Whenever Vice President Kamala Harris leaves the country, the knives come out.
In June, Harris’s diplomatic mission to Mexico and Guatemala triggered criticism from the left for saying to potential migrants, “Do not come to the U.S.,” and criticism from the right for her awkward responses to questions about why she hadn’t yet visited the border.
In August, while Harris was visiting Singapore, several conservative media outlets tried to gin up a controversy when she briefly chuckled before turning serious and answering reporters’ questions about the Afghanistan pullout.
This month, when Harris returned from meetings in France, she was greeted with gossipy articles from CNN.com and Politico airing concerns within Democratic Party circles about her ability to succeed Biden as president.
And the Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker claimed that while the vice president was in Paris, Harris “supposedly faked a French accent while speaking to scientists at the Pasteur Institute. What she said was pedestrian and perhaps condescending, as though she were talking to children. What she said, by the way, sounded nothing like French.”
Parker appears to have been referring to and influenced by a truncated 20-second video clip pushed on Twitter by Jake Schneider of the Republican National Committee (though she did not link to the clip or even cite her source in her column). Schneider negatively framed the clip as “Kamala ‘Cringe’ Harris” speaking to the scientists “as if they’re toddlers.” But the Los Angeles Times reporter Noah Bierman, who was actually on the ground in France, saw nothing cringeworthy. He noted that Harris does speak some French, having attended a French-language school in Montreal as a teenager, but only used it when visiting a Paris cookware shop, talking pots and pans with a shop clerk. Bierman observed that her “efforts at cultural diplomacy … showed Harris at her most relaxed and engaged.”
But Bierman’s positive treatment is atypical of the coverage Harris has received. Does she deserve the critiques? Is she held to a different standard than her white male predecessors?
To answer this question, we should appreciate the historical nature of the Harris vice presidency. By that, I’m not just referring to Harris’s race and gender—though, of course, those are highly relevant factors. I’m referring to her lack of Washington experience relative to the president.
There are two kinds of vice presidents: the kind with more Washington experience than the president, and the kind with less. Typically, an outsider presidential candidate picks an insider for veep to reassure voters that the presidency won’t be amateur hour and to help build bridges inside the Beltway and abroad. But a presidential candidate who already has deep Washington experience tends to go for a fresher—sometimes more ideological—running mate who can generate voter enthusiasm and be a plausible successor.
Of the 20 vice presidents we’ve had over the past 100 years, before Harris, only four entered the office with thin Washington résumés or markedly less Washington experience than their presidents.
When then Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge was nominated for vice president in 1920, he had never served in federal office and had only visited Washington, D.C., twice. Similarly, Spiro Agnew of Maryland had only served two years as governor, with no experience in federal office before his vice presidential election in 1968.
Richard Nixon was only 39 years old when he won the vice presidency in 1952, after serving fewer than four years in the House and slightly more than two years in the Senate. (Six years of legislative experience was more than the zero years held by Dwight Eisenhower, but the general navigated other aspects of Washington during World War II and its aftermath as supreme allied commander of NATO, military governor of occupied Germany, and Army chief of staff.)
Compared to those three, Dan Quayle was an elder statesman, with 12 years in Congress before becoming vice president. But he was only 41 years old and serving under an actual elder statesman, 64-year-old George H. W. Bush, who had one of the longest Washington résumés of any incoming president in history as a member of Congress, CIA director, Republican National Committee chair, envoy to China, UN ambassador, and vice president.
In the 28 years after Quayle’s exit, we didn’t have a vice president with little Washington experience relative to the president … until now. Harris was only a senator for four years before her current post. That’s the same length of time Barack Obama served in the Senate before going to the White House, yet it stands in stark contrast to Joe Biden’s pre-presidential prep of 36 years as senator and eight as vice president.
Today’s denizens of official Washington are unaccustomed to a vice president with whom they don’t have long-standing relationships or familiarity. At the same time, the expectations placed on Harris are sky high. As a “first,” she is supposed to navigate the shoals of expectations with perfect aplomb, like Jackie Robinson. As an heir apparent to a president who may, at 82, prove too old to run for a second term in 2024, she is supposed to seem like a president right now.
Even the most successful vice presidents struggled with the contradictions of the job. You need to be prepared to be president, but you don’t have any powers save breaking ties in the Senate. You need to show absolute loyalty to the president but maintain your distinctive political persona. It’s no wonder that since the 12th Amendment revamp of how vice presidents are elected, only two sitting vice presidents have won presidential elections, and just one in modern times: George H. W. Bush.
And Bush didn’t have all that easy a time securing his promotion.
Bush ably played the loyalist to his superior Ronald Reagan, even flip-flopping on issues like abortion and fiscal policy to synchronize their positions. But he was prone to tripping over his tongue, such as when he said, “I hope I stand for anti-bigotry [and] anti-Semitism,” and when he said of his time with Reagan, “We’ve had triumphs. We’ve made some mistakes. We’ve had some sex—setbacks.”
By 1984, being a good soldier, and being vice president with a deep Washington résumé, wasn’t enough to wholly avoid the classic vice presidential pitfalls. Soon after Reagan’s reelection, the White House political aide Lee Atwater drafted a media strategy memo to Bush, which explained that the media had stopped depicting him as a “man of substance,” even though they had during his brief 1980 presidential bid. Instead, a new narrative had taken hold, of Bush as a mere “cheerleader” and a “lightweight.” When Bush ran for president in 1988, he was wounded by a Newsweek cover that blared, “Fighting the Wimp Factor.” The label proved hard to shake even though the supposed wimp had been the youngest pilot in the Navy when he was shot down over the Pacific; Homer Simpson even called the cartoon version of Bush a “wimp” on The Simpsons eight years later.
Bush served at the onset of new era in which presidential sidekicks were expected to be people of substance and given substantive responsibilities. That precedent was set by Bush’s immediate predecessor, Walter Mondale, the first vice president to have a West Wing office and full integration in the White House’s domestic and foreign policy operations. One of Mondale’s greatest accomplishments during the Jimmy Carter administration was rallying the world to resettle 1 million Vietnamese “boat people,” or refugees at sea.
But there was a “downside to this proximity,” noted the Carter biographer Stuart Eizenstat: “When the administration began unraveling in its last year, Mondale was caught up in it.” Mondale was so livid when Carter chose to blame a public “crisis of confidence” for the nation’s economic difficulties, and then to ask for his entire cabinet to submit resignations, that he privately mused about quitting. Yet Mondale remained publicly loyal—which eventually saddled him with Carter’s economic record.
Al Gore was more involved in White House policy making than all of his vice presidential predecessors, but that hardly made him a lock for the presidency. His “Reinventing Government” project did lead to technological improvements, but it didn’t make a big impression on the public. His attempts to enact strong environmental measures often failed, such as his energy tax, which became one of Bill Clinton’s first legislative busts. In Clinton’s second term, Gore brokered the international Kyoto Protocol climate treaty, but Clinton—anticipating defeat—never submitted it to the Senate for ratification.
Today, some political observers consider Harris’s big policy assignments—voting rights and immigration—as political lemons. “Is Biden Setting Up Harris to Fail?” posed a June headline from Slate. Biden has no incentive to do so. He and she simply are stuck with a political dilemma: Any policy assignment puts Harris in a politically awkward position. Every veep has limited ability to shape policy, because they have almost no constitutionally defined powers. Harris has an even steeper challenge: As a vice president with relatively little Washington experience, she has a lot more to prove than a George H. W. Bush or a Joe Biden did, but without the innate power with which to prove herself.
“She’s definitely not going to clear the f—ing field,” one anonymous Democrat told Politico about a future Harris run. Well, Bush didn’t clear the field. He had to compete against Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, the former NFL quarterback and Congressman Jack Kemp, and the Christian conservative leader Pat Robertson, among others.
In fact, in the presidential primary era, no sitting or former vice president running for the top job has cleared the field. Mondale had to best Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson. Bill Bradley almost beat Gore in New Hampshire. In 2000, Quayle was boxed out by Bush’s son and dropped out before Iowa. And you may recall that Joe Biden had to face a few contenders, one of them being Harris.
Every vice president struggles. Like Bush, Biden was known as a “gaffe machine.” Like Bush, Gore won favorable coverage upon being nominated, then while grinding away at his job suffered a narrative of being wooden and uninspiring. Quayle was mocked as being in over his head from the day he was nominated. Even the mighty Dick Cheney—whose bureaucratic cunning appeared to give him an inordinate amount of extra-constitutional power—had been cut down to size by the end of George W. Bush’s eight years as the president backed away from his extreme hawkishness.
Yet every one of these six recent vice presidents won their presidential primary, except for Quayle and Cheney, who never ran for the top job. Two won the presidency, and a third might have won with a full and fair recount in Florida.
There are no perfect vice presidents; none are legends in their own time. Harris should not be held to standards that are unachievable.
As with all vice presidents, Harris will suffer criticisms, some justified, some not. But to breezily conclude that she is mortally wounded because of any one setback is to fail to understand the plight, and the potential, of her office.
Yes, Harris starts from a tenuous position as a vice president who entered office without extensive Washington experience. But the benefit of being vice president is that you gain that experience by the time your term is over, even though there are inevitable bumps along the way.
Vice presidents are constantly maligned but retain a public profile that is hard to beat in a nomination contest. And their fates in a presidential general election are far more dependent on external factors—such as the economy and the quality of their opponents—than any minor flub.
The best thing Harris can do is show that she can weather criticism with grace. The best thing Democrats can do is understand the history of the vice presidency and give her a break.