A heartbeat from the presidency at a dangerous time, can Kamala Harris rise to the task?

VP struggles with staff drama and gaffes in new Biden administration role

When Kamala Harris made Joe Biden’s shortlist for vice president last year, Willie Brown offered a surprising take.

“If Joe Biden offers the vice presidential slot to Sen. Kamala Harris, my advice to her would be to politely decline,” the ex-mayor wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle.

If she did accept the job, he said, “the glory would be short-lived, and historically, the vice presidency has often ended up being a dead end.” He urged Harris to hold out for a position with “legitimate power,” like United States Attorney General. Of course, his counterintuitive suggestion was soon drowned out by fanfare for Biden’s historic choice of VP Harris.

At the time, Brown’s opinion seemed like contrarian clickbait. Yet recent press coverage indicates he made a fair point. Highly detailed media reports depict a VP dreadfully unhappy in the role. Her misery has company: One outlier poll showed her with a shockingly low approval rating of 28%. The number led some media outlets to call her the most unpopular vice president in modern history – even worse than Dick Cheney, who bottomed out at 30%.

Making matters worse: The only people suffering more than Harris are her staff members, some of whom have already quit their plum positions amid reports of a toxic office environment. Those who remain appear to be engaged in open warfare with their counterparts on President Biden’s staff. (As this column went to press, Harris appeared to be experiencing another staff exodus, with CNN, Politico and CBS News reporting the pending departures of her chief spokesperson and her director of press operations. Two weeks ago, Vanity Fair reported that Harris’ communications director was also leaving to pursue “other opportunities.”)

Such tales of chaos have a familiar ring to longtime Harris watchers in California. As a former Harris staffer who quit after five months in 2013, I’m not surprised. Still, it’s sad to see her repeat the same old destructive patterns under the harsh gaze of the Washington press corps.

“Worn out by what they see as entrenched dysfunction and lack of focus, key West Wing aides have largely thrown up their hands at Vice President Kamala Harris and her staff – deciding there simply isn’t time to deal with them right now, especially at a moment when President Joe Biden faces quickly multiplying legislative and political concerns,” wrote CNN’s Edward-Isaac Dovere and Jasmine Wright in a lengthy story headlined “Exasperation and Dysfunction: Inside Kamala Harris’ frustrating start as vice president.”

The piece, informed by “three dozen” interviews with Democratic insiders, did Harris no favors. Her supporters blamed Biden for “sidelining” her. Anonymous Harris critics fired back, telling CNN that “Harris’ staff has repeatedly failed her and left her exposed, and family members have often had an informal say within her office. Even some who have been asked for advice lament Harris’ overly cautious tendencies and staff problems, which have been a feature of every office she’s held, from San Francisco district attorney to US Senate.”

These embarrassing contretemps were entirely predictable. Harris’ 2020 campaign also unraveled in an ugly war between rival staffers, each side publicly blaming the other for her failure. By then, even former Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg was outshining Harris in California. She dropped out before voters got a chance to make the devastation official.

Biden then revived her political fortunes by picking her as his running mate, giving her a chance for a fresh start at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Within months, however, her beleaguered aides were leaking to the press and dropping like flies as she struggled with the thorny immigration portfolio Biden assigned to her. These problems, along with relatively minor gaffes amplified to feverish virality by social media, helped tank her polls.

So did sexism and racism, which provide the only explanation for why some voters think she’s worse than Cheney, who lied us into disastrous wars, approved torture and accidentally shot a man in the face. But bigotry is baked into our politics, and a successful politician must beat it, not just blame it. Additionally, white supremacy does not explain the internal psychodramas causing Harris’ staff and her White House colleagues to betray her in public repeatedly.

Those of us personally familiar with Harris’ deficiencies know they cannot be fixed by new staff or pricey consultants. The change has to come from her. During her 2020 campaign, I publicly questioned whether she could muster the management skills and discipline needed to win.

“You can’t run the country if you can’t run your campaign,” I wrote.

When her campaign folded, I laid out the case for why she might be a sensible pick for Veep. Biden’s choice confounded many a former Harris aide, but I hoped she might undergo a transformation and prove her doubters wrong. Unfortunately, the narrative of dysfunction has only intensified. Worse, it has created a storyline in which she’s publicly beefing with Biden and Transportation Secretary Buttigieg (who is once again getting presidential buzz).

Harris appears jealous that Buttigieg is getting good press in the transportation job, which has given him a starring role in Biden’s successful $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. But it’s not clear how the president can ease her concerns. If he gives her urgent problems like immigration, he’s setting her up for failure. If he keeps her on light duties with no big responsibility, he’s depriving her of the chance to prove her leadership.

It’s a Catch-22, but the president has more urgent puzzles to solve. Facing a possible lurch back toward Trumpism in the 2022 midterm elections, and with impossible crises emerging at every turn, Biden has no time for this soap opera. The president needs all of his people working together and standing behind him.

Harris is not the first politician to find the vice presidency unsatisfying. One former occupant described it as “not worth a bucket of warm spit,” and even Brown advised her to turn it down.

So, here’s some more advice for Harris to ignore:

First, swallow your pride and adapt to the job. You’re essentially a presidential staffer, not the star of the show. You signed up for this. The president needs support and stability, not tantrums and turmoil. With the Republican Party working full time to thwart him, Biden can’t afford Machiavellian treachery from his own team.

Second, stop bleeding staff. It’s not like the old days, when we resigned in respectful silence. Today’s disgruntled aides run simulcasts in Politico and the New York Times. Get a grip on the management issues and stop the cycle of dysfunction, or it will permanently define (and disqualify) you.

Finally, don’t worry about becoming president. Worry about whether you can handle the job if it lands on you. You’re one heartbeat from the Oval Office at a dangerous moment. The future of American democracy is at stake. Fate may yet test your mettle. Whining over photo ops and squabbling with staff makes you look unprepared. If you can’t unite your own office, how will you unite a divided country?

Gil Duran is Editorial Page Editor of The San Francisco Examiner. @gilduran76

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