AMAC Exclusive by Daniel Roman
The day after Christmas, Kamala Harris set the internet chattering, and not in a good way, when she claimed to have celebrated Kwanzaa in her childhood. “Our Kwanzaa celebrations are some of my favorite childhood memories,” the Vice President tweeted, before going on to elaborate about her favorite of the “seven principles” of the holiday. It is, of course, possible that Harris, who was born in 1964 and grew up in the Bay Area as the daughter of Indian-American and Jamaican-American academics, celebrated the holiday (which did not become mainstream until the 1990s). But whatever the truth of the matter, many of Harris’s internet critics certainly seemed to feel that the tweet perfectly encapsulated the insincerity, unbelievability, and even phoniness with which the American public has become increasingly well-acquainted during Harris’s first year in office.
Perhaps no one in politics had a worse 2021 than our Madame Vice President – and in a year that encompassed January 6th, Donald Trump’s second impeachment, Biden’s surrender in Afghanistan, and his complete failure on COVID, that is certainly saying something. Yet sure enough, Kamala has emerged as one of the loneliest and most isolated figures in American politics. And in microcosm, everything revealed in that little tweet has had much to do with it.
Beyond the alleged inauthenticity of Harris’s tweets (especially stark when matched with her previous stories of attending Hindu services with her mother), the Kwanzaa imbroglio exhibited Harris’s trademark inability to understand anything as not being about her. Normally, when a “top-tier” politician—as Harris infamously labeled herself while languishing behind in the primary—tweets about a holiday, they talk about the importance of the holiday to millions of faithful around the world: Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ. Passover, the Jewish people’s deliverance from bondage. You get the idea.
To Harris, Kwanzaa was important because she supposedly celebrated it. It was about her favorite principle. By taking the same attitude toward politics – whereby issues that Harris is involved in (like the border) are merely part of efforts by others to “sabotage” her, and issues where she is not involved represent efforts to “exclude” her – Harris has demonstrated a total inability to see the world as existing for any other reason than to serve her own personal political ambitions and needs.
Many of Harris’s problems, whether they come down to staff, her poor relations with the media, or other Democrats, boil down to just this. And the effect on her political standing has been striking.
For all the attention given to Joe Biden’s falling poll numbers, the sources of Democratic despair go deeper. It is not only the present that concerns the party. It is the future. A disappointing present can be tolerated, even rationalized if a rising star is on the horizon, but for Democrats, the worst thing about the increasingly apparent cognitive decline of Joe Biden is that his likely successor, Kamala Harris, seems to promise both political and governmental disaster.
Harris was always going to struggle as a national figure. Ideologically, Harris was a product of a California, which is far to the left of the country at large, and within California Democratic politics, Harris was aligned with the vastly more woke San Francisco Bay wing as opposed to the (slightly) more centrist Los Angeles wing, whose representative, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, Harris beat in the 2018 U.S. Senate race.
As one of the most left-wing members of the Senate, Harris had a record which would hurt her in middle America, and as someone whose entire electoral career had been spent outflanking opponents from the left, she would find it difficult to reverse the strategy in a general election. In the 2020 primaries, Harris was disoriented the first time the same tactic was used against her. In the primary, Bernie supporters began attacking her for being “a cop” – in other words, allowing the prosecution of any crimes at all when she was California’s Attorney General, and for placing non-medically transitioned men who claimed to be transgender in men’s prisons rather than female ones.
These attacks should have been a godsend to Harris. Her entire problem was that voters, including those in the Democratic primary, viewed her as being too left-wing. Suddenly, Bernie supporters were attacking her for allegedly being rightwing on issues where 85% of the electorate agreed with the more conservative position. All Harris had to do was embrace the charges, denounce the left for being pro-crime and anti-woman, and she might have achieved the sort of moment that primary victories are made of. That Harris and her campaign instead fell into a tailspin that ended with her dropping out polling at less than 1% should have set off alarm bells. Handed one of the few “freebees” in politics, Harris fumbled the ball, tripped, and broke both her legs.
Harris’s failures are not ideological. “Success” on the issues Biden has assigned her – namely the border and “voting rights” – would have made her a divisive figure. But it would have solidified her position within the Democratic Party and grassroots supporters. Harris’s graver weaknesses are operational: she cannot seem to run a competent operation. During the primary, stories abounded of financial mismanagement and feuds between her sister, who dominated the campaign, and staffers. As Vice President, those same kind of embarrassing leaks, all blaming the boss, are ever-present. Stories appear in outlets like Politico about the Vice President’s poor treatment of staff, terming the office “an unhealthy environment,” while a staffer this November bemoaned “With Kamala you have to put up with a constant amount of soul-destroying criticism and also her own lack of confidence. So you’re constantly sort of propping up a bully and it’s not really clear why.” The Washington Post, on December 4th, also ran a story entitled “A Kamala Harris staff exodus reignites questions about her leadership style — and her future ambitions.”
The consistency of these stories, the ease with which sources have been found, and the actual rapid turnover of staff in the Vice President’s office indicate two things. First and foremost, that Harris is in fact a bad boss. But while being a bad boss is a necessary condition to produce these sorts of stories, it is not sufficient. Many ambitious political hacks are willing to put up with extensive “soul-crushing” abuse for a taste of power. D.C. is not where staffers go for an easy life or easy hours. Not at that level. At most, such an environment would cause staff to leave, but if they believed Harris might end up in a position of power, say the presidency, they would likely avoid burning bridges either with her or their former co-workers by speaking to the press. That they are willing to do so indicates they do not just feel working for Harris is “soul-crushing.” It suggests they feel it is ultimately pointless, that Harris will not succeed in going higher, and therefore they lose nothing by moving on. If their ambition is to work for the President, then working for Kamala Harris in 2022 is detrimental to that goal. It is a vote of no confidence by those who work for Harris in her political future. That so many “mainstream” media sources are eager to run these stories is also an interesting statement of its own.
Harris’s team is apt to blame the bad press on a lack of support from the Biden team or, as Jen Psaki did, “systemic” racism and sexism. Biden perhaps has allowed leaks about a lack of confidence to occur, but given the dysfunction within the President’s own operation, it is unclear how much of this is deliberate and how much is incidental.
On the other hand, there is far more extensive evidence pointing to Pete Buttigieg. Numerous stories have leaked about a rivalry between the Secretary of Transportation and the Vice President for the succession, along with suggestions that the White House favors the Secretary. Clearly Buttigieg is doing nothing to discourage this sort of leaking.
Once more, the real significance here is not about whether Pete Buttigieg has ambitions for the presidency or is an ambitious intriguer. The evidence for both is public and overwhelming. Rather, the real story is that the Vice President of the United States appears to be losing a power struggle against a second-tier cabinet secretary, a cabinet secretary who happens to be Pete Buttigieg. Harris has, or should have, every advantage. She has both race and gender on her side. She would be potentially the first female, the first Asian-American, and the second African-American President. She won statewide election three times in the nation’s largest state, twice for Attorney General, and once for Senate. Pete Buttigieg is a white male in a party which is not a fan of either adjective, who was mayor of a town of 50,000. His gay credentials increasingly count for little versus the white and male aspects. Yet somehow, he is holding his own, if not winning the power struggle.
That is entirely on Harris. Not only on her prior failures, but on how she has conducted her rivalry with Buttigieg. Rather than ignoring him, mocking his pretentions, or utilizing her office to remind him who is the Vice President, she has reacted with the same sort of panic she displayed during the primary when attacked from the left. She has whined that Buttigieg is leaking stories against her, that he would dare to contemplate challenging her, and most pathetically, she has whined that Joe Biden won’t tell Buttigieg to knock it off. The former has elevated Buttigieg into an equal, while the latter has made her look weak. If she asks for Biden to protect her from Buttigieg rather than going after him herself, it implies she is too weak to do so, and thereby strengthens rather than weakens him.
Furthermore, by accusing the White House of favoring Buttigieg, Harris allies are actually the ones planting the stories that Biden and the Democratic establishment “may” favor him. That is exactly the sort of leak Buttigieg would be trying to plant, and it is no wonder he can deny it. He may even be telling the truth, as he has no need to try and “brag” to the media that the White House “secretly backs him” if Harris is doing it for him.
The irony is that Buttigieg cannot “defeat” Harris. Identity politics runs too deeply in the Democratic Party, and as much as many Democrats might privately wish Harris would decide to resign and retire from politics tomorrow, if Buttigieg were to deny her the nomination, Donald Trump or whoever the Republican candidate is would likely beat him handily. As much as Harris as a person may annoy African American voters or women, her whining about persecution strikes a chord, at least with a primary electorate. The only problem is that it does not extend to the general electorate.
The result is that Democrats are stuck with Harris. Which is what makes her incompetence at political infighting so damaging to the party. Buttigieg cannot seriously threaten her, but by treating him as if he can, Harris is creating an additional destructive and divisive war within the Democratic Party for no purpose. It damages her own image, her relations with other Democrats, and the party unnecessarily.
Damaging herself, the office of Vice President, and the Democratic Party for no real reason could be used to describe the Kwanzaa tweet, or pretty much the entirety of Harris’s tenure. It has been one disaster after another, as Harris picks fights where none need be fought, proceeds to lose them despite overwhelming odds in her favor, and then collapses in the face of the first serious opposition on real issues. The charge that someone “can never do anything right” has long been levied, almost never with justification, at politicians. Kamala Harris is one of the first times where it may well be justified on the evidence.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.