When Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris as his running mate last year, it looked to many like the oldest presidential candidate in history was designating his successor before even taking office.
Suffice it to say there are a lot fewer people in Washington thinking that now.
By handing Ms. Harris responsibility for two of the most intractable and polarizing files in U.S. politics – illegal immigration and voting rights – the U.S. President has surely made it impossible for his Vice-President to outshine him.
Has he also set her up for failure?
Ms. Harris snapped at an NBC interviewer this month when he asked her why, amid a surge in the number of people seeking to cross illegally into the United States from Mexico, she had not visited the southern border since taking office in January.
“And I haven’t been to Europe,” Ms. Harris told anchor Lester Holt. “I mean, I don’t understand the point you’re making.”
She did, of course. She just did not have a good answer for him. White House sources let reporters know the President’s aides were “perplexed” by her performance. Much damage control ensued by Ms. Harris, culminating in Wednesday’s announcement of her Friday trip to the border with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
After fading early during the Democratic presidential race, questions are once again swirling about Ms. Harris’s political chops.
The first Black and South Asian woman to hold the second-highest office in the United States has struggled to find her footing. A former prosecutor and California attorney-general, Ms. Harris has little affinity with the progressives in her own party pushing to defund the police or open the U.S. border to Latin American migrants. Yet that has not stopped Republicans from making her a lightning rod for the migrant surge, even though border security is, strictly speaking, Mr. Mayorkas’s job, not the Vice-President’s.
Ms. Harris’s response has been to insist that she is focused on addressing the “root causes” of the problem by working with governments in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to improve living conditions in those countries. But eradicating the violent crime, poverty and corruption that leads hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans to seek to gain illegal entry into the United States each year is not exactly a short-term project. It may even be a fool’s errand.
“I want to be clear to folks in the region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come,” Ms. Harris said this month after a meeting in Guatemala with President Alejandro Giammattei.
Her statement drew guffaws from progressive Democrats because it did not appear to make any exceptions for legitimate refugees fleeing persecution at home. Progressives have also criticized Ms. Harris for defending the Biden administration’s decision to maintain an order implemented under former president Donald Trump that instructs border officials to turn away most migrants as a pandemic-control measure, preventing almost anyone from seeking asylum.
“The U.S. spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing,” Democratic New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted this month in response to Ms. Harris.
Things have not been going any better with respect to the other big file Mr. Biden has asked Ms. Harris to handle. Republicans this week blocked the For the People Act, which passed the House of Representatives in March, from moving forward in the Senate. The bill would invalidate or neutralize a host of state rules that are seen by progressives as disadvantaging minority voters, such as laws requiring individuals to show photo ID in order to cast a ballot.
Progressives have accused both Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris of not fighting hard enough to get the bill through Congress. The administration is working on a compromise that could rally not only West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who has said he would not vote for the bill in its current form, and the 10 Republican votes the legislation would need to overcome a Senate filibuster. The mere prospect of such negotiations repels progressives.
There may be no way for Ms. Harris to come out of either of her big assignments looking good. Progressives want open borders; most Americans do not. Progressives want to lift all limits on voting; most Americans do not. But Ms. Harris’s dilemma has been compounded by what many experts boil down to her surprisingly poor communication skills.
“Ms. Harris is quick to laugh in interviews, a tendency that has earned her unflattering headlines,” reads a line in a recent New York Times profile of the Vice-President, one of the kinder missives among the dozens that have spotlighted her growing pains.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.