Kamala Harris hit a new low of sorts this week. In a USA Today poll, she received the lowest approval rating – 28 per cent – of any U.S. Vice-President in modern times.
That’s even worse than Dick Cheney. We recall he was the veep who, while out hunting, shot a man instead of a mammal. He also started a war on the basis of baloney.
Ms. Harris is also faring worse than Dan Quayle, the elder George Bush’s VP whose handicaps were more pronounced than not knowing how to spell “potato.” And lousier too than Dwight Eisenhower’s No. 2, Richard Nixon. On leaving office, Ike was asked if he could identify any major contribution Mr. Nixon had made. “Well, if you give me a week, I might think of one,” he replied.
As the first African-American as well as the first woman to become Vice-President, Ms. Harris’s appointment was groundbreaking – and potentially trailblazing. Now, less than 10 months from Inauguration Day, it’s beginning to look less like a milestone than a millstone.
Leaks from the Biden White House paint an unflattering portrait. Instead of Ms. Harris as heir-apparent to Joe Biden, it’s boy-wonder Pete Buttigieg, now serving as Transportation Secretary, who is the one on the move.
Though she is being clobbered in the media, Ms. Harris has ample time to recover. Ten months do not a vice-presidency make. Maybe it’s just been growing pains. But there are real doubts about her skills as a retail politician. In her run for the Democratic presidential nomination, she displayed a striking inability to connect with voters, withdrawing from the race even before the first primary in Iowa. As Vice-President, she is displaying the same deficiency.
As attorney-general in California and later a senator in Washington, Ms. Harris earned a reputation as a cerebrally gifted, hard-edged prosecutor. I enjoyed watching her in committee hearings taking down witnesses with cold, relentless precision. At that she was tops.
But beyond the hearing rooms, she has failed to demonstrate that same focus and force. On policy, she’s been adrift – floating on platitudes, pulled in many directions, fearful of taking the bull by the horns.
Ms. Harris can hardly be expected to be scoring high when her President is so low in the approval ratings himself. Nor has Mr. Biden helped by handing her difficult assignments – one being the immigration file, the other election reform. He hasn’t shown much willingness to stand up for her, the cynical interpretation being that – given all the speculation of his being a one-term, age-addled presidency – he doesn’t want a powerful VP nipping at his heels.
Ms. Harris has avoided press conferences, preferring to stay out of harm’s way. Her few appearances have not gone over well. She got in trouble for arguing against voter ID laws with her suggestion that rural Americans lack the capability of getting photocopies of their IDs. In an NBC interview, she was mocked for deflecting criticism about not yet visiting the Mexican border by laughingly saying she hadn’t been to Europe, either.
She is hurt by her inexperience. Before becoming Vice-President, she was only a senator for three years. Other Democratic vice-presidents – Lyndon Johnson, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and Joe Biden himself – were much more seasoned operators.
There are stories of dysfunction in her office as there were in her failed campaign for the nomination, the one in which she couldn’t build a ground game.
There’s some suggestion Biden advisers have purposely been trying to keep her out of the limelight. But she’s getting visibility this week while in Paris seeking to repair roughed-up relations with France.
Foreign trips, much more than fraught domestic assignments, can help rebuild her image. For her next excursion, Ms. Harris might try Ottawa. Given her ties to Canada – she attended high school in Montreal – she’s a good prospect for shoring up a bilateral relationship, which Mr. Biden has been lax at tending to thus far. He has been preoccupied with a host of other problems deemed more important. It would be helpful to have a second-in-command tending to his woes instead of adding to them.
Given Kamala Harris’ unique stature as a woman and person of colour in such a powerful role, the stakes are abnormally high. This Vice-President can have – if she’s not the liability she seems like so far – a social effect on her brutally divided country that extends far beyond politics.
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