but “not that interesting” as a politician? Are white liberals, despite their rhetoric, “gun-shy” in elevating women and women of color?

As Harris enters what may be a turbulent period of her vice presidency, we are beginning to see some thoughtful and fairly provocative analyses of both her record and her standing as the first woman and first Black and Asian American person to hold her post.


‘Fairly traditional’ politician

Good morning and welcome to Essential Politics: Kamala Harris edition. Today, I want to look at two of the pieces I’ve found especially thought-provoking: a Washington Post column by Perry Bacon Jr. titled “We should rethink how we think about Vice President Harris” and a New York Times op-ed by political scientist Christina Greer with the headline “Dear Kamala Harris: It’s a Trap!”

Whatever your view on Harris, I recommend reading both.

As the headline on his column suggests, Bacon argues that Harris is misunderstood. He writes that while she may have a “very interesting” biography and a streak of breaking boundaries, she has had a “fairly traditional” political career, climbing the ladder from local to state to national office.

His second point is that Harris is a better politician than she is given credit for, a gap in perception created by her poor showing in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

Bacon would find a lot of agreement from those who have watched Harris’ career over the last two decades. Like a lot of politicians, she has benefited from timing and skill — navigating her way through San Francisco’s, and later California’s, tricky mix of liberal and more traditional Democratic politics, notably juggling demands of activists and police while winning election as a prosecutor and the state attorney general.

The instinct to please competing political interests draws suspicion in some quarters. And it finally seemed to trip her up in the 2020 primary, when she tried to split the difference between progressives who supported Medicare for all and more moderate Democrats who believed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer healthcare plan was a political loser.

Her flexibility on that issue — and the broader sense that she was not an ideologue — arguably helped her when she was picked as President Biden‘s running mate. She was able to blur the differences in her record in ways that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others may have found more difficult.

But now that Harris is having some trouble in polls and public perception, as I reported last week, there are growing concerns among Democrats about her political ability. The question many have, even if they agree she is a good politician, is whether she is a great one — capable of leading the ticket when Biden leaves the stage. Biden, 78, has said he plans to run for reelection, though he has not quelled speculation that he could decide otherwise.

The speculation about Harris is especially urgent for Democrats who worry that former President Trump will run again and further threaten democratic institutions.

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Et tu Democrats?

Some of Harris’ supporters argue, as Greer does, that Harris is being hamstrung by the White House. They point to her biggest solo assignments — curbing immigration from Central America and expanding voting rights against restrictive state GOP bills and a filibuster in the U.S. Senate — as unwinnable.


“She was far from a diversity hire for Mr. Biden, and she has clear potential as a national leader, but she needs the time, support and right combination of goals to learn and grow,” Greer writes.

Greer says that even if Harris wins on immigration by deterring people from coming, she loses, because liberal Democrats in the party’s base will see her efforts as a betrayal. And if she fails to discourage people from coming, others will claim she’s ineffective.

Harris is definitely catching heat from progressives over her warnings, issued last month from Guatemala, that migrants should stay home and will be turned away if they complete the dangerous journey to the border. But I’m not sure heat from the left on that issue is as big a long-term political danger as Greer outlines.

Most of Harris’ efforts in Central America involve seeding economic development and aid, in hopes of giving people a reason to stay in their countries. If those efforts pay off, they will garner praise from all wings of the Democratic Party and could dent Republican attacks on the administration’s performance at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But Greer’s bigger point is hard to argue. The immigration issue is tough, and Harris, who went to the border last month under political pressure, has now been dragged more deeply into other controversies, including conditions at a tent city for migrant children set up at the Fort Bliss Army Base.

The administration is also facing complaints from the left about its use of a public health law to turn migrants away and from the right about the large increase of children and families coming to the border, among other challenges.


Biden’s aides say they are not setting a trap for Harris, pointing out that he had a similar assignment when he served as President Obama’s vice president.

But the stakes were different. Biden got the job at the tail end of the administration, after defining himself on the national stage for decades. And, as we now know, Biden’s efforts failed to yield long-term results.

Greer’s second major point cuts deeper for many in her party. She writes that while “Republicans tend to say the quiet part loud,” many Democrats “would never be able to vote for a Black woman at the top of the ticket, no matter how qualified.”

In polling, Democrats tend to rate Biden higher than they do Harris, though the difference is fairly small. Many of Harris’ allies, while agreeing that race and gender affect her poll numbers, say they also believe she fares worse than Biden simply because she is the vice president — the same reason many of her predecessors did worse in public opinion surveys.

“You can’t try to outdo No. 1 when you’re No. 2,” Donna Brazile, a friend of Harris’ who ran former vice president Al Gore’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, told me.

The pollster Cornell Belcher agrees with Brazile. And though he believes it is too early to look too closely at polls, he points to some positives for Harris, including strong approval from Black voters.


The electorate that decides the Democratic primary and general elections in 2024 and 2028 — when Harris may run for the top job — will be more diverse than the one that elected Donald Trump in 2016 or the one that elected Biden in 2020. And, at least for now, South Carolina — where African American voters play a decisive role in the Democratic primary, including reviving Biden’s flagging candidacy last year — is arguably the most important state in the process of selecting a nominee.

“Be careful about trying to read too much in this far out,” said Belcher, who polled for Obama.

But all of this is contingent on whether Harris is seen as growing into the job, how well she does on her current and future assignments and how the Biden administration as a whole is viewed. And one thing is almost certain at this point: She is not likely to win a Democratic nominating contest without a fight.

The view from Washington

— Biden announced new steps Tuesday intended to inoculate additional Americans as the more contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads and his administration labors to persuade holdouts to get shots, Chris Megerian reports.

— As Biden pushes a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a sweeping package of progressive policies, it is hard to imagine any Democrat better able to walk the political tightrope. But the maneuvering required will test not just Biden’s legislative agility but also a central premise of his presidency, Janet Hook and Eli Stokols write.

— U.S. Capitol Police will open regional field offices in California and Florida to investigate threats to members of Congress in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, reports Sarah D. Wire.


— The Supreme Court ended its term last week just as predicted, with its six conservatives handing down rulings that favored religious liberty claims, property rights and Republican-sponsored election laws. But in between, the justices issued reasonable rulings that broke no new ground, writes David G. Savage.

Ammon Bundy built his name as an anti-government militant. Now he wants to be Idaho’s governor, pledging to seize ownership of federal land for state control, Anita Chabria and Hailey Branson-Potts report.

The view from California

Heather Holt had been in charge of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission for nearly a decade but struggled to get a raise approved. It’s an episode that highlights an uncomfortable reality: The agency operates at the mercy of officials it is charged with policing, write Emily Alpert Reyes and David Zahniser.

— Academic Lanhee Chen, a GOP policy advisor to recent presidential candidates, announced Tuesday that he is running for state controller in a bid to break the Republican Party’s losing streak when it comes to statewide offices, writes Seema Mehta.

— As California faces the recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom, columnist Mark Z. Barabak looks back at when an effort to oust Sen. Dianne Feinstein as San Francisco mayor backfired. It made her a star.

— Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Santa Clarita) won his seat by 333 votes, Mehta writes. He’s up for reelection next year in what is expected to be among the most contested congressional races in the nation, but will his voting record help or hurt his chances?


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