How Kamala Harris Could Get Her Mojo Back

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(Image: Gage Skidmore on Wikimedia

The pundits — always quick to smell blood — are declaring that the Vice President is in bad trouble politically. At about 28 percent, her ratings are down, lower than President Biden’s, lower than the last four vice presidents including Dick Cheney (30 percent). And, to make matters worse, several of Harris’s top aides are leaving or have already quit.

How could this happen to the vice president, heralded as the first woman vice president and first woman of color? Why did her prospects stall despite Harris’s solid background as a winner of three California statewide races and as a head-liner in the Democratic debates?

One reason is that Harris is now encountering the unfortunate facts of political life. Women politicians are always held to a higher standard than their male counterparts.  While the men in office get kudos for being tough bosses; women achievers get pegged as demanding and bitchy. Women said to mistreat staff include frontrunners like Sen. Amy Klobuchar and our own Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who has one of the highest number of staffers exiting in years.

Harris’s ratings slump also stems from the fact that, although savvy about California politics, she is relatively new to Capitol Hill’s way of doing business. Years in Congress made Biden a master of senatorial mores, while Harris logged a scant three years in the Senate.

Furthermore the president put Harris in charge of contentious political issues: immigration and voting rights. The two assignments seemed like a set up for failure. The presidential-vice president combo, a generational mismatch, has been problematic from the start. Initially Biden, now 79, looked like a one-term president. But, with Biden now talking about reelection, Harris is left supporting his intentions rather than herself gearing up for the 2024 race.

Harris’s mountain of handicaps — likely magnified by being the “the first minority woman who” — have brought out the naysayers and gossip mongers. The critics are led by Trump supporters who’d rather savage Harris than targeting Biden. They joke that Harris “spends days in her office chasing e-mails.” They spread the Aaron Sorkin-like rumor that Biden will rid himself of Harris by appointing her to the next vacancy on the Supreme Court. 

Despite the dire situation, there are ways Harris can work to rescue her position. Savvy politicos point out that Biden himself had early missteps as Obama’s vice president. Those pols are now offering suggestions for Harris. One of the best prescriptions is for Harris to find issues she can own. They say she needs to get out of D.C. and campaign on behalf of family-friendly issues, the ones voters can understand and get behind.

The vice president can scarcely do better than to champion women’s issues: how to get moms back to work, how to arm them with child tax credits, subsidized child care, and equal opportunity and pay. Her advisers don’t downplay voting rights, which they correctly identify as a must-win issue. Harris needs to use whatever forum she can find to work for justice at the polls. 

There are other opportunities: Biden may own the electric car issue, but what about Harris working to further reduce student debt? Transportation Secretary Buttigieg has dominated infrastructure and even parental leave, but Harris could take on foreign policy, just as Biden did when he was vice president. She is, in fact, taking steps, such as her recent announcement of American firms moving into Central America and her trip to mend relations with French President Emmanuel Macron.               .

Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile says Harris’s ratings slump is to be expected and will right itself, particularly if Biden doesn’t run for a second term. Brazile urges Harris to keep Air Force Two constantly gassed up and headed towards hot spots

Harris loyalists still believe that the woman who shut up Mike Pence, insisting “I’m speaking,” can boost her numbers. They believe what this country needs is less the singing-in-the-rain, sneaker-wearing Harris, and more of the sharp-elbowed Harris who, as California attorney general, stood against the banks, successfully battled chemical manufacturers, and took guns away from those not legally able to possess them. That Harris is still with us and, with the proper moves, can still use her position to advantage.

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Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later for the Seattle Times. In 2003, she quit to run for Seattle City Council where she served 12 years. She now writes for Westside Seattle and has been a co-host on The Bridge, aired on community radio station KMGP. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Sorry Jean, but the curtain has been lifted. Harris simply does not have the temperament to do the job with sufficiently skilled loyal staff . she stumbles on her own then blames all around her.
    Her successes in California were a result of the work by a like minded coalition. Then either she took credit or others pinned the “atta-girls” on her.
    Face it neither party has a candidate worth of the job – yet.

  2. Is there anything instructive about the exchange between Charlamagne Tha God and Harris that has been all over the media this weekend? When the host pressed her on who the “real” president is – Biden or Joe Manchin – she got angry and responded:

    “No, no, no, no — It’s Joe Biden … It’s Joe Biden,” Vice President Harris retorted. “And don’t start talking like a Republican about asking whether or not he’s president, it’s Joe Biden and I’m vice president. My name is Kamala Harris. And the reality is because we are in office, we do things like the child tax credit, which is going to reduce Black child poverty by 50 percent … We do things that are about saying that our Department of Justice is going to do these investigations and require that we end chokeholds and have body cameras.

    “It is the work of saying we’re going to get lead out of pipes and paint because our babies are suffering because of that. It is the work of saying people who ride public transit deserve the same kind of dignity that anybody else does. So, let’s improve that system. It is the work of saying that we have got to bring down prescription drug costs because folks who have diabetes should not be dying because they don’t have enough money in their pocket. It’s about saying Black maternal mortality is a real issue that must be treated by everybody, including the White House, as a serious issue.”

    To which a clearly impressed Charlamagne responded: “Now that’s the Kamala Harris I wish we’d see more of.”

    No kidding. The Biden administration has already accomplished a lot. But because Republicans have abdicated any interest in governing, the real policy debates have to play out just among the Democrats. No wonder there’s fighting. But still – some things are getting done. And the bigger ambitions are not inconsequential. Democrats need to be out there talking about them.

  3. The Veep’s supporters need to be delighted with her vigorous reply to Charlamagne and hope for more of Sharp-elbow responses. Writing her off in the first year is premature.

  4. Don’t get me wrong. I hope she recovers.
    But making excuses as a female minority candidate with little Senate experience might be persuasive to some but not to me. In fairness, Biden put himself in the box with pre-nomination commitments.
    There were qualified women if he wanted to go that way but they were ruled out. Senator Kobachar, for one. But Kamala was not one. She bombed out even before the Iowa primary. And she is still bombing out today.

  5. I dunno. Harris strikes me as more of a prosecutor than an broadly skilled politician. As the exchange with Charlamagne the God indicates, she is at her best politically when she is on the attack, prosecuting her case. Likewise, her “busing” takedown of Joe Biden in that first presidential debate was by her best moment of the campaign.

    But she wasn’t able to follow up that debate moment with anything. I started out leaning towards her, but her presidential campaign turned into a complete train wreck, as she first turned herself into an ideological pretzel trying to (unconvincingly) present as a bold Warren-style progressive (only of color), and then yo yoed between new campaign strategy reboots seemingly every couple of weeks as she let her staff break up into publicly warring factions.

    She seems to be repeating that pattern so far as VP. Sure, she has her strong prosecutorial moments, but most of the time she doesn’t seem to really know who she is or what she believes. I’ve written before that if she actually had confidence in her moderate progressive convictions – and was willing to draw brighter lines – she’d be a much more effective as a politician. But she doesn’t seem to have that confidence, so she ends up coming across as an incompetent, vacillating, inauthentic blur.

    As for the people currently advising her, they’re right that she’s best when she’s throwing elbows. But that’s not all it takes. To be blunt about it, I don’t think she can prosecute her way to the presidency.

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