Kamala Harris can’t take a break.
When not ignored – which is most of the time – the Vice President is portrayed as inept, unworkable, or portrayed as an anchor weighing down on the Biden administration.
Sometimes all three.
She heads to Paris for a well-executed goodwill tour, and critics jump on Harris for spending around $ 500 on fancy cooking utensils. The money came out of her own pocket – the Vice President loves to cook – and costs about $ 129,500 less than President Trump paid to try to cover up an extramarital affair, but, of course, it doesn’t matter.
On cable TV, the judge and jury panelists analyze the turnover in Harris’s office, probe his relationship with President Biden, and analyze the tensions between their respective teams. Political forecasters are throwing the names of the challengers to Harris if, as expected, she runs to succeed Biden when he leaves office.
It may sound harsh. But this is not unusual.
Harris is, of course, a historical figure. This means increased interest in his performance and expectations that far exceed his circumscribed position. But the idea that the vice-president is the victim of an extraordinarily hostile press, or singled out just for being a woman of color, holds about as much water as a mitasse.
Ask anyone who remembers the eight years George HW Bush was Vice President. He was regularly portrayed as a syntax sycophant of alpha male President Reagan, uttering what columnist and conservative taste maker George Will vehemently called the thin, metallic “arf” … of a pocket dog. “
Or better yet, ask Bush Vice President Dan Quayle, who spent much of his four years in the White House as the butt of countless jokes, his reputation never recovered.
“I remember one visit in particular, an inland trip to Rochester,” said David Beckwith, who was Quayle’s deputy presidential press secretary. “The headline of the newspaper was, ‘Quayle doesn’t blunder. “
There is no doubt that some of the criticisms Harris faces are the product of racism, sexism, or a poisonous combination of the two. Anyone who doubts it is welcome to put on their waders and wander the darker, wettest parts of the internet.
And it faces a very different environment than it existed before the turn of the century, with the proliferation of wired news networks, an armed right-wing media complex, and the bottomless jaws of Twitter and other fire-throwers. .
But the fundamentals haven’t changed. The vice-presidency is an inherently subordinate position and ready to be ridiculed. The experiences of Bush, and in particular of Quayle, show that denigrating the office and its occupant is not a matter of race, partisanship, or personal origin. Indeed, it is sort of a national pastime.
It’s hard to remember Quayle as a politician prodigy from Indiana politics, a skillful activist who defeated venerable Democratic Senator Birch Bayh and turned into a respected student of arms control, among other legislative mysteries. All of that was swept away the moment Bush unveiled Quayle as his vice presidential pick in August 1988 and the 41-year-old lawmaker stepped onto the national stage, leaping like a game show winner into speed.
Quayle was immediately consumed with controversy over his Vietnam War-era National Guard service among other storms, and was brought to his knees in the only vice-presidential debate, where Lloyd Bentsen shouted devastatingly: “You are not Jack Kennedy.”
By the time he took office, Quayle’s image as a light intellectual and serial blunderer was sealed. He confronted the fictional Murphy Brown and her decision to have a baby out of wedlock, then mashed the word “potato”. (Working from a faulty flash card, he added an unnecessary “e” during a stop at a New Jersey elementary school.) It only reinforced what many thought of the Bush understudy.
The vice-presidency, alas, is a difficult place to organize a comeback.
“If you start a little behind the 8-ball and you’re a governor or even a senator, you can sort of fix it because two years later, if you’ve been a good governor, people will say, ‘OK, I guess that first impression wasn’t quite correct, ”said Conservative commentator Bill Kristol, who served as Quayle’s chief of staff.
But how, he continued, can a vice president make a difference? “You can’t take credit for important things that the president [achieves]”, pointed out Kristol,” and you don’t want to make fun of Cabinet secretaries too much and say, ‘I’m really in charge.’ “
Bush was introduced to the 1988 presidential campaign by a Newsweek magazine cover calling him a “wimp,” but rebuilt his reputation by winning in a fierce nomination contest and giving a dazzling speech at the Republican National Convention . Quayle tried for the White House a decade later, but quit the race even before the first votes were cast. (He did not respond to interview requests.)
It’s impossible to know how Harris, who fared badly in a 2020 presidential bid, will fare on a second attempt. It is also too early to take stock of his vice-presidency in any meaningful way.
“Predicting now is like judging a runner in the first lap or the first quarter mile of a race,” said Joel Goldstein, professor emeritus at the University of St. Louis and expert in the office. “There is a long way to go. “
As vice-president, Harris can do little to improve her image and erase doubts about her political aptitudes and abilities. It can happen when, and if, she seeks the Democratic nomination and starts winning contests. Success is a magic potion, with tremendous transforming power.
Until then, it will remain a difficult task for the country’s pioneering vice-president.