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Essential Politics: Kamala Harris and the curse of the VP portfolio

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Vice President Kamala Harris’ role remains a work in progress.

As she and her staff seek to define her job, here’s a small comfort: She is not alone. Almost every vice president in the modern era has struggled to figure out how to handle the nebulous job in administrations full of large personalities.

Nelson Rockefeller took a back seat to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s profile on the world stage. Al Gore had to carefully navigate First Lady Hillary Clinton’s unprecedented role in domestic policy. President Trump’s ego overwhelmed Mike Pence.

Hello there and welcome to Essential Politics: Kamala Harris edition. Today, I wrote about Kamala Harris and the curse of the vice presidential portfolio.

A tough hand or a tough table?

President Jimmy Carter embraces Vice President Walter Mondale on the South Lawn of the White House
President Jimmy Carter embraces Vice President Walter Mondale in Washington on Jan. 7, 1978.
(John Duricka / Associated Press)

I wrote last week about Harris’ efforts to retool her office and her role after a first year dominated by sliding approval ratings. One of the big unresolved questions is the future of her portfolio.

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Early on, when she was expected to be an especially powerful vice president, Harris was frequently asked what policy issues she would want to own. Some on her staff argued that she was better off without a formal set of discrete issues and should instead serve as a high-level troubleshooter and advisor in the mode of Walter Mondale.

President Biden settled the question within months, assigning Harris two high-profile tasks, both of which have dented her reputation.

In March, he tapped Harris to oversee the administration’s efforts to address the root causes of migration from Central America, a politically treacherous job with little short-term payoff.

Three months later, he assigned Harris, at her own request, to tackle Republican efforts to curb voting rights. Democrats, lacking a plan to overcome unified Republican opposition and wavering on their own side, failed last month to pass a major bill to fortify access to the ballot box. Harris, though she presided in the Senate as the votes were cast, did not have authority over her party’s legislative strategy.

There’s a lot of debate over whether Harris was given a bad hand or whether there simply are no good cards when you’re vice president and playing poker at the big table.

Few have spent more time grappling with this question than Joel K. Goldstein, a foremost expert on vice presidents. He argues that the portfolio is often a trap, in part because it can amount to time-sucking “make-work” and “you can be held accountable for things, even if you may not be able to control them.”

“Vice presidents can be consequential without having portfolios and the fact that you have a portfolio doesn’t mean that you’re going to be important,” he said.

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Remember VP Rockefeller? I didn’t think so.

Three men in dark suits stand around a large desk
Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stand in the Oval Office at the White House.
(David Hume Kennerly / Associated Press)

Goldstein helped me go through the history of vice presidential portfolios, and it is indeed checkered.

Let’s start with Rockefeller, a vice president so inconsequential that no one even remembers he held the job under President Ford. Fearing Kissinger’s massive shadow on the world stage, he sought to head the domestic policy council, but learned quickly that it was “a road to nowhere” for an administration eager to contain government spending.

Mondale largely avoided accepting such roles, worried he would get bogged down and kept out of the action. That allowed him to concentrate on things he cared about — pushing President Carter to be more aggressive in response to a refugee crisis and a Supreme Court case on affirmative action, for example.

George H.W. Bush took on some smaller jobs for President Reagan, including an antidrug smuggling task force. But Bush, a veteran inside player, largely followed Mondale’s lead and stayed nimble.

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Dan Quayle led efforts to cut regulations for Bush. This scored him points with the party’s base, but he never won over the larger public.

Gore is often celebrated as the vice president who was the most successful in taking on a portfolio. He led a “reinventing government” project that became a political calling card for both him and Clinton. Gore also was the administration’s point person on technology and the environment, which fueled his own political aspirations.

With Hillary Clinton already taking on a healthcare overhaul, Gore set his sights on fixing the welfare system. But giving Gore welfare would have left nothing for Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala to oversee, so the portfolio item slipped through his fingers.

Gore’s policy successes did not spare him his share of ridicule for exaggerating his role in conceiving “the information superhighway.” No, he did not invent the Internet.

Bill Clinton and Al Gore are joined by their families and hold up their arms in front of a cheering crowd
President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore are joined by their families in Little Rock, Ark. on November 3, 1992, after winning the presidential election.
(Susan Ragan / Associated Press)

His successor, Vice President Dick Cheney, is perhaps the most polarizing — and unquestionably the most powerful — vice president in modern times.

Goldstein argues that Cheney’s role in spearheading the Bush administration’s war on terror was not technically a portfolio. But that is certainly his legacy.

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Biden, as vice president, took on a variety of portfolio-style tasks. They tended to be big. He negotiated with Iraq’s government over the pull-out of U.S. troops, and he forged a relationship with Xi Jinping, then the head of China’s Communist Party and now the country’s president. He also held wide domain over the administration’s dealings with Congress.

Pence had a few jobs too, including an early task force intended to prove Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud in the 2016 election. As the COVID-19 pandemic began, the former governor of Indiana won positive reviews for leading the administration’s response. But Trump, unhappy with losing the spotlight, began showing up at Pence’s press conferences, forcing his vice president to stand both literally and figuratively behind him.

So what does this mean for Harris? Portfolio or no? Goldstein thinks that’s the wrong question.

“What Harris and her people ought to be asking is, ‘How can she make the biggest impact?’” he said. “And the answer for every vice president is going to be different.”

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The view from Washington

— Biden said Tuesday that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was “still very much a possibility,” even as he encouraged signals from Vladimir Putin that Moscow would return to the negotiating table, Eli Stokols reports.

— Russia’s defense ministry announced on Tuesday it would begin pulling back some troops from areas near the border of Ukraine, a move that suggested Moscow may be seeking to defuse tensions, Nabih Bulos reports. The news comes after the U.S. on Monday announced it was closing its embassy in the capital city of Kyiv out of fear for the safety of its diplomats.

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— For all the activist ire directed at two moderate senators, Democratic members of Congress are increasingly casting blame on another duo for the failure of Biden’s plans: Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Stokols and Jennifer Haberkorn report.

— The National Archives and Records Administration recently recovered 15 boxes of official records from Trump’s home at the Mar-a-Lago beach club in Palm Beach, Fla. Could he face charges for holding onto them? It’s complicated, Sarah D. Wire writes.

— Also from Wire: Biden has instructed the National Archives to give White House visitor logs to the House Jan. 6 Select Committee, again rejecting his predecessor’s claims of executive privilege over documents that might shed light on last year’s insurrection attempt.

The view from California

— Less than five months after Californians overwhelmingly rejected a recall effort against Gov. Gavin Newsom, voters are growing more dissatisfied with the governor, Phil Willon writes. A solid majority believe the state is headed in the wrong direction, according to a new UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times.

— From Melanie Mason: Views of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s job performance have tumbled to the lowest point in her three-decade Senate career, with just 30% of California voters giving her positive marks in a new poll.

— Hannah Wiley reports on a new poll that finds the majority of California voters surveyed are concerned over state crime rates. Respondents said they would support reinstating penalties for certain thefts that a 2014 ballot measure reduced.

— In a report released this week, former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, a Newsom advisor known for his effort to push universal basic income, laid out a sweeping proposal to create a “minimum wealth floor” and overhaul the state’s social safety net, Mackenzie Mays writess.

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