Kamala Harris: Vice-presidential woes or opportunities?

Kamala Harris: Vice-presidential woes or opportunities?
US Vice-president Kamala Harris. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Etienne Laurent)

Historically, the vice-presidency has been a kind of spare wheel in American politics. But changes in the way a president makes use of that position have been accelerating in recent years. This time around, Kamala Harris’s success in the future may well ride on how well she makes use of her assignments in the Biden administration.

It seems that most of the world — and much of the US as well, except for the weirder elements of the Fox News/One America News world, their acolyte bloggers and those nocturnal creepers in the electronic undergrowth — has rather quickly accepted the reality of a female person of colour as America’s vice-president, and are even heralding this achievement. “There, there,” you can almost hear Harris and her supporters saying to the doubters, “That wasn’t so hard, now, was it?” 

Instead of attention on her as being a wonder of the age, simply by virtue of her genealogy, genetics and the sound of a glass ceiling shattering, for most people, the really important questions are what she will do in her new job — and what she will achieve — while she is in office. A deeper question, of course, is whether any vice-president can actually make much of a difference.

Or, as The Washington Post critic at large Robin Given put it in describing Harris’s first foreign trip as vice-president: “Her response was precise and encouraging, but also familiar. Yes, yes, making history is wonderful, but that’s not the end goal. As with so many men and women who have been the first to reach a lofty perch, the symbolism bears consideration. But there’s also a moment when everyone’s neck begins to ache from the strain of looking admiringly up and it’s time to turn one’s gaze from the glory to the grit.

“If there is a singular moment that speaks to Harris’s brief time in Guatemala, it was not her arrival when this country’s first Madame Vice-president was greeted with an honour guard. It was not seeing this black and Indian American woman participating in a ceremonial wave from a balcony at the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura. It was not the well-publicised time she spent celebrating female entrepreneurs in Guatemala — and later in Mexico. Her most striking public act was the stern manner in which she looked directly into the cameras and warned those considering illegal journeys to the US border against doing so.”

Historically, the vice-presidency has not always been observed quite so closely. One exception, of course, was Aaron Burr, the country’s third vice-president, who gained considerable notoriety for killing his rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and then, having headed out west to seek his fortune, ended up being tried several times for treason. Things like that tended to get one mentioned in the newspapers, even back then.

When the constitution’s founder-writers created the office of a deputy chief executive — what we now call the vice-president — they had envisioned an office-holder whose most important day job would be to serve as president of the Senate. The vice-president would toil as an honest referee and chairman of a body of wise greybeards who were supposed to debate the direction of national policy, and to serve as a kind of brake on the rash, sometimes dangerous enthusiasms of the House of Representatives. The latter body, elected every two years, might easily get carried away by popular trends and political fads, and so it should be the Senate that would temper such gestures and the vice-president would be at the helm. 

Now, of course, unless the Senate is split 50-50 between the two parties, just as it is now, the vice-president has no vote and day-to-day chairing of the Senate when it meets a plenary session often falls to other senior senators as harmless but honorific tasks. However, with this current partisan split, the vice-presidential vote can have real consequences for the passage of the administration’s legislative agenda, when the opposition chooses to take a unified stance against a measure. 

The other duty of the vice-president is, as popular mythology has it, to inquire gently about the health of the president each morning — just in case he passed away in the night, thereby catapulting the incumbent vice-president into the national driver’s seat. There are some faint echoes of British royalty’s long-time assumption that the first task of the Prince of Wales (and even his son) is to sire an heir and a spare, just in case, to ensure the continuity of the monarchy. Stuff happens. 

(For political trivia lovers, there was a vigorous debate about presidential succession the first time a president died in office. In 1841, newly elected President William Henry Harrison died just a month after becoming president. He had contracted pneumonia following his outrageously lengthy inaugural address, which he delivered while standing exposed, outdoors, in the middle of a sleet storm, sans a hat or umbrella.

The question at the time was whether the vice-president — in this case, John Tyler — had become president, or was merely exercising the duties and responsibilities of the president until an elected one finally came along. Now, of course, as a result of a constitutional amendment, should the president die in office, the vice-president becomes president and he (or she) gets to appoint, subject to a confirmation vote by the Senate, a new vice-president.

The role of the modern vice-presidency really seems to have begun with vice-president Al Gore during the Clinton administration. Gore was already deeply committed to environmental activism and climate change concerns and Clinton gave him the authority to be the national point person in international negotiations on climate such as the Kyoto Protocol. 

There are now also constitutional provisions for a vice-president to act as president in the event of a presidential medical disability, such as if a president should be under full anaesthesia during surgery. Just by the way, it should be recalled that a putative presidential disability was actively being discussed when it became increasingly clear that Donald Trump was psychologically impaired.

Historically, the vice-presidency as an institution and the people who have held that job have often been the butt of some gentle, and sometimes not so gentle, fun. In the George Kaufman/George and Ira Gershwin hit musical Of Thee I Sing, a 1931 farce about a bachelor president who nearly provokes war with France over his refusal to wed France’s favoured candidate, the vice-president Alexander Throttlebottom is so overlooked in the action that nearly everyone in the White House manages to forget who he is most of the time. 

In the more recent film Dave, vice-president John Nance is sent on a multi-country, extended African visit to get him out of town so that the duplicitous chief presidential adviser can work his will on Dave, the doppelgänger standing in for the president. The actual president is residing in a secret ICU in the basement of the White House, following a major stroke while he was engaged in a dalliance with one of his secretaries. Nance, portrayed with enormous gravitas by Ben Kingsley, returns from his trip with a collection of assegais and shields to hand over, even as he’s being set up as the man on whom all corruption in the White House will now be pinned. He’s the vice-president, so what does it really matter?

In real life, in the early 1930s, Texas Congressman John Nance Garner had become Speaker of the House, and when Franklin Roosevelt gained the Democratic Party nomination for president in 1932, he asked Garner to be his vice-presidential candidate. The old saw of picking a running mate from a different part of the country and a different wing of the party was still going strong. 

Garner was a crusty, no-nonsense man and he thought hard about taking the offer, knowing he would be giving up some real power in exchange for something more notional and ceremonial. Eventually, he accepted and served two terms. In 1940, he opposed Roosevelt’s bid for a third term as president, citing differences over the New Deal, and so he was unceremoniously dropped from the 1940 ticket. 

Years later, in his retirement, Garner was consulted by Texas senator and majority leader Lyndon Johnson about whether he should accept his own offer from nominee John Kennedy to serve as Kennedy’s running mate. Out of that telephone conversation, one of the great stories of the vice-presidency was born. As Johnson later told confidantes, Garner had said to him, “The vice-presidency isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit.” (Others, taking note of both Garner and Johnson’s penchants for vivid language, have embellished that with the idea that what Garner really said was the bucket was filled with “warm piss” or perhaps “warm shit”.) 

Regardless of the advice, Johnson accepted the offer and then reportedly virtually writhed in agony in his ornate vice-presidential but powerless office, even though he had received two key roles as legislative agenda shepherd for the Kennedy administration, and serving as effective leader of the nascent American space programme. Sadly, perhaps, when Johnson succeeded Kennedy after he’d been killed by an assassin’s bullet, and then won his own landslide election in 1964, he ended up giving his vice-president Hubert Humphrey adequate grounds to nurture his unhappiness with his own relative lack of influence.

Among Republicans, the sense of the vice-presidency was generally about the same. In 1960, as vice-president Richard Nixon was about to announce his candidacy for the presidency, reporters asked then-President Dwight Eisenhower about some of Nixon’s major contributions to the successes of Eisenhower’s eight years in office. Eisenhower replied that if reporters came back to him in a week, he might be able to think of something. Boom!

The role of the modern vice-presidency really seems to have begun with vice-president Al Gore during the Clinton administration. Gore was already deeply committed to environmental activism and climate change concerns and Clinton gave him the authority to be the national point person in international negotiations on climate such as the Kyoto Protocol. 

This shift in tone appears to have come about as a response to the flak the Biden administration is taking from Republicans over its presumed laxity in enforcing border security, and even that Harris has not yet visited the actual border to see the reality of the problem there.

By the time Joe Biden had become Barack Obama’s vice-president, Biden had a real impact on a wide range of administration policies and had gained a pledge from the president that while Obama did not promise to accept Biden’s advice every time, that advice would be the last the president would hear on an issue before a decision. In return, his vice-president promised he would never hold back on that advice. Famously, Biden had opposed “the surge” of US military personnel in Afghanistan and told the president so, although Biden’s views ultimately did not carry the day. Still, this advice was widely leaked, giving Biden some added credence with many who hoped he was still his own man. Biden was also given responsibility to lead the charge with Congress, to gain support for Obama policy initiatives such as the healthcare reform measure, based on his long experience in the Senate and his friendship with a number of leading Republicans. 

Now in his own administration, Biden, for his treatment of his vice-president, seems to be following in Obama’s footsteps — but more so. He has publicly explained that Harris is the point person on key parts of the legislative agenda such as voting rights protections, as well as immigration reform. And, in foreign affairs, she is expected to exercise the responsibility to gain control over the growing numbers of people trying to migrate from Central America to the US. 

NBC News explained that, “In addition to addressing the ‘root cause’ of the border crisis, Harris has been assigned to conquer vaccine hesitancy; campaign for elements of Biden’s ambitious infrastructure, tax and family care proposals; and push the Senate to adopt an election-reform measure that Senator Joe Manchin opposes. The list goes on. For all that accountability, Harris has little formal power — only a tie-breaking vote in the Senate — and almost as little chance of success.”

The nub of the problem, of course, is that for much of the agenda given Harris, the ultimate decisions and outcomes are beyond the ability of the vice-president to affect, including votes in Congress where Democratic margins are paper-thin and procedural actions like the filibuster can frustrate desired outcomes. With migration, real change is likely beyond the skills of a vice-president to produce results so increasingly desired. 

The push and pull factors determining migration out of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador or Nicaragua are significantly dependent on effecting broad social and economic change in those nations. There is the need to draw down the poverty, the strength of gangs, and the pervasive corruption and arbitrary police behaviour that significantly drives people northward are the push side of the question. Meanwhile, channelling away the temptations of individuals’ possible improvement in economic circumstances in the US, even if their entry comes from illegal immigration, comprise the pull factor. 

Still, given the tough odds, any success Harris might actually achieve in these arenas will redound to her credit as she consolidates her position as Biden’s inevitable successor in 2024 or 2028. As The Washington Post reported from her visit to Central America, “In Guatemala, Vice-president Harris spoke of the bonds between the nations of the Western hemisphere and offered millions in aid and investment. In Mexico, she stressed the ‘interdependence and interconnection’ between the US and its neighbour to the south.

“But her tone was far more stern toward potential migrants mulling a trip to the US border. ‘Do not come,’ she instructed during a news conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. ‘Do not come. You will be turned back.’ And she warned Tuesday in Mexico, ‘It can be a very treacherous and dangerous trek.’

“The strong words were a nod to the shifting political ground facing the Biden administration as Harris concluded a trip aimed at tackling the root causes of migration. The recent tough tone of Harris and other Biden officials presented a contrast with the emphasis of Biden’s campaign, which vowed a humane, gentler approach.” 

This shift in tone appears to have come about as a response to the flak the Biden administration is taking from Republicans over its presumed laxity in enforcing border security, and even that Harris has not yet visited the actual border to see the reality of the problem there.

That message in her just-concluded Latin America foray may be the kind of tough talk the Biden administration needs to deliver, as long as it comes from someone else besides Biden. And such words may become a way of disabusing at least some Republican criticism, even if it disappoints the progressive/left wing/democratic socialist wing of Biden’s own party. Given the importance of immigration in the emotional landscape of American politics, any incremental progress Harris achieves will serve to improve her standing as a force within the Biden administration. DM


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