The Morning Jolt

White House

What Ails Kamala Harris

Vice President Kamala Harris waves at panelists during a virtual townhall event to address different care policies in the Build Back Better Agenda at the White House in Washington, D.C., October 14, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

On the menu today: CNN offers a blistering portrait of the perpetual dysfunction in Vice President Kamala Harris’s office and the growing tensions between her team and the rest of the administration. Also, the Biden team continues to insist that inflation is just “transitory,”

A Blistering Portrait of Kamala Harris’s ‘Dysfunction’

In an in-depth report published yesterday, CNN describes Kamala Harris’s time as vice president so far as marked by “entrenched dysfunction and a lack of focus,” and reports that Harris and her “frantic” supporters feel she’s been “sidelined,” “constrained,” “struggling with a rocky relationship,” “abandoned,” “annoyed,” and “hobbled,” and that “her staff failed her.”

But other than that, things are going swimmingly!

Five things to keep in mind based off CNN’s deep dive:

One: Most of Kamala Harris’s Senate and campaign staffers aren’t with her in the vice presidency.

Harris’s domestic-policy adviser, Rohini Kosoglu, is one of the few exceptions, but beyond that, the vice president is surrounded by newcomers and outsiders.

Harris’s chief of staff, Hartina Flournoy, was previously chief of staff to former president Bill Clinton until joining Harris in December 2020. Harris’s deputy chief of staff, Michael Fuchs, was a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a foreign-policy adviser to Clinton before joining Harris in January. Harris’s chief spokesperson, Symone Sanders, was press secretary for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and switched over to Biden’s team in April 2019. Harris’s communications director, Ashley Etienne, was Nancy Pelosi’s communications director and senior adviser until she joined the Biden campaign in August 2020. Harris’s national-security adviser, Nancy McEldowney, is a career foreign-service official.

This means a whole bunch of former Kamala Harris Senate and campaign staffers are on the outside looking in, probably believing they should have been picked for the vice president’s top staff, and are eager to talk to CNN, Politico, and other Washington publications about what a terrible job the folks who did get hired are doing. When you hear an unnamed staffer lamenting that the current Harris staffers aren’t supporting the vice president the right way, there’s a good chance the subtext is, “They should have hired me for the job instead of that idiot.”

Two: There is always at least a little tension between the interests of the president and the interests of the vice president, but the circumstances of this presidency are tailor-made to exacerbate those normal tensions.

The president wants to look good in the here and now, and with the current polling for Biden and Democrats looking abysmal, the president and his team desperately need ways to make the guy at the top look good and to ensure he gets the most credit. But the vice president’s staff is traditionally focused on the longer-term picture, setting the veep up for a successful presidential campaign launch.

These tensions between these two aims are usually minor, at least up until the last two years of a president’s second term. But with Biden turning 79 on Saturday, and increasingly open questions about his memory and mental acuity, he is effectively a lame duck already.

Throw in Biden staffers and allies who had a hard time forgiving Harris’s debate attacks, and the fact that Biden didn’t know Harris well before selecting her as his running mate, and you have a formula for discord.

Three: Harris can break ties in the Senate, but she doesn’t have the influence to help with close votes.

Harris was sworn in as a senator on January 3, 2017, and announced she was running for president on January 21, 2019. A senator who’s running for president spends a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire and in fundraising events across the country — not on Capitol Hill attending hearings and markups and building relationships with peers. (Harris missed a lot of votes in the 2020 cycleeven more than other senators running for president.) A person who serves in the Senate for just two years before running for president just isn’t going to have the relationships on Capitol Hill that a long-time senator such as Biden does.

Anyone with eyes can see that with the U.S. Senate split 50–50, what the Democrats can pass depends entirely upon what West Virginia senator Joe Manchin wants to pass — and to a certain extent, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. In January, Harris made one early attempt to pressure Manchin by doing an interview with a West Virginia television station, but it backfired horribly:

The interview even took U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., by surprise. Friday morning, Manchin visited one of West Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccination clinics. His visit comes just one day after the vice president spoke with WSAZ’s Amanda Barren about the proposed “American Rescue Plan” (ARP).

“I saw [the interview], I couldn’t believe it. No one called me [about it],” Manchin said. “We’re going to try to find a bipartisan pathway forward, but we need to work together. That’s not a way of working together.”

During a press briefing at the White House, Press Secretary Jen Psaki answered questions around a number of topics, including the vice president’s appearance on two local television stations Thursday.

Put another way: Think of the political culture of San Francisco (where Harris was twice elected district attorney) and California as a whole and think of the political culture of West Virginia. The traits and style needed to thrive in California’s very liberal, interest-group-dominated Democratic Party are not the ones that will take you far in culturally conservative, coal-mining West Virginia politics.

Four: What is Harris good at?

Think of this as a version of Charlie Cooke’s Joe Biden challenge.

Put aside for a moment the fact that if you’re reading this newsletter, there’s a good chance you disagree with Harris on just about everything. Harris’s campaign imploding before the first contest is a sign that she’s not naturally politically gifted, and the fact that she’s a woman, an African American, and an Indian American doesn’t mean she automatically wins the support of women, African Americans, or Indian Americans. And as mentioned above, Harris doesn’t really have particularly strong or long-standing relationships on Capitol Hill.

Harris has limited experience in foreign policy; note that her staff was idiotic enough to cooperate with a late February Politico article entitled, “Harris gets a crash course on foreign policy” that declared, “But after a political career focused on domestic issues, particularly law enforcement, it’s going to take some time to get her up to speed. Compared to the current occupant of the Oval Office, Harris comes to the vice president’s job as a neophyte on foreign policy.”

To the extent that Harris has strengths, they comes from her prosecutorial experience — law, criminal justice, and the judiciary. The administration job she would have most naturally fit was attorney general. Alas, with Merrick Garland — the guy who prosecuted or oversaw the prosecutions of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Unabomber, and the 1996 Olympics bombing — running the Department of Justice, there’s probably no pressing need for another prosecutorial mind in the administration.

Five: What does Kamala Harris actually want to do?

One of the more intriguing sections of CNN’s report is this:

As CNN has previously reported, Harris herself has said she didn’t want to be assigned to manage the border, aware that it was a no-win political situation that would only sandbag her in the future. But Biden’s team was annoyed that Harris fumbled answers about the border, including when she gave an awkward, laughing response about not visiting it during a spring interview with NBC’s Lester Holt.

Harris’s presidential campaign ran into trouble in part because of flip-flopping on big issues — abolishing ICE, sanctuary cities, Medicare for All, independent probes of police shootings, banning fracking. Flip-flopping on issues is ultimately a reflection of a political leader who isn’t entirely certain what he or she wants. Aspiring political leaders want to accomplish big and consequential things and to be remembered as bold and willing to make the difficult but correct choices. Aspiring political leaders also want to be popular. These two objectives are often in conflict. Doing the right thing usually involves some amount of sacrifice or short-term pain for long-term gain, and that is rarely popular.

If Harris genuinely thought she couldn’t do anything useful on border issues, she should have bluntly and directly told Biden, perhaps privately. (Maybe she did!) If she did, and Biden assigned her the task anyway, credit her for being a good soldier, saluting, and doing the dirty work that Biden didn’t want to do.

But if Harris feels as if her time as vice president has been this unfocused mess, perhaps the place to start turning her tenure around is by clarifying what she herself wants to accomplish in the job.

‘The Defining Economic Challenge of the Biden Presidency’

Joe Biden, July 19: “There’s nobody suggesting there’s unchecked inflation on the way — no serious economist. That’s totally different.”

The Washington Post, yesterday: “Inflation emerges as defining economic challenge of Biden presidency, with no obvious solution at hand.”

The Wall Street Journal, today: “The president and his team maintain inflation is transitory and will ease sometime next year.”

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it over the weekend: “If only someone could have warned Democrats that their agenda was unpopular and that their tone, rhetoric, and attitudes were alienating.”

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