On the menu today: how Joe Biden gave Kamala Harris one of his thorniest issues and set her up to fail; the latest border numbers indicate that the Biden administration hasn’t made any progress in attempting to stem the waves of migrants trying to sneak into the country; the Consumer Price Index numbers are really bad, again; and a new media profile features an odd “Manchurian Candidate” moment.
Biden Sets Harris Up for Failure
On the latest Editors podcast, I floated the somewhat-tongue-in-cheek theory that Joe Biden has set Kamala Harris up to fail, a passive-aggressive form of revenge for her shivving him in that first Democratic presidential-primary debate.
Back in March, Biden announced Harris would “lead our efforts with Mexico and the Northern Triangle and the countries that help — are going to need help in stemming the movement of so many folks, stemming the migration to our southern border.” He said Harris was “the most qualified person to do it.” She’s actually probably among the least qualified people in the White House to do it, considering almost everyone on the National Security Council has more hands-on experience in international diplomacy and security, and Biden’s domestic team includes Susan Rice. Heck, even Health and Human Services secretary Xavier Becerra has more hands-on experience with border issues. A month into the administration, the spin was that her staff would coach her up fast, as “Harris comes to the vice president’s job as a neophyte on foreign policy.”
But Harris doesn’t have any tools to immediately “stem the migration to our southern border,” as Biden put it. Either by her choice or his order, she’s focused entirely upon the “root causes” of migration. But even in the best-case scenario, a successful plan to address the “root causes” of migration would take years to implement, maybe even a decade or more. It’s not going to do anything to address the here and now. Thus, Harris is stuck trying to implement changes that might bear fruit by late 2022 or 2023 at the earliest, while each month, new numbers indicate that the problem is getting worse. This would be a tough spot if Harris were a skilled communicator, and as we’ve seen, she’s really surprisingly bad at this.
The vice president has never been particularly adept when confronted with questions that she doesn’t like or doesn’t want to answer — as she demonstrated during 2020 primaries, when she repeatedly dodged and fumbled questions about her health care plan. In this case, she deflected a straightforward question from NBC’s Lester Holt about why she hasn’t visited the border by laughing it off and stating that she also hasn’t been to Europe, adding that she didn’t understand the point that Holt was making — even though everyone else did.
It was a clumsy answer that came off as tone-deaf given that the situation at the US-Mexico border is one of the most troubling issues facing the administration. Finding a solution for stemming migration from Central America is a problem that has eluded multiple administrations for decades, but even some White House officials — who want her to succeed in this difficult endeavor — were perplexed.
A Politico newsletter quotes “one aide who has been briefing Harris on the Northern Triangle countries put it this way: ‘The narrative and the substance of the work are not always the same thing. We may or may not be able to control the narrative, but we can control what we focus on.’”
What’s striking is that this unnamed Harris adviser has the spectacular combination of boastfulness and obliviousness to insist that the vice president is correct on “the substance of the work” on the day that the number of migrants caught at the border sets a new record again. This is like boasting of your economic performance on the day the stock market crashes, or your national-security record on the day of a terrible terrorist attack. If all Harris is offering in interviews is unconvincing spin, maybe that’s all she’s getting from her staff.
Yesterday brought the monthly update to the Customs and Border Protection numbers, and they were terrible — the third straight month of the highest levels in two decades. May’s update brings the total of encounters in this fiscal year to more than a million, with four more months to go, already the most since 2006. (If nothing else, the summer heat should reduce the rate, at least somewhat, in the coming months.)
Keep in mind, CBP pointed out that a million encounters at the border is not necessarily a million people: “The large number of expulsions during the pandemic has contributed to a larger-than-usual number of noncitizens making multiple border crossing attempts, and means total encounters somewhat overstate the number of unique individuals arriving at the border. Thirty-eight percent of encounters in May 2021 were individuals who had at least one prior encounter in the previous 12 months, compared to an average one-year re-encounter rate of 15 percent for Fiscal Years 2014-2019.”
The border-patrol agency also noted that it is being forced to conduct significantly more rescues, because smugglers are abandoning their clients in remote and dangerous areas: “In May 2021, CBP conducted 7,084 rescues nationwide, and CBP has rescued 35 percent more individuals in Fiscal Year 2021 than all of Fiscal Year 2020.” Unfortunately, CBP can’t always get there in time. The number of migrant deaths at the border — mostly from heat stroke and dehydration — have tripled compared to last year, and we haven’t even gotten to the hottest months yet.
Right now, the Biden administration looks like that little cartoon dog in the burning building, insisting “This is fine.”
More Bad Numbers for the Biden Administration
When June started, I reminded readers that the beginning of each month brings at least three updates to government data that can support or refute the Biden administration’s arguments that its early policy changes are working: the monthly unemployment update, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection update on encounters at the southwest border discussed above, and the Consumer Price Index (a key indicator of inflation).
The jobs report for May was middling to okay — like that 3.6 Roentgen reading in the HBO miniseries Chernobyl: “Not great, not terrible.” And this morning, we learned that the inflation numbers were even worse than economists expected. Economists had braced themselves for a 4.7 percent hike in May, which would be the highest since 2008.
This morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that it was an even 5 percent. “The index for all items less food and energy rose 3.8 percent over the last 12-months, the largest 12-month increase since the period ending June 1992. The energy index rose 28.5 percent over the last 12-months, and the food index increased 2.2 percent.”
As Phil Klein warns, “in the face of growing signs of inflation, many people — including the ones who happen to run our nation’s fiscal and monetary policy — aren’t taking the current threat all that seriously.”
ADDENDUM: This might be the strangest section in that Los Angeles magazine profile of the man it describes as “Twitter Power Broker Yashar Ali”:
How Ali acquired so many powerful supporters is a bit of a mystery. Even his closest allies are a bit fuzzy about how they met. “I don’t remember how we became friends,” says New York Times Washington correspondent Maggie Haberman. Zucker has a hard time recalling, too. “That’s a really good question. How do I know Yashar?” So does CNN anchor Jake Tapper. “I couldn’t tell you how me met, but suddenly he was a presence in my life — a wonderful one,” he says. “It just feels like he’s always been in my life. But I don’t know that I’ve ever met him in person.”
Is anyone else waiting for all these people to robotically respond, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”?