The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Has Kamala Harris been sidelined?

Vice President Harris shops for pots at E. Dehillerin Cookware Shop in Paris on Saturday, Nov. 13. (Sarahbeth Maney/AP)
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An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that Al Gore had served 24 years in elective office before being selected as a vice presidential candidate. He had served 16 years in the U.S. House and Senate. This version has been corrected.

Everyone lately seems to have an opinion about Vice President Harris. Depending on which news source or social media site you visit, she’s either improving the United States’s global profile or embarrassing the country every time she boards Air Force 2.

During a recent goodwill trip to France, she supposedly faked a French accent while speaking to scientists at the Pasteur Institute. What she said was pedestrian and perhaps condescending, as though she were talking to children. What she said, by the way, sounded nothing like French.

But no matter. What does matter is that 10 months into the job, Harris’s approval rating is at just 28 percent, according to a USA Today/Suffolk University poll published on Nov. 7. Well, it beats nothing, I guess. More importantly, bad polls can change in a blink if you know what you’re doing.

Alas, Harris doesn’t seem to. And she isn’t getting much support from the White House. With inflation breathing down President Biden’s neck and his own approval rating dipping to 38 percent, Harris probably is among his lesser concerns. A recent CNN report based on numerous off-the-record interviews within the executive branch seems to confirm this. The piece details an edgy relationship between Team Biden and Team Harris, which Harris’s people have dismissed as “gossip.”

Caught in the crossfire between her critics and defenders, Harris is a sympathetic character. That’s chiefly because every White House, no matter the party, witnesses a certain amount of tension between the president and vice president. But there is little question that she is becoming a problematic sidekick to a man who plucked her from a crowd after only four years in the Senate.

Vice President Harris encouraged others to get a booster shot to protect against coronavirus “when you are eligible,” after receiving hers on Oct. 29. (Video: The Washington Post)

Everyone knows that Biden’s chief claim to fame in 2020 was being the only Democrat who could conceivably beat Trump. He became the de facto nominee when Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) hand-delivered the Black (and predominantly female) primary vote in South Carolina, launching the tidal wave that swept the rest of the South and gave Biden his main chance at the Oval Office.

This meant, in effect, Black women gave Biden the nomination, and in return, he put Harris, a Black woman, on his ticket. I’m certain Biden loved the idea of Harris — it was a historic pick — even if he had his doubts about the fit. And he should have because she wasn’t, in my view, ready for the job, and I am betting he must have sensed it. Did he not care? Did he think no one would notice?

What has happened to Harris reminds me of another — but very different — female vice-presidential pick: former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R), John McCain’s 2008 running mate. Republican influencers handpicked Palin because she wasn’t former senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), whom McCain wanted, and because she had it all; She was striking, popular and (at least to some) was a family-values exemplar. Just what we need in a vice president, right?

So thought a few hormonally altered GOP pundits and political operatives. Uncharacteristically, McCain, after meeting with Palin for just over an hour, surrendered to the argument that she could rally the troops with a wink and a pair of red heels. Why, Republicans could even claim a feminist coup. And they were right — for about 30 minutes at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Things went downhill after that.

Harris, similarly, wasn’t ready for the job a heartbeat away from an elderly president. This was apparent when she failed to catch fire as a top-of-the-ticket contender, and she dropped out of the presidential race relatively early in December 2019. When you don’t have money to continue a race, as she said at the time, then you don’t have support. Her performance in office, especially her handling of the border crisis, has only confirmed those early judgments.

In no other recent presidency has a vice president been so ill-prepared for office — or because of Biden’s age, more in need of being ready.

Ronald Reagan chose former Texas congressman, Chinese envoy, and former CIA director George H.W. Bush. When Bush became president, he chose Dan Quayle, who had served four years in the House and eight in the Senate. Bill Clinton picked Al Gore, who had served 16 years in elective office. George W. Bush chose Richard B. Cheney, who had been in public service most of his adult life. And Barack Obama chose none other than Biden, elected to the Senate when he was a mere 29 years old.

No one knew better than Biden what the job entails and, had he been a stronger candidate himself, he’d have selected a running-mate who could best serve him and the country.

Several years ago, I wrote about Palin that men used her the way men have always used women — as bit players on a stage set for their success and her failure. I’m afraid Harris, who by most accounts has been sidelined by the president, is beginning to get the picture.