For a while there, Kamala Harris went missing.
There was so much else going on: the excruciating limbo between Election Day and the declaration of a winner, the sitting president’s refusal to accept that result, his tantrums, the lawsuits, the insurrection, the impeachment.
For the first time, a woman had been elected vice president of the United States. A woman of colour at that. But while that was certainly noted — there were the requisite headlines, the expected tweets — it wasn’t trumpeted as triumphantly as it could and should have been, because Donald Trump once again sucked up all the oxygen.
On top of which: The pandemic. America was masked, and Harris was muffled.
No more. Lately she has been drawing all kinds of attention, including overwrought attacks from Republican politicians and the conservative media, who seem to be taking the antipathy they once lavished on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and heaping it on her. Best to nip trailblazer in the bud.
No time to waste! The prospect of Joe Biden, 78, exiting the presidency after one term is hardly the craziest scenario, and she’s his heir apparent. The road to Republican restoration runs right over her.
Attacks on the Veep
That’s why Nikki Haley, so covetous of the White House herself, denounced Harris for a tweet last Saturday in which Harris encouraged Americans to “enjoy the long weekend.”
“Unprofessional and unfit,” Haley labelled it, because ... nobody goes to the beach on Memorial Day? Nobody barbecues? It was as if Harris had done something truly damaging, like abetting a despot intent on subverting American democracy.
Harris may have failed, in that one terse tweet, to mention the uniformed men and women who had died in service to the country, but she honoured them in other contexts. As for Haley, well, there’s a musty saying that comes to mind. It concerns glass houses.
Harris has many stones being thrown at her, from multiple directions. Fox News harangues her daily, in articles on its website and in tweets, about her supposed failure to hold a news conference — as if vice-presidential news conferences are a big thing. News flash: They’re not, and if she made them so, her detractors would change tacks and say that she was arrogantly showing Biden up.
In National Review, Charles Cooke recently wrote a takedown of her under the headline: “The Democrats Have a Kamala Harris Problem.” The New York Post editorial board panned her commencement address at the US Naval Academy, calling it “Naval gazing.” Clever. Also gratuitous — and a sign of how deeply under her opponents’ skin she gets.
Those attacks coincide with the upsizing of the tasks that Biden has assigned her. Having asked her last March to work on stemming migration across the southern border, he identified her as the administration’s lead on voting rights. That’s huge. The issue is a defining one for many Democrats, a top legislative priority for the party and a furiously argued point of contention between them and Republicans.
“It’s going to take a hell of a lot of work,” Biden said when he made the announcement about her newest responsibility in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Acrimony is certain
“If I was Vice President Harris and President Biden kept giving me the toughest assignments, I’d be like, ‘What’s up, dude?’” David Chalian, CNN’s political director, said on the CNN Political Briefing podcast Wednesday. “Add this now to her plate with immigration and she’s got some truly tough political battles ahead.”
GoP “She’s now in charge of overseeing the passage of the For the People Act,” Chalian added, referring to the voting-rights bill that passed the House but looks to be doomed in the Senate. “Not even all the Democrats are on board.” Even if she gets them there, they’d need to junk the filibuster and she’d have to cast a tiebreaking vote in order to put the legislation on Biden’s desk. Republicans’ demonisation of her would be boundless.
And yet she asked for the voting-rights lead, according to an article in The New York Times Thursday by Katie Rogers and Nicholas Fandos. That’s gutsy. It’s also a bold retort to the narrative that she has been tiptoeing through the vice presidency.
“She continues to retreat behind talking points and platitudes in public,” Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote in an assessment of her in The Atlantic last month. He noted that her critics “see her vice presidency so far as a collection of unconnected set pieces.
Harris arrives somewhere with the plane and the motorcade and the Secret Service agents, makes a few mostly bland statements, then tells whomever she’s meeting with about how she’s going to bring their stories back to Washington. Then she’s quickly out of sight again.”
But what, exactly, is she supposed to do? She confronts the confines in which a vice president has to operate on top of the similar confines in which Black people and women in positions of power are often expected to operate. It’s a Goldilocks double or even triple whammy. Too strong a voice and you’re stepping outside of your place. Too soft a voice and you’re timidly failing to rise to the occasion.
Harris can’t win. I mean in general, but I also know many Democrats who think that she can’t win in 2024 or 2028, not because Republicans will relentlessly savage her — though they’ll indeed do that — but because she has never established sufficient popularity with voters nationally, faces the taller hurdles and extra pushback that minorities typically do and hasn’t always been the most dexterous political operator. So while she’s trying not to make any false steps, she really does have something to prove.
No carry-over tensions
How sensitive to that is Biden, and how supportive? I don’t detect any carry-over of the tension between him and Harris in the Democratic presidential primary, but it’s important to remember that Biden’s model for the relationship between a vice president and a president is his with Obama, and Obama didn’t nurture Biden’s political ambitions or set him up for a promotion. He did that for Hillary Clinton instead.
This is one fraught, fascinating vice presidency. Harris has (and has already used) that tiebreaking vote, on account of a 50-50 Senate, which makes her even more of a lightning rod.
Additionally, Biden’s approach to governing has not been to tug the spotlight toward him — rather to lie low in public as he tends to business behind the scenes — and he has proved difficult for Republicans to tear down. That intensifies their scrutiny of Harris.
I doubt that any of this is a shock to her.
“She’s very aware that her being in this position is a threat to many people,” Valerie Jarrett, who was a senior adviser to Obama during his presidency, told me. “They’re terrified of seeing a woman of colour in this kind of position of authority and responsibility. But with every position she’s ever had in her career in public service, she’s dealt with the same reaction. So she’s used to this, and part of what will make her successful is her ability to ignore the noise.”
It’s only going to get louder from here.
— Frank Bruni is a senior columnist and author of best-sellers like Born Round and Ambling into History
The New York Times