Is Vice President Kamala Harris a liability or an asset in 2024?
Due to President Joe Biden’s age, Vice President Kamala Harris is under a lot more scrutiny than No. 2’s on the ticket usually are.
“What you’re seeing with Republicans is, and a Republican told this to me recently, is that ‘We are going to be using her as the boogeyman,'” Eugene Daniels, a White House correspondent, says.
Today, On Point: Is vice president Kamala Harris a liability or an asset in Joe Biden’s re-election campaign?
Eugene Daniels, White House correspondent and co-author ofPOLITICO’s Playbook, a rundown of stories driving the day in politics.
Kate Andersen Brower, journalist. Author of “First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the Pursuit of Power,” “Team of Five” and “First Women.”
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti, and this is then-Senator Kamala Harris in 2019 grilling then-Attorney General Bill Barr about his handling of the Justice Department’s probe into the Trump administration’s dealings with Russia.
SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: You said, quote, that you “consulted with Rosenstein constantly,” unquote, with respect to the special counsel’s investigation or report. But Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein is also a key witness in the firing of FBI Director Comey.
Did you consult (CROSSTALK) with the — I’m not finished. Did you consult with DOJ ethics officials before you enlisted Rod Rosenstein to participate in a charging decision for an investigation, the subject of which he is also a witness?
CHAKRABARTI: So there you hear Harris, the tough, formidable former prosecutor. And here is then presidential candidate Kamala Harris, cornering candidate Joe Biden in a Democratic primary season debate later in 2019.
HARRIS: Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose bussing in America then? (CLAPS) Do you agree?
PRES. JOE BIDEN: I did not oppose bussing in America. What I opposed is bussing ordered by the Department of Education.
CHAKRABARTI: So, there you hear Harris as sharp and incisive, bold and courageous, speaking truth to power, even. But as vice president, this is the Kamala Harris often portrayed by the Republican Party and in the media.
HARRIS: We will assist Jamaica in COVID recovery by assisting in terms of the recovery efforts in Jamaica that have been essential to, I believe, what is necessary to strengthen not only the issue of public health, but also the economy.
CHAKRABARTI: An uncertain word salad. Well, due to President Biden’s age — he’d be 86 by the end of his second term if he wins in 2024 — Vice President Kamala Harris is under extraordinary scrutiny as the No. 2 on the ticket. Harris’s approval ratings right now aren’t where Democrats would want them to be. In June, she had a 56% disapproval rating, according to the political data website FiveThirtyEight.
For context, the last Democratic vice president, the man who happens to currently be Harris’s boss, Joe Biden, had a considerably better unfavorable rating at the end of the first Obama administration. 41% of Americans disapproved of Biden as VP at the time. So a big gap there between the 41% and the 56% disapproval rating Kamala Harris currently has. And the reports are that Democrats are whispering nervously about Biden’s presidential reelection bid, both because of his age and because of his VP. One exception, though, is Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips. He was on WCCO’s Chad Hartman Show last month.
DEAN PHILLIPS: I’m astounded so few of us who are simply saying publicly what others are either feeling or saying privately. But that’s the state of affairs of American politics. And the reason you will not see the competition we need is because people are so focused on self-preservation, and their career and not principle. And I think it’s time that we invest more in the latter. Period.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, Congressman Phillips has been on the record since last year in thinking that either President Biden should not run again for reelection, or he should be challenged in the Democratic primaries. But he is virtually alone in speaking about both the president and vice president. As POLITICO’s Jonathan Martin puts it, “By simply stating their support for the president’s reelection, Democrats may be suppressing their misgivings, but they’re also avoiding the inevitable follow up question. Are you for the vice president?”
So what’s really going on here? What’s going on that’s driving this criticism and nervous whispering about Vice President Kamala Harris? Is she an asset or liability for Biden’s reelection prospects, and why? Well, Kate Andersen Brower joins us today. She is a journalist and author of “First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents and the Pursuit of Power.” She’s also former White House correspondent for Bloomberg. Kate, welcome to the show.
KATE ANDERSEN BROWER: Thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Also with us is Eugene Daniels. He’s White House correspondent and co-author of POLITICO’s Playbook. It’s a rundown of stories driving the day in politics. He’s been covering Vice President Harris and traveled with her on her weeklong trip to Africa in March. Eugene, welcome to you.
EUGENE DANIELS: Thank you so much for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So what I’d first like to do is get a common set of measurements, a political yardstick, if you will, by which to judge where [the] vice president stands right now in the eyes of her fellow Democrats and the American people. So, Kate, first of all, how much scrutiny does a vice president usually come over when their president is running for reelection?
ANDERSEN BROWER: I think that it’s obviously an incredibly important position. Because she can be the number one surrogate for Joe Biden. She can speak to a whole swath of voters who are very important for him. But, look, the criticism about her is common to most vice presidents. I mean, Biden was made fun of as vice president, too. It’s just a very difficult position to be No. 2. You know, famously, John Nance Garner, who was one of FDR’s VP’s said, “It’s not worth a warm bucket of spit.” You know, the position is tough. And I think we’re seeing that play out in real time here.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, the scrutiny is normal then. Eugene, do you hear any conversations or private whisperings within the White House itself about this, about keeping Vice President Harris on the ticket?
DANIELS: Oh, no. That’s not a real conversation that’s happening in the White House or even kind of in Biden world, writ large. You cannot be a Democratic presidential candidate and then kick off your Black woman who has been your vice president for two and a half years. And by the time people start voting about, you know, almost four. So that’s not a real conversation that’s happening in the White House. I will say, though, you know, those misgivings are felt throughout the party.
And as Kate was just saying, every vice president kind of has some of this. You know, people, you know, like she said, made fun of Joe Biden. And then he had like this Uncle Joe, Grandpa Joe kind of surrounding him. And the difference for Kamala Harris is she deals with being the first. And I think Washington, D.C. has had a difficult time kind of figuring out how to cover her. And for her, the people around her, how to defend her publicly, without coming off as defensive. And I think that is something that her team has been dealing with this entire time and that the White House itself is trying to tackle now.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, let’s be clear. I mean, I don’t think that this would be an issue at all were it not for President Biden’s age. I mean, that’s the thing that everyone’s talking about, the circumstance in which, you know, if he could not complete a second term, for example, then she would be the next in line. So given that, Kate, I wonder what you think about those disapproval ratings that I polled.
Again, those were the recent ones on Harris. And then the end of the first Obama term on Biden when he was vice president. I mean, is it normal? I guess it’s totally normal for disapproval ratings to go up as both the president and VP progressed through their first term. But is that 56%, does that seem high to you?
ANDERSEN BROWER: Yeah, it does seem high. I think in some ways she hasn’t been given an opportunity to shine. Like Eugene said, I think that there is this sense of, you know, they don’t want to seem defensive about her, when they’re defending her. If you think of Biden’s time as Obama’s vice president, he came out in support of gay marriage. Right? And that really upset President Obama and his team because he hadn’t yet done that publicly. So what Biden did was force the president’s hand. And you haven’t seen Kamala Harris have any opportunity to kind of carve out a lane of her own.
You know, the things, the job assignment she’s been given, because vice presidents only have two roles. To step in, if necessary, or to cast tiebreaking votes in the Senate. And she’s done a lot of that, by the way, because of the Senate split. But, you know, she hasn’t been given a chance to express herself. I think her personal story is very riveting. I think the fact that, you know, as the first, if we could get a sense more of like, you know, she has a blended family, right?
She’s juggling this huge career, embracing her immigrant roots and all of that. I mean, I love that she, for instance, calls her stepchildren her children. You know, I think there are a lot of people who can relate to her. And I think in some ways, as a woman, she might feel somewhat apprehensive about leaning into that too much. She wants to be seen for who she is, her politics, you know.
CHAKRABARTI: You know, I hear you both, though, saying that there are misgivings felt throughout the party. And what I want to explore over the course of the hour is, What’s driving those misgivings? Are they legitimate or not? And they have turned into questions to President Biden himself about Vice President Harris.
I mean, early on in the Biden administration, an unnamed, anonymous White House staffer told longtime Washington journalist Chris Whipple that Biden called Harris a work in progress. He hasn’t said that publicly. And, in fact, when asked publicly just last month about Harris, here is what President Biden said on MSNBC.
PRES. BIDEN: I just think that Vice President Harris hasn’t gotten the credit she deserves. She was the attorney general of the state of California. She has been a United States senator. She is really very, very good. And with everything going on, she hasn’t gotten the attention she deserves.
CHAKRABARTI: And then this was in the MSNBC interview with Stephanie Ruhle, Ruhle asked President Biden this.
STEPHANIE RUHLE: Critics would say you’re elevating her because they think you wouldn’t serve a full term.
RUHLE: And it is fair to say that there’s not a Fortune 500 company in the world looking to hire a CEO in his eighties. So why would an 82-year-old Joe Biden be the right person for the most important job in the world?
PRES. BIDEN: Because I required a hell of a lot of wisdom. And know more than the vast majority of people. I’m more experienced than anybody has ever run for the office. And I think I’ve proven myself to be honorable as well as also effective.
CHAKRABARTI: So, Eugene, you’re covering the White House as we speak. Can you talk for, we’ve got 30 seconds before our first break, how much the interplay of Biden’s age and Harris as VP work together in terms of tackling questions like this from the media?
DANIELS: I think you’re right. So much of it is about his age, almost all of it. And also, Joe Biden kind of did this to himself. The campaign did this to themselves. He called himself a bridge candidate. And so the question immediately following that as a reporter is, “The bridge to what?” The most obvious answer is the person you pick as your vice president. And so that is where kind of all of this stems from him.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, today we’re talking with Eugene Daniels, White House correspondent with POLITICO. And Kate Brower is with us, as well. She’s author of “First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents and the Pursuit of Power.” And we’re trying to understand really what the quiet misgivings amongst Democrats themselves are about Vice President Harris and why those misgivings even exist. And are they legitimate? Back in a moment.
CHAKRABARTI: Here is what listener Sam says about Vice President Kamala Harris. Sam says, “She’s no Spiro Agnew. She’s not a religious zealot or a war criminal. And best of all, she is not insane. We could do a lot worse, and we probably will.” Oh, Sam, the bar for American politics has fallen so low.
Okay, well, let’s listen to Vice President Harris herself. This is during a speech at Fisk University in Nashville in April, when the vice president shared her support for Democratic state representatives who had been expelled from the Tennessee House after they protested with a bullhorn on the General Assembly floor. And in the speech, it was pretty clear that Vice President Harris can appeal to younger voters.
HARRIS: (APPLAUSE) A democracy says you don’t silence the people. You do not stifle the people. You don’t turn off their microphones when they are speaking about the importance of life and liberty. (CHEERS)
CHAKRABARTI: Vice President Harris just in April. Okay, so we have another comment from a listener on Facebook. This is Ray Russell with a different view, who says Harris does not have to be under scrutiny. She has damaged herself publicly numerous times.
Now, Ray might be thinking of a moment such as this one, when in May of last year, the vice president hosted the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. They were talking climate change. And Vice President Harris said that climate change affects all nations and then delivered one of the so-called word salads she’s become known for.
HARRIS: Which is why we will work together and continue to work together to address these issues, to tackle these challenges, and to work together as we continue to work. Operating from the new norms, rules and agreements that we will convene to work together on to galvanize global action.
CHAKRABARTI: So, Kate, here’s what I want to know. I mean, it’s one thing for there to be concern within the Beltway, right? Because I’m not sure how much that matches what actual voters are thinking. But you’ve said that journalists have called you repeatedly and asked, you know, like, what do you think about Vice President Harris? Is she up to the job if she were to become president? I mean, what’s driving their concern?
ANDERSEN BROWER: I mean, I think reporters sometimes are asking because the polling numbers they’re seeing. And what they’re hearing from, you know, Democratic sources, which is the chattering class in D.C., too. So they’re reacting to both of those things. And you can’t deny the polling numbers.
CHAKRABARTI: Do they have specifics? Do they say, “Sources tell me that Democrats don’t like X about Harris?”
ANDERSEN BROWER: I think a lot of it is about her staff. You know, I’ve heard that. But it’s nothing specific. That she isn’t staffed very well, that she’s not listening to the right people. She sometimes doesn’t take direction from the West Wing as she should. I mean, I think Biden is especially attuned to that. And people around him are attuned to that.
Because they think, look, he served eight years for a much younger president after almost 40 years in the Senate. She should really be doing what we want her to do. And so I think if there’s ever pushback from Harris’s team, it seems to me that maybe the reaction is to, you know, spur on some of those negative comments.
CHAKRABARTI: But correct me if I’m wrong, Kate. I thought you had told our producer earlier that when reporters call you saying, you know, what do you think of Kamala Harris? They can’t actually pinpoint anything exactly that she’s done wrong.
ANDERSEN BROWER: Right. I mean, that’s the thing. I never hear anything precise. The word salad is the most that you can point to. And it’s not, you know, that’s certainly not that terrible or embarrassing. I don’t really fully actually understand all the criticism. Because she has not done anything close to even what Dan Quayle did with the potato, which I think was kind of silly in the long run anyway.
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Are we showing our age that we automatically know what you mean?
ANDERSEN BROWER: Exactly. (LAUGHS)
CHAKRABARTI: There is no E in potato. (LAUGHS)
ANDERSEN BROWER: Exactly. And he’s still upset about that, by the way.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, you know, we can laugh about that. But the truth is, is politics is a vicious, vicious game. And I would say that folks like Ray Russell, our listener who commented there, aren’t coming to their criticism of Vice President Harris based on no evidence at all. I mean, for example, this is the vice president at a press conference in the DMZ between North and South Korea last September. Okay. So remember who is our ally in this situation. But here is what the vice president said.
HARRIS: So the United States shares a very important relationship, which is an alliance with the Republic of North Korea. And it is an alliance that is strong and enduring. And today, there were several demonstrations of just that point.
CHAKRABARTI: Eugene, I mean, look, no one’s perfect on any given day, but that’s kind of a really, that’s a humdinger of a gaffe.
DANIELS: Yeah. (LAUGHS) And gaffes nowadays get extrapolated. And once you kind of have in Washington, D.C., as you said, like the chattering class, once there’s a narrative, it is really hard to counter that narrative. And every single thing that smells like, looks like that thing is going to be blown out. And her team would say out of proportion. I mean, Hillary Clinton dealt with this. Joe Biden himself has dealt with this, right. These exact same things. And, you know, the people do often talk about the word salad.
Part of this is, you know, once you’re not the principal anymore. Like when you play at the beginning, the sound of Kamala Harris on the dais when she was on those committees, while she’s in the Senate or when she was the presidential candidate, that is her as the boss, right? She is no longer the boss. And so it creates a different world for you. It is not your views that you were sharing. It is often the president of the United States. Your boss’s views, right, that’s difficult. And also, the word salad is kind of sometimes, you know, she’s a lawyer and she finds it difficult at times to pull herself out of talking in kind of like a legal, weird way. And I think, you know, she has been bruised by the coverage of her.
And so, you know, folks around her would even admit that she is a little bit more cautious. I think that if you look at the last six months, there’s a lot of evidence that that has changed. You played that Fisk University sound. That is a place that her allies and team point to as something different is happening. And we can get into that a little bit more if you want. But I think, like you said, these voters are, it’s not coming from nowhere.
But I have yet to hear when I’m talking to these sources, you know, bad advice she gave President Biden. Right. You know, those kinds of things, I would say, this person is bad at their job. … And as a reporter, I’m looking for that. Right? I’m looking for the kinds of things of, “How is this person operating?” And so much of it is around kind of this word salad and what her PR looks like, essentially.
CHAKRABARTI: Can you talk a little bit more, Eugene, about how you see her relationship with President Biden? You know, at one point in time, Biden vowed that Kamala Harris would be the last person in the room with big decisions. You know, when he was vice president, he famously got weekly one-on-one lunches with President Obama. I mean, what kind of relationship does Biden have with Harris now?
DANIELS: Yeah. Every president before their president says that, right? That person, the VP, is going to be the last person in the room. And I will say, if you look at the reporting since the Obama administration has been over, Biden and Obama did not have the relationship that was, you know, that bromance that was portrayed. There was a lot of tensions between he and his team. Because these people go from being political rivals often, especially on the Democratic side.
And all of a sudden, it’s like, you guys are a team together and go win and never mess up and never have any more tensions. And that’s not true, right? You played that sound from that debate stage, that very first debate stage where Harris rhetorically punched him right in the face. And his team was burned by that. And a lot of his team continued to be burned by that even after he chose her, and even after they were in the White House. So that’s where some of that tension lies. And also, she walked in very cognizant of that.
And me and my colleague Christopher Cadelago, at the 100-day mark of the administration, wrote a story where, you know, we explored her making sure that he knew she was loyal to him. Right. She said to people close to her, and they ended up telling us, that she wanted to be Joe Biden’s Joe Biden. She wanted to be seen as his right hand, as always lockstep with him, in meetings with her staff, continuing to ask, “What does Joe say about this?” And so now I think their relationship was much better.
You have a lot of folks who were on the campaign who had those ill feelings, I guess, toward Harris and her team (LAUGHS), during those campaigns, kind of out of there. And you’re starting to see a different relationship. She has a chief of staff, not really new at this point, but Lorraine Voles, who was very close to Ron Klain. Because they worked together many years ago. And that relationship has continued under the new chief of staff. The comms and press teams are much more in lockstep. So there is work that was done on the staff level to make sure that the two of them at least appeared to be much closer than what was reported early on.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. That is interesting. So, Kate, let me take that a step forward with you. Because, you know, successful vice presidents, the Dan Quayle’s of the world aside, but successful vice presidents are able to, you know, carve out quite an influential role in different ways in the administrations in which they serve. You know, I’m thinking about, let’s take Dick Cheney, for example, obviously a huge voice and force in the administration of George W. Bush, right?
And then even Biden himself as vice president under President Obama … Biden being famously this people person who was like out there glad-handing when perhaps Obama did not want to, or Biden with his foreign policy experience as VP. I mean, are you thinking that in part, because of their relationship, the Biden-Harris relationship, and the current circumstances, with COVID, how polarized politics is, that either there wasn’t room for her to find her voice, as you said earlier, or maybe she just didn’t possess the political savvy to find her voice?
ANDERSEN BROWER: I mean, I think that’s a really tricky question. I think what Eugene said that I completely agree with, is the idea that suddenly, she was a candidate. And she did so well calling out Biden on some issues when they were running against each other. So, when she’s in charge, she can have a voice. I’m thinking of the, “I’m speaking” line with Mike Pence. That was wonderful. That’s her strong suit.
So I think we’re going to see in this election if the best thing would be for her to be a surrogate who would be going out there. And she’s able to speak forcefully on behalf of the president and the administration using that kind of straight talk. So she won’t find herself, kind of, in these word salads. I think she’s much better, actually, as a campaigner. And, you know, I think that that’s what we saw with the Biden video, when he announced his reelection. She was all over that video. But you have to remember, I think there was a time in history before there was even an amendment that would have a succession plan in place.
I mean, when LBJ took over the presidency after the Kennedy assassination, he didn’t even have a VP for a couple of years. So this kind of outsized emphasis on Kamala Harris, I think you’re right, is because of Biden’s age. But I think it’s also for two other very real reasons. And people will tell you that. I mean, it is that she is a woman. It is that she is Black. There is a huge component of both, you know, racism and sexism. I think that’s undeniable here. You cannot overlook it.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, we are obviously going to get to that. We’re going to hit that head on in just a minute or two here. But I also wanted to focus on a little bit more about what both of you were saying, that there are moments where Vice President Harris is compelling. She is clear, she can be a voice for the Biden administration that Biden himself cannot. And one of those we saw on the vice president’s trip to Africa. And Eugene, you went along with her on that. I want to play a moment from a speech that Harris gave in Ghana where she stood just outside the truly infamous Cape Coast Castle, where enslaved people were kept as part of the Atlantic slave trade.
HARRIS: When we think about how human beings were treated by the hundreds of thousands in this very place that we now stand. The crimes that happened here. The blood that was shed here. There are dungeons here where human beings were kept. Men, women and children.
CHAKRABARTI: Eugene, talk about the Kamala Harris that you saw in Ghana, in Africa.
DANIELS: Yeah. You know, when I think about that trip, I’m Black myself. So it was an emotional trip, in general, being there. And the idea in her team is that that was a turning point for Kamala Harris. And I’ll tell you why. That speech … was the second remarks of the day. The first was around all these young people, and there was a huge outpouring of support for her at this kind of iconic Ghanaian monument on the coast there. And so now we’re going to the slave castle. And we started realizing that Kamala Harris was getting emotional.
And I know that there are going to be people in my DMs very upset for me calling a woman emotional. But I will explain. Because she was, and she is not someone who has let anyone see her emotions for all the reasons that we, the three of us know how women are treated when they do that. But she is a person who was descendants of slaves and she talked about this. Is that her, it was very likely that her own ancestors walked through that door, or were taken through that door of no return. So she’s walking around.
We’re seeing her getting emotional. And she comes out and we see, you know, her team always puts like a little, some notes on the podium there, the lectern there. She didn’t look down once. And that is not the Kamala Harris I had been covering. And that continued throughout the trip, that she was much more off the cuff. She felt lighter on her feet.
And so when you watch someone kind of change before your very eyes, the question is always, how long will this last? Right. The more that she did it, even when we were doing kind of our pen and pad press conference, I guess, with the other reporters, as she was leaving Ghana, it was the same thing.
The answers to the questions were so cogent. She was ready to push back when needed and not worried about kind of the perception. And I think something happened. And I know, because I’ve talked to her team about this. But something happened kind of in the way, in the freeing of all these gaffes. And realizing that, oh, she can be herself. And so she’s been much more comfortable since then being the person that, frankly, Democrats fell in love with when she was on the dais in the Senate.
That is a Kamala Harris that her team wanted to see. And Laphonza Butler, who is the president of EMILY’s List. I spoke with her, and she said even she, she’s a person in Harris world, she was thirsty for that. In her words, for that old Kamala Harris. That she is starting to see that more and more. And those are, you know, Africa, I think if people are looking for what are the moments in Kamala Harris’s vice presidency that are really important? I would put that, at this point, at the top of that list.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. Well, today we are talking about Vice President Kamala Harris, how she’s done, first of all, as vice president. And what’s really behind what we’re hearing as the whispers of concern from some folks within the Washington Beltway, Democrats within the Washington Beltway. And also, why Republicans are making it clear that in running against President Joe Biden, they’re going to be running hard against Kamala Harris. We’re going to be talking about that when we come back.
CHAKRABARTI: Let’s listen to a little bit more of moments when Vice President Kamala Harris has found her voice. This is from a trip to Plainfield, Illinois, in June of last year, where Harris condemned the Supreme Court’s decision that just took place, or was released days earlier last year, the one that struck down Roe v. Wade.
HARRIS: This is a health care crisis, because understand. Millions of women in America will go to bed tonight without access to the health care and reproductive care that they had this morning. Without access to the same health care, or reproductive health care, that their mothers and grandmothers had for 50 years.
CHAKRABARTI: So no word salad there. Got a comment from a listener here. Mark David says, “I’m an older white man. Our government should be beyond the old white man as a standard for, quote, ‘electability and leadership.'” Okay, so on that point, it’s really about time that we took head on the major issue here, perhaps that is continuing to overshadow Vice President Harris. And that being race and sex in America.
So we spoke with Cornell Belcher. He’s a Democratic strategist and founder of Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies. He’s also a political analyst for NBC. And we asked him what he thinks is behind both the Democrats nervousness, although they won’t talk publicly about it, about Harris, and what’s behind the attacks on her from Republicans.
CORNELL BELCHER: Go back and look at her trip that she took to Asia. That was a success. Go back and look at her trips to Eastern Europe and shoring up our alliances with NATO. Those are successes. It’s hard to criticize her on what she’s actually doing as vice president. So the criticism is these other things that speak to sexism and racial aversion. And people being uncomfortable with a woman, a woman of color, being in such a position of power, and so close to power.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, Belcher blames right wing media most of all. But he says he also sees bias on the left as well.
BELCHER: There is such an obvious double standard. And for those of us who’ve been around politics for a while, who’ve been students of politics, the double standard is obvious. I can’t recall in my professional lifetime having people attack a vice president in such a fashion.
CHAKRABARTI: In fact, Belcher told us that the scrutiny Harris has come under from both sides is a historic first.
BELCHER: You could go weeks and weeks and months and months without anyone having any questions about the vice president or paying any attention to what the vice president is doing, because the vice president is always in the background. You know, no one talked about how Al Gore laughed or talked. There wasn’t hubbub about Dick Cheney’s pants or shoes.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, there’s also the issue of the whispering, again from the Democrats, and outright criticism from Republicans who say that Vice President Harris is unqualified for the job. Well, to that, Belcher is dismissive.
BELCHER: I’d put her resume up against any vice president over the last two decades. Who’s had a resume that’s better than hers? So why is it that this extraordinarily accomplished woman, this groundbreaking political figure, why is it that all of a sudden people are questioning her readiness for the job? Take a man and give him the same resumé as Vice President Harris, his qualifications are never questioned.
CHAKRABARTI: Now about those so-called words salads that Vice President Harris has become known for, Belcher says they are magnified by the media, and they obscure her otherwise, what he sees, as masterful communication skills.
BELCHER: This idea that she puts out word salads that are confusing. That’s a creation of the right-wing media that they put in a loop. Because if you look at all the speeches that she’s given as a candidate in California, to her work in the Senate, and when you look at her strong cross-examination of Trump’s Supreme Court appointees, this is not a woman who has problems articulating. And it’s particularly galling when they make this accusation on the right, when Donald Trump can barely string together more than four or five sentences, saying some of the most outlandish things, and babbling on and not making a whole lot of sense, almost daily.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, recall Belcher is a political strategist, so above and beyond Kamala Harris’s qualifications or her public speaking skills, what Belcher is really looking at is the issue of electability.
BELCHER: She is an absolute asset to not only the presidential ticket, but the Democratic Party. When you talk to those younger voters, you know, millennials and Gen Zs who are of voting age, they are the most diverse generation of Americans in American history. She is in many ways representative of this new, younger, more diverse America that is coming into its political power.
CHAKRABARTI: That was Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher, founder of Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies and a political analyst for NBC. Okay, Kate, so I keep struggling with what seems to be a lack of clarity from Democrats themselves. The ones who feel unease about Harris. What I’m struggling with is what you talked about earlier. Is no one can point to explicitly why they’re sort of uncertain about her as vice president for a second Biden term. Should it happen? Is it because it’s this, it’s because of race and sex? Is it as simple as that?
ANDERSEN BROWER: You know, I agree with a lot of what he said. But I mean, look, we have never even had a female chief of staff in the White House. And we have so many firsts with Kamala. But you have to also look at the history of the position. And I mean, Dick Cheney was absolutely vilified. He was the Darth Vader of that administration. And Al Gore lost his election campaign to be president. It’s very, very difficult.
I mean, if you look at it, only four vice presidents, sitting vice presidents have ever won the presidency, George H.W. Bush being the last one. So it’s not as though the position of vice president is some kind of guarantee that you are, you know, going to get the nomination for your party in the next election, or that you’re going to be given this amount of respect. In fact, it’s really the opposite. You are now in the public’s consciousness, second tier, because you are answering to somebody else. So I do think obviously her race, her sex, this all plays into it. But this is a complicated country, and this is a complicated subject. So, it’s not as simple as that.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Eugene, let me quote to you something that your colleague Jonathan Martin wrote in Politico, earlier this year.
He wrote this, quote, “More to the point, Democrats have seen what happens when anyone in their party openly criticizes Harris. They’re accused by activists and social media critics of showing, at best, racial and gender insensitivity. This doesn’t stifle concerns about her prospects, of course. It just pushes them further underground or into the shadows of background quotes.”
And then Martin writes, such as this quote, which he got from a House Democrat. Unnamed, of course. The quote goes like this, “The Democrats who will need to speak out on her are from the Congressional Black Caucus. No white member is going to do it.” End quote. What’s your read on that?
DANIELS: I highly I agree with JMart as per usual. But there’s no CBC member that is probably going to come out against the highest-ranking Black person in this country. I just don’t see it. And when you talk to them, even on background or, you know, I have yet to have one of them share the same kind of criticisms that they have. They talk more about the way that she’s portrayed, the things that her team could do to fix some of that portrayal. But, you know, their complaints, or their criticisms, I guess, of her always sound a little bit different.
And, you know, part of this is on the Biden campaign during 2020. They talked about, one, with Biden saying he was a bridge candidate, but also when they talked about vice president, then-Senator Kamala Harris, they talked about her vice presidency as something that was going to look different, and feel different to people, that she was going to be this different person. Part of that was just by the nature of who she is. And we’ve talked a lot about that. But it was never going to look different. Right? She’s still the No. 2. She can’t be, you know, out there in front of Joe Biden. She was going to get the same kind of raggedy, you know, portfolio that a lot of vice presidents get.
You know, the kind that aren’t easy political wins, because those go to the president. So that’s one. And also, when you talk to her inner circle, and folks that she meets with often, is they even struggled with what do you do when someone who’s never had a job is in it? How do you defend that person? For us as reporters, how do you cover that person? Mike Pence used to have to beg people, or not him himself, but his communications staff used to have to beg people to get on planes with them, to go on trips and promise exclusive interviews with him in order to do that. Vice President Kamala Harris hasn’t had to do that.
A lot of reporters are tasked with covering specifically her, on top of other White House duties. And so it is some of the, quite a bit of, you can call it racism, sexism. But I think largely it’s how do we engage in a world where, like that person who wrote in on Facebook said, where older white men have been the staple, where they have been the center point. And so covering that, and defending that and also being that has proven difficult for kind of everyone involved.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So I’m going to come back to what I think we all agree is actually the central issue here, and that is President Joe Biden’s age. It may not matter what the Republican base thinks, it doesn’t matter what the Democratic base thinks. For the Biden reelection campaign, it really matters what those swing voters think in in critical states.
And that’s why we’re going to be hearing a lot about Vice President Harris, both from the Biden campaign, in terms of celebrating her and from the Republicans during the 2024 election season. When she does things like this, for example. This is June of 2021, and the Biden administration had put addressing the border crisis in the vice president’s portfolio. And NBC’s Lester Holt really pressed her on her handling of immigration.
LESTER HOLT: Let me just quickly put a button. Do you have any plans to visit the border?
KAMALA HARRIS: I’m here in Guatemala today. At some point, we are going to the border. We’ve been to the border. So this whole, this whole, this whole thing about the border. We’ve been to the border. We’ve been to the border.
HOLT: You haven’t been to the border.
HARRIS: And I haven’t been to Europe. I mean (LAUGHS) I don’t, I don’t understand the point that you’re making.
CHAKRABARTI: So that was June of 2021. Okay. So how will those moments be playing out in the presidential campaign for 2024? Well, here’s an example. This is presidential candidate Nikki Haley. She was on Fox & Friends last week, delivering what seems to be the Republican Party’s main message about Harris in the 2024 campaign.
NIKKI HALEY: Let’s be very clear. If they think it’s going to be President Biden, a vote for President Biden is actually a vote for President Harris. We are running against Kamala Harris. Make no bones about it. The New York Times knows it. Every liberal knows it. They know that it’s Kamala Harris that’s going to end up being president of the United States if Joe Biden wins this election.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, Eugene, tell me, how much is this very sharp, pointed and continuous line of attack from the Republicans concerning to the Biden reelection campaign?
DANIELS: You know, I don’t know that they’re that concerned, because it’s not particularly new. The Republicans have been, as we’ve been talking about for the hour, using her as the, you know, quote-unquote, boogeyman of the campaign in 2020. Of the reelection, but also of the administration.
And I think, you know, that is going to continue. I talked to a Republican strategist, senior Republican strategist, recently for a story. And they said, “She’s a boogeyman that Republicans can and will use when it comes to pushing their message. President Harris would be even worse than a President Biden because she campaigned as a progressive fighter, had to moderate herself. And to be completely frank, she’s smart. She’s an accomplished prosecutor. She was a United States senator. And she does have the resume to match.”
I will say her team loved that quote. But the point, I think, is that the campaign has to elevate her, because of all of the issues that we’ve been talking about. She was all up in through that video. She’s also done the most fundraisers so far, and she’s going to be doing five, at least five, I’m told, in June for this campaign. So she’s going to be out front. But that also means that they have to find a better way to defend her, but she also has to find a better way to be, or a different way to be portrayed. And I think that work is happening behind the scenes.
I posted a scoop, I guess, yesterday about how EMILY’s List will be spending tens of millions of dollars to defend and prop up Vice President Harris. You have the White House taking a more aggressive messaging stance when it comes to defending her. And so there’s a lot of work happening behind the scenes, which is an acknowledgment that there are issues. That they understand that they’re issues, but they see it, I think, more as a portrayal than her actual activities in the White House, in the administration.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, we’ve got about a minute left. And so, Kate, I wanted to just throw this last question to you. You know, oftentimes vice presidents, while in office, will stand in the shadow of the president they’re serving under. But in that sense, campaigns, reelection campaigns are almost an opportunity to reset, to be back out in front. And Eugene had said earlier that Harris was quite compelling on the campaign trail. Do you think that’s what we’re going to see here? Like sort of the old-new Kamala Harris in 2024?
ANDERSEN BROWER: Yeah, I think that vice presidents, I mean, if you look at someone like Dick Cheney, he told me he really loves going back out on the campaign trail. And he could punch up. And I think that that’s what Kamala Harris can do. She can do more of those, “I’m speaking” moments. Where she can be herself and be kind of as an attorney general. And look at the Kavanaugh hearings. She can very well make a very strong argument for his reelection on the trail.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.