What on earth is going on between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris? Lost amidst the discussion of what each of them is not doing, or at least not doing particularly well—Harris responding to the crisis on the southern border and touring Central America, Biden botching his European tour—is the story of the relationship between the two centers of dysfunction.
That both the Presidency and Vice Presidency are dysfunctional is obvious five months into the Biden Administration. The lack of cooperation, and even signs of passive aggressive tension, make this worse. Their apparently troubled relationship is not just exacerbating problems like the border, but also serving as a kind of proxy battle between the major factions of the Democratic Party.The Vice Presidency is an interesting role in the US system. For all the office’s lack of effective governmental power, the Vice Presidency has grown into the second most important political position in America. Ever since Richard Nixon ran to succeed Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, the Vice President has been the heir apparent of the President to their party’s nomination. The perch of the Vice Presidency was enough to ensure that Hubert Humphrey was the Democratic nominee in 1968, Walter Mondale in 1984, and Al Gore in 2000. And of course, there is Joe Biden himself.
It is worth noting that none of these Vice Presidents succeeded in succeeding their boss as President. The first four lost, and Biden did not become president until four years later. George H. W. Bush in 1988 is the only sitting Vice President since 1836 to win a presidential election.
All of this brings us to Kamala Harris, because while the Vice Presidency is a very strong base for a politician of mediocre talents and limited appeal to secure their party’s nomination, it is not enough to turn them into a credible President. If the Vice Presidency is occupied by someone who is not perceived as a viable President it can actually be a serious problem for the party, as openly opposing the ambitions of that individual can be perceived as disloyalty to the President, but loyalty will lead the party to long-term disaster. This is one of the problems Democrats face with Harris. In this case, however, the situation is made worse by the fact that apparently neither Joe Biden nor the party’s voters wanted her in the first place.
While there has been an effort to spin a tale of close friendship between Harris and Joe Biden’s late son Beau when both were Attorneys General of their respective states, that was a professional relationship at best separated by thousands of miles. Harris is a California politician, not just in terms of origins, but in terms of her path to the top. She was a local district attorney, then Attorney General and only entered federal office because of her profile in state politics. Neither Joe Biden, nor Barack Obama had anything to do with it. Harris was not Biden’s protégé, nor was she a protégé of any of his proteges, nor is their any commonality among their allies at almost any point going back decades. She is the product of an entirely different political ecosystem.
For an old-school, local Delaware pol like Biden, this would be a source of suspicion. The entire lack of any overlapping alliances, personal obligations, or issues combined with the total absence of a Washington profile would be suspect. But to make matters worse, Harris openly targeted Biden during the primary campaign, most dramatically with her grandstanding assault on his position on school bussing during the debates. Reports say that this event alone held up Harris’ selection as VP for weeks as Biden himself had to be persuaded to overlook it.
Overlook it he eventually did. Events in South Carolina and Minneapolis forced his hand. Biden’s presidential campaign was resurrected by strong support from Jim Clyburn and the old guard of the Congressional Black Caucus in the South Carolina primary. This placed Biden deeply in their debt. Ironically, Harris was never particularly close to Clyburn or the CBC, which is primarily a House entity, and Harris of course lacked links to the House, Washington, or the South. Yet Biden had also trapped himself with a commitment to a female Vice President. He was committed to a female candidate, he needed to win over the African American community, and after the events following George Floyd’s death, he had few choices left.
By process of elimination, Biden was left with Stacey Abrams, Susan Rice, and Harris. Of the three, Harris, a U.S. Senator, was the only truly plausible contender for the role of Vice President to the oldest president in American history.
Harris knew she was not selected because Biden loved and admired her, but because she was his only viable option. This knowledge of her own perceived isolation and weakness seems to have driven much of her behavior. More importantly, it means she seems to have treated Biden as a hostile force, interpreting his suggestions and assignments as traps.
This was evident early in the year when Harris made clear she did not want to be the one involved in overruling the Senate parliamentarian to push through a $15 minimum wage increase in the Stimulus. She clearly saw this as an effort to make “her” into a “bad guy.” She has similarly treated the assignment of “Border Czar” as a trap, not just not doing the job, but going out of her way to make clear that she did not want it and is not doing it. It is one thing not to do a job. Plenty of politicians do that. But to shout from the rooftops effectively that you are not doing the job and have no responsibility for anything relating to it is a sign of paranoia. And perhaps in her case, that paranoia is justified.
Biden’s camp clearly has treated Harris with a degree of suspicion and has taken steps to indicate that yes, Biden is running or planning to in 2024. Yet that signaling in itself may have been triggered by Harris’ behavior. Her suspiciousness and tendency to see plots everywhere is a self-fulfilling prophecy which leads her to intrigue in turn.
Biden may have another concern. Harris’ insecurity and paranoia is threatening to cause chaos within the Democratic Party. Not only is it causing worry about Harris, but also resentment. If Harris believes Biden is not going to run, and that he is opposed to her nomination, it makes her all the more determined to secure early commitments from Democratic elected officials to back her, all while Biden is nominally running. This places every single elected DC Democrat in a position of potentially either having to offend Harris or offend Biden.
It would be one thing if Harris was in fact the natural heir apparent. But in DC, she does not look that way. She lacks allies, having only served for part of a term. She was not part of the Congressional Black Caucus, and ideologically she was too California for the moderates, but too much of an establishment figure for the left.
This is something which is missed by many conservatives. By the standards of 2004, Harris is far-left, one of the most left-wing members of the Senate. But politics in 2021 is not policy-based, it is tribal. And Harris is tribally unacceptable to the progressive left.
First and foremost, she is a “cop.” Yes, she was a “liberal” prosecutor, but the 2000s “liberal prosecutor” is still a “racist tool of the power structure” in 2021. By definition that places her in the “establishment” wing of the party. Furthermore, there is the issue of her close links to California elites. In the 2000s, the influence of Hollywood, San Francisco money, etc. became buzzwords for “liberal” influence and Bush campaigned aggressively on it in 2004. But today, money is money, and Harris’ money comes from very rich people, many of whom have employees who are not unionized, and quite a few of whom, especially in Hollywood, have #metoo problems. That Harris’ husband is a Hollywood entertainment lawyer is a reinforcement that she is part of the California monied establishment which is still “monied” and still an “establishment.”
Finally, Harris’ husband is an object of suspicion to the radical left. By 2004 standards, he is a “liberal” secular American Jew who has a cultural affinity for Israel, but hates Netanyahu. The Left, however, is no longer “liberal” and there is not a place for “liberal” Jews who believe in the concept of a Jewish state at all. Once again, politics is tribal. The Left does not want Israel to be good. The Left views the existence of Israel as bad and wants it gone because it views its formation as a colonialist crime.
Harris then, for all her left-wing policy credentials, has a massive left-flank problem. Her behavior has to be viewed in this context. She did not want to overrule the Senate Parliamentarian on the minimum wage increase because it would offend Washington opinion which values tradition and a parliamentarian appointed by Democrats, but she also felt that being sent out to kill it was an effort by Biden to make her an enemy of the left. Making her “border czar” seemed like a way of associating “Cop Kamala” with the internment of young migrants.
All of this is compounded by the truth about why she was chosen. Harris is not foolish enough not to realize that she has problems with the new left, that Biden doesn’t trust her, or that the issues she is tasked with handling present dangers. But she lacks the political instincts or creativity to do anything about these problems other than react defensively and passively aggressively towards Biden.
Biden is saddled with a weak Vice President, who absent the role would be a non-factor in DC. But with the office, she is officially heir apparent to the Democratic Party, without the power base or support to actually control it. Nor does she have the skills to remedy the situation. The result is a source of instability for the Administration, the party, and the country.