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Rivals or not, Harris and Buttigieg take a road trip

Pete Buttigieg, Chasten Buttigieg and Kamala Harris
Pete Buttigieg, with his hand on the Bible held by husband Chasten Buttigieg, is sworn in as Transportation secretary by Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House complex on Feb. 3.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Donna Brazile calls the purported rivalry between Vice President Kamala Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg “gossip” and “manufactured BS.”

“With an emphasis on the B and the S,” added Brazile, a former Democratic Party chief and current confidant to Harris.

Alas, Washington is a town that thrives on hypotheticals, intrigue and — yes — gossip. So, no matter how many times people like Brazile try to bat it down, the speculation persists.


Here is the theory: The pair of bold names in the Biden administration are vying to be next in line for the party’s nomination, either in 2024 should President Biden, the oldest president in U.S. history at 79, step aside, or in 2028 if he runs again.

Thursday, the two protagonists in this latest Beltway drama hit the road together. Anyone hoping for a riveting oratorical showdown in Charlotte, N.C., had to settle for nuts and bolts about the administration’s new $1-trillion infrastructure law, as the pair made the case that it will improve people’s job prospects, drinking water quality and the ability of students and small businesses to access high-speed internet.

The two greeted each other with a hug on the tarmac just before takeoff at Joint Base Andrews near Washington, the kind of gesture that attracted the notice of political junkies and reporters keeping close tabs. Buttigieg was deferential, speaking about six minutes as a warmup for Harris, who spoke more than twice as long. He credited her for the hours spent on negotiating the administration’s signature achievement — including provisions on clean buses and environmental justice — and for emphasizing in a meeting with lawmakers “the need to think big, not to get lost in the details of the politics.”

Harris, citing Buttigieg’s “extraordinary work,” gave the administration’s main sales pitch, trying to bring the vast law to human scale as she talked about the difference a nearby bus stop can make for working people.

“We all know what it means for someone to miss a bus by just one minute,” she said. “It can mean being at least an hour late for work.”

During the tour of a garage in Charlotte, Harris took the driver’s seat of an electric bus, playfully reciting the children’s song, “The Wheels on the Bus” and honking the horn while Buttigieg stood by the entry door.

“I’m sure that it will be dissected aplenty,” said Elaine Kamarck, a former aide to Vice President Al Gore who researches the presidential nominating process at the Brookings Institution think tank, speaking broadly about their body language. “Whether it means anything is anybody’s guess.”

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Republicans have been taking stock of the Harris-Buttigieg dynamic as well. “The actuarial reality of President Biden’s age, combined with what some consider a lackluster performance by the vice president, have created an opening,” said Michael Steel, who served as campaign advisor to former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential primary runs.

“If you think that there is a possibility that the Democratic Party will require a different nominee in 2024, this is a head-to-head comparison between two of the potential leading contenders,” he said of Thursday’s road trip.

The chatter began to take hold earlier this year. Harris was presumed by some as the front-runner in the next nominating process when Biden selected her as his running mate last year, but has fallen in public opinion polls and suffered from unflattering media coverage. Harris’ chief spokesperson and senior advisor, Symone Sanders, announced late Wednesday she would be leaving the administration at the end of the year. Ashley Etienne, Harris’ communications director, is also stepping down.

Buttigieg, who rose from mayor of South Bend, Ind., to become a Cabinet member at 39, has been positioned by some donors and party insiders as an alternative to Harris.

Both ran for their party’s nomination in 2020 and captured enough notice to get prime spots in the administration.

“It is your typical inside-the-Beltway navel-gazing and, of course, made more relevant by the fact that Biden is the age that he is,” Kamarck said. “So this has been going around for a while because we haven’t had a sitting president who was this old.”

Add in the fact that some Harris allies have complained about her notoriously difficult job assignments in the administration — curbing Central American migration and passing voting right bills that are stuck in the Senate. Buttigieg, by contrast, has been tasked with promoting successes such as stimulus checks.

The anti-Harris rumbles among Democrats are causing internal anxiety, given that women and Black voters are two of the party’s most important constituencies. Harris is a history-making vice president who came into office with unusually high expectations; yet her race and gender have contributed to the negative media portrayals and low poll numbers. Leapfrogging her with a white man who has far less government experience could be seen by many as part of a larger societal pattern.

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Buttigieg, a Navy veteran, would be the first openly gay party nominee. He has made his own history, taking paternity leave after becoming father to twins in August. It’s unusual, however, for a Transportation secretary to attract so much presidential buzz, which began even before his agency was tasked with spending and overseeing many of the projects in the infrastructure law.

Dick Harpootlian, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chair and state senator, said in a recent interview that “certainly there’s concern” that Harris is “not resonating” with the public. But, he added that it’s too early to judge her, especially when he and others expect Biden to run for reelection.

“She’s got the skills to demonstrate who she is and what she believes in,” he said. “This is a story yet to be told.”

Harris’ and Buttigieg’s circles have said there is nothing to see here. A White House official said Harris’ and Buttigieg’s offices began planning a joint event to tout the administration’s agenda months ago, long before the latest wave of speculation. A Harris aide denied the trip was planned to quell talk of a rivalry, noting that the vice president has traveled with other Cabinet secretaries.

Their husbands, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and Chasten Buttigieg, are known to be friendly, with a March walk they took together on Capitol Hill generating a multitude of posts on social media.

Pete Buttigieg tried to play down the speculation during a brief exchange with reporters in the back of Air Force Two on Thursday.

“It’s 2021,” he said. “And the whole point of campaigns and elections is when they go well, you get to govern. And we are squarely focused on the job at hand. I am excited to be part of a team led by the president and the vice president, and I think the teamwork that got us to this point is really just beginning.”