US Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled “Examining Best Practices for Incarceration and Detention During COVID-19,” in the Dirksen Building in Washington, DC on June 2, 2020.(Photo by TOM WILLIAMS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
As counterintuitive as it may seem, Americans have become accustomed to a strong vice president.
From neighboring Tennessee, Al Gore (veep from 1993-2001) was the Arkansan Bill Clinton’s Mississippi River brother of a sort… wonkish and weird, he was Gordon Brown to Clinton’s Tony Blair: It was one whole New Democrat package. It was enough to carry Al Jr. through Clinton’s impeachment (the president’s peccadillos offended the more buttoned-up Gore—though, who’s still married?)
When Gore narrowly and protractedly lost the presidency himself in 2000, it was the Democratic fringes who cried that an election was stolen. He was plausible presidential candidate through 2004 and 2008, and became the de facto Climate Man of the decade, in what may yet become the issue of the century, securing the quite arguably limp figure a true human legacy.
Dick Cheney (second chair from 2001-2009) was, of course, Dick Cheney.
Darth Vader himself, or so it’s said, was the anchoring force behind the cause of which this magazine was laudably founded to stand against: that is, the Iraq War. But, say what you will for the man, at least he got something done. From 2001 to 2006, the first year in which President George W. Bush was first delivered a Glenn Youngkin-sized humiliation of his own, Cheney was unassailable, if not essentially the president. Even after his W-delivered defrocking, Cheney was a leading candidate for the 2012 GOP nomination for a time, and his scion, Rep. Liz Cheney, remains perhaps former President Donald Trump’s pluckiest elected enemy. Cheney mattered. He was “BIG.”
His successor, some guy named Joe Biden, became the president. You know about him.
Even Mike Pence, much-maligned, deserves inclusion in the modern canon. Cut on as Mikey-one-note—Trump this, some Reaganite hit that—the Hoosier actually brought a lot to table, electorally and philosophically. As much as I’d like to flak for Chris Christie (Trump’s runner-up choice), it’s difficult to imagine that Trump weathers the Access Hollywood affair without Mr. Evangelical in his back pocket and at the bottom of the ticket.
In office, in terms of what Trump actually did, Pence’s fingerprints were all over it: a tax cut lusted over by House backbenchers like Pence for a generation, a criminal justice plan backed by Koch (a TAC supporter) and Pence’s canny caporegime Marc Short, to say nothing of the 45th president’s Iran policy, which Pence summed up in the final days of that White House: “They’re evil.” If Mike Pence was so unimportant, why would any ever propose hanging him?
Enter Madame Vice President.
Kamala Harris, first truly tipped for glory by Barack Obama in a bizarre retro read of a New Yorker article with David Remnick in the waning days of his presidency…big things were expected of her. From her days as San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown’s date to Frisco’s district attorney at the height of the tech boom, to the Golden State’s top law enforcement official, to its senator, to a presidential candidate with the politics and background that were a worthy, feminine successor to Obama’s own…it was supposed to be her.
When she became vice president, in the delirium of Covid-19 and Trump’s shambolic conclusion of a Washington tenure, her effectively 11th place showing in the 2019-2020 Democratic primary was supposed to be swept under the rug.
Nevermind how it all happened. Assailed as a racist by the California senator during the primary, future President Biden’s selection of a chief lieutenant was an unlikely one. But he boxed himself in. Biden made a pledge of a female (she/her…) vice president to seal the deal in the spring 2020 primary season. When George Floyd met his end, he had to eject his putative favorite, Sen. Amy Klobachur, for reasons both Minnesota and melanin. He needed a black woman—and stat. Biden considered Harris, Angelino Rep. Karen Bass, and Florida’s Congresswoman Val Demings (now prepping to run against Ron DeSantis).
But Biden, the seasoned pol, had a warranted phobia of anyone who had not run and won statewide. Resurfaced tales of Congresswoman Bass, her grandmotherly charm aside, hailing Fidel Castro were reminders of why Congresspeople from D+36 districts don’t usually wind up on national tickets (an interesting counterfactual: What would have happened if Barack Obama had defeated Black Panther Bobby Rush for Congress in 2000?). And Demmings was tossed aside, her career as a cop too outre for the spirit of 2020. Harris, the only female black Democratic senator, got the nod, at last, by default.
She arguably peaked there.
As we near Thanksgiving, Harris has little to thank her lucky stars over. She stands at Cheney-like notoriety, a 27.8 percent approval rating according to Suffolk University. Staff problems were clear, and whispers of frayed relations with The Boss abounded even before the White House’s sudden nosedive since summer. Or as Janan Ganesh puts forward in the Financial Times, arguing for a 2024 Democratic ejection of both Biden and Harris: “Harder to forget is the fact that she quit the party’s 2020 primaries early for lack of funds — some feat for a California senator. Among those who outlasted her was the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city”… that is, perhaps Harris’ top rival, the crisp-as-a-chip, if deflating, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
It’s not hard to conjure up the Harris buy low case: At this point even outright offending British royalty with American garishness, Biden bows out soon enough, and sets the stage for a Harris nomination and a “long and loud” 2024 campaign. The Democratic Party dares America: “Yeah, she’s not great, but are you really in for Trump, the sequel? Dear God.”
So goes the pitch.
But it’s just as easy to dream up the opposite scenario: Both Harris and Biden are overwhelmed by events…Biden suffers the fate of the last most-experienced-guy ever to become president (George H.W. Bush) and somnolently loses re-election…and Harris goes as the elder Bush’s deputy, Dan Quayle, went. Biden has, thus far, done little to save her from this fate, giving the Californian the poison chalice portfolio of the U.S. Southern Border (especially given their party’s de facto open borders preference)… this is on top of the 46th president’s apparent passion for ejecting Harris to peripheral foreign theaters any time things get hot in Washington.
Come the 2024 season, it’s no longer unimaginable that Harris quietly suffers the fate of Quayle when he made his own White House volley in 1996 (this, after all, is what happened Harris the last time America got a full look).
“We were convinced that a winning campaign could have been accomplished and the necessary funds could have been raised,” Quayle, so convincingly, told the New York Times in 1995. Quayle’s legacy ended up being his radical staff, helmed by future Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol. One only wonders who a future Tucker Carlson (or Tucker Carlson) will be assailing as “some has-been functionary from the Kamala Harris offices in the 2020s” in the future, as Carlson blasted Kristol this week.