Vice President Harris has discovered just how thankless her job truly is. Not many ambitious senators would have the foresight and restraint to take themselves out of the running for the vice presidency but, in retrospect, Harris’s personal image and career would have been better served staying in the Senate.
Recall that, in 2020, she had been in national politics for a scant four years. Aside from some clever questioning of Brett M. Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, she had not made much of impression. It was her Democratic colleague, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), who played the most visible role in the First Step Act, and it was former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain who were credited with saving the Affordable Care Act.
Had Harris remained in the Senate she might have continued advocacy for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and focused the Senate on protecting abortion rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.
Instead of drilling down on the issues that moved her the most and for which her prosecutorial background best prepared her, she made the leap to vice president for a boss who had more than three decades of experience in the body in which she had served, had headed the Senate Judiciary Committee and brought more foreign policy experience to Oval Office than anyone since George H.W. Bush. In other words, she had far less experience than Joe Biden did when he came to the vice presidency, and no area of expertise that would fill in gaps for Biden.
Expected to be everywhere and do everything — without upstaging her boss and without getting testy over often nasty and petty coverage — she’s wound up pleasing very few. Fair or not, the coverage has been nearly uniformly terrible, and the sense of disappointment profound among those who witnessed her charisma, connectivity and energy during her own presidential run.
Harris would do well to think honestly and strategically about the future. Rather than do everything and please no one, she would do well to return to those issues for which she is most effective and passionate — many stemming from her time as California’s attorney general and before that as San Francisco’s district attorney.
That could mean taking police reform as her primary, defining issue. Her prosecutorial background gives her credibility with law enforcement; her empathy (on vivid display at the funeral of Tyre Nichols) and connection with victims of both crime and maltreatment at the hands of the police provide her with a powerful voice. And, certainly, the administration needs someone who makes this cause her full-time passion. (The attorney general has a much broader portfolio.) It’s a job that needs a single leader with the president’s ear.
Along with police reform, she would benefit by building on her role as the administration’s most righteous voice on abortion. Early on, she seized on the most effective theme for abortion rights advocates: Freedom.
Last May, she spoke passionately to the annual gathering of Emily’s List. “If you stand for freedom, for self-determination, for the right to privacy — if you stand for these principles, stand with us,” she implored the audience. “Women’s issues are America’s issues. And democracies — democracies cannot be strong if the rights of women are under attack.” That’s precisely the right message to attract support beyond the Democratic base.
Coupled with her work on the disproportionate maternal death rate for Black women (which will get worse as abortion bans force women to give birth), this focus would allow her to provide knowledgeable and vibrant leadership on women’s self-determination.
And if Harris is really savvy, she might go one step further: Announce that if Biden is elected to a second term that she won’t be a candidate for president in 2028. Letting herself do the job she has and taking away the media’s perpetual focus on the next election, she would lower expectations and decrease nitpicking. She’d give herself time to do what she does best. And incidentally, she wouldn’t be giving up all that much since, as things currently stand, she wouldn’t be a strong contender in 2028 anyway.
After the vice presidency, Harris would be free to run for governor or put herself out there as a potential nominee for attorney general or for a federal judgeship. At 58 years old, she has decades to build out her career and/or make a run for the presidency — down the road.
Harris would not be the first vice president (see: Al Gore, Walter Mondale, Dan Quayle) to find out the job isn’t a stepping stone to the next big thing. But in narrowing her focus to areas in which she shines and taking a much longer view of her future, she could redefine her career, dampen press coverage and, most important, contribute to two of the most critical social justice issues of our time.
It beats the alternative — the ceaseless coverage of her shortcomings.