From the Center
Kamala Harris has been on the receiving end of some fairly negative media coverage over the last few months. But the New York Times (Lean Left bias) profile that appeared last week just two days before Christmas was especially brutal. The piece opened with a fly-on-the-wall iteration of President Biden talking with Harris just before he was about to sit down for an especially critical meeting with Senator Joe Manchin.
“What he needed from her was not strategy or advice,” the Times reported. “He needed her to only say a quick hello, which she did before turning on her heel and leaving the room for another meeting.”
Yikes. The only thing worse than Biden essentially throwing her out of a meeting with a pivotal member of Congress is that a member of the president’s inner circle felt comfortable leaking the encounter to the New York Times. One of the oldest rules in politics is that a leak almost always comes from the person who has the most to benefit from it. That means that a member of Biden’s staff with Oval Office privileges thought that sharing this episode to the nation’s most influential newspaper was in the president’s best interests. Double yikes.
Harris’ defenders argue that the first female vice president and the first African-American or Asian-American to hold that office is the target of sexism and racism. But there may be even stronger historical forces working against her.
For most of the modern political era, the American people have turned to political outsiders when selecting a president. Donald Trump, of course, was the ultimate outsider, the nation’s first chief executive ever elected without previously holding political or military office. But Barack Obama was a junior Senator, and George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were all sitting or former governors. Every one of them ran against the Washington establishment – and every one of them picked a member of the Washington establishment to be his running mate.
So for the last forty-five years, almost every vice president was tasked with serving as the president’s emissary to “official” Washington, to advising his boss on the intricacies of Capitol life, and tapping into long-term relationships on Capitol Hill to negotiate the Administration’s top policy priorities. Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Biden himself, and Mike Pence all played roughly the same role during their respective tenures in the number-two spot.
The only exception over that decade was Bush the senior, whose many years in Washington were key to his selection as Reagan’s running mate, and whose long career in government made it unnecessary for him to seek out that type of experience when selecting his own vice president. He tapped Indiana Senator Dan Quayle, who spent his four years in office as the subject of criticism so fierce that Harris ‘ media coverage looks absolutely fawning by comparison.
But Quayle, like Harris, wasn’t needed for the type of advisory role that vice presidents traditionally assume. Like Harris, he was picked to provide some political cover with the party’s ideological base. (Conservative Republicans of that era were about as enthusiastic about Bush as today’s progressives are about Biden.) And like Harris, Quayle was selected with the somewhat vague hope that he would represent the party’s next generation of leadership. In both cases, the less experienced vice president was largely marginalized by the president’s long-time senior advisors and both struggled to define themselves in a more nebulous role than Washington insiders like Mondale, Gore, Cheney and Pence (not to mention Bush and Biden) were all given.
Both Quayle and Harris are smarter than conventional wisdom allows, although both are prone to the types of gaffes that often accompany heightened expectations and unyielding pressure. But both found themselves in a high-profile job that was constructed in the post-Watergate era for someone with a much different biography than theirs. So it shouldn’t be surprising that official Washington has little regard for either.
Quayle tried to conform to those traditional expectations and was swallowed by them. Harris’ first year in the job wasn’t any better than Quayle’s four. But she has three more years to figure out a better approach. Otherwise Quayle’s blink-or-you’ll-miss-it presidential campaign and his fate as a $400 level Jeopardy answer may become the fate that awaits this junior vice president, too.
Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.
This piece was reviewed and edited by AllSides Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).
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