The Democrats Have a Kamala Harris Problem

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris deliver remarks at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., March 19, 2021. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

It seems indisputable that the Democratic Party has a real interest in Harris being more popular than she is.

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It seems indisputable that the Democratic Party has a real interest in Harris being more popular than she is.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A mericans have never much liked Kamala Harris. Despite being theoretically well-placed to dominate the 2020 Democratic primary, she dropped out of the race in December of 2019 with just 3 percent support nationally and about 7 percent support in her home state of California. Now holding the vice presidency, Harris remains impressively unbeloved. Per a recent YouGov poll, her net approval rating is ten points underwater among all voters and 25 points underwater among independents, 44 percent of whom say they have a “very unfavorable” opinion. For a vice president to engender such feelings — especially at this stage in the cycle — is unusual, to say the least.

Still, that Harris is unpopular should come as no great surprise, given that she somehow manages to combine into a single package a transparent insincerity, an unvarnished authoritarianism, and a tendency toward precisely the sort of self-satisfied progressivism that helped the Republicans to limit their losses at the last general election. If her apologists wish to, they can pretend that the reaction Harris yields is “gendered” or “systemic” or “inequitable” or whatever other bastardized academic term is fashionable this week, and they should feel free to knock themselves out doing so. Deep down, though, they must know that America isn’t the problem here. The problem is that Harris is a phony. It remains the case that, throughout her entire public career, almost nobody has looked at Kamala Harris and thought, “Yes, she’s the person we need to lead us.” Sure, she’s won a couple of elections. But even in deep blue California, she has struggled. Her 2010 victory in the attorney general’s race was decided by just 74,000 votes out of more than 9.6 million cast, and ended up being so close that it took three weeks before the result was finally clear. There is a reason that, having been picked as Biden’s running mate, Harris was quickly shoved offstage.

What about Harris’s performance as vice president do we expect will change this dynamic? It’s now been two months since she was publicly selected to lead the Biden administration’s response to the roiling border crisis, and not only has she declined to visit the region even once, but, when asked about her absence, she has delivered her trademark dismissive laugh. Harris likes to say that she’s focused on the “root causes” of the surge in migration. But this is nonsense. She is focused on staying out of the way so that Joe Biden’s non-threatening uncle act doesn’t disintegrate in the face of its abundant contradictions. With conflict in the Middle East, rising inflation, and rocky unemployment numbers, on top of the continuing situation on the border, the last thing that the Democratic Party needs is for Kamala Harris to be more prominent than she is.

Which, in the long run, is a bit of a problem. The vice presidency may, indeed, be “not worth a bucket of warm piss,” but it seems indisputable that the Democratic Party has a real interest in Harris being more popular than she is. Joe Biden is 78 years old — older than any president has ever been at any point in American history. There is no guarantee that Biden will finish his first term, and there is even less of a guarantee that he will run again in 2024. In either case, when Biden leaves the White House, Kamala Harris will be his presumptive heir, and, in both cases, the Democratic Party — which explicitly put Harris there because she is a female minority — will struggle mightily to extricate itself from the dead weight she brings along. “Look at this historic vice president who, of course, shouldn’t be the actual president” is not exactly a winning message, is it?

It is hard to intuit now — against the backdrop of a new presidency, with all the talk of a Republican civil war, and amid the usual media-driven certainty that conservatism is at death’s door — but the Democratic Party has a good number of challenges of its own ahead of 2024. Its social politics are deeply unpopular. Its most prominent members are in thrall to Twitter. Its penchant for spending huge gobs of money is already causing real-world problems. And, as the last election showed, the likelihood that the party will be able simply to ignore all this and let changing demographics do their work has been exposed as a mirage. By 2024, Republicans may well be politically ascendant — and, if they are, the Democrats are going to wish that they hadn’t allowed a dud such as Kamala Harris to become the most vibrant face of their brand.