The plight of Vice President Kamala Harris brings to mind Prime Minister Thatcher’s aphorism about how being powerful is like being a lady: “If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”
It is never good for a politician to have to defend his relevance, as Ms. Harris is learning this week. The issue itself presupposes the answer, particularly in Washington where, however unfairly, perception is as important as reality.
Ms. Harris is being dogged by questions of competence, low approval ratings, and a perception that she and the President don’t get along. A recent CNN profile notes the “entrenched dysfunction” in her office and paints a picture of weakness, poor leadership, lack of accomplishments, and a growing division with the West Wing.
Ms. Harris is fighting back by stressing the administration’s accomplishments and taking some of the credit. She told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “we’re getting things done, and we’re doing it together.” She seemed to be trying to edge into President Biden’s flickering limelight. Yet it was unclear what role she plays.
Improbably, Ms. Harris claims that fighting inflation is one of the administration’s “highest priorities,” but absent a tie in the Senate it’s hard to see what Ms. Harris — or any vice president — could do to mitigate this problem.
No one believes that Ms. Harris has any special insight into economic matters. If she wants to keep her dignity, The New York Sun has editorialized, the best course for Ms. Harris would be to decamp to the Congress and preside over the Senate, which is her only real constitutional duty.
Not that she would automatically receive a warm welcome on the Hill. Politics abhors a vacuum, and Fox News’ Chad Pergram reports talk on Capitol Hill of preparations for upcoming Vice Presidential confirmation hearings.
This implies that Ms. Harris might soon be out of office. She can’t be fired by the President because she was elected in her own right. She could, in theory, be removed by impeachment, though it’s hard to see on what grounds. So Fox could be hearing that Ms. Harris might resign.
Why, though, would she quit? One possibility is that Mr. Biden could nominate her to the Supreme Court should an opening occur. This week, the Atlantic, seemingly right on schedule, asks “What rhymes with Breyer? Retire.”
Even if Justice Breyer chose to leave, it would be a stretch to replace him with the unpopular Ms. Harris. Not only does she lack the legal background that would have best prepared her to serve on the High Court, some senators might balk at the notion of treating it as a dumping ground for Mr. Biden’s, or anyone else’s, mistakes.
Perhaps Ms. Harris could be convinced to return to the Senate. If, say, Senator Feinstein retired, Governor Newsom could appoint Ms. Harris to the open seat. That would be an easier, if less glamorous, solution, but could be sold as Ms. Harris returning to the ring, being more helpful to the president than the aging Ms. Feinstein, and championing the legislative issues he cares about.
However, displacing and replacing Ms. Harris is much riskier than keeping her in office and out of the picture. First, the very act of ushering her out would affirm the Biden administration’s fundamental dysfunction.
Then there would be the hoopla surrounding choosing and confirming her replacement under the rules laid out in the 25th Amendment, last used in 1974 for the appointment of Nelson Rockefeller. This would potentially be a difficult vote on the Senate side since the body is tied and if Harris left before the fact there would be no tie-breaker available.
There would also be the risk of alienating the same progressives that Harris’ spot on the ticket was supposed to placate. Democrats can ill afford to widen their internal rift, which would make them look even more hapless.
Ms. Harris, though, could benefit from that dynamic, portraying herself as the aggrieved victim of insider politics, playing up the racial and gender dynamics that she once tried to use against Mr. Biden, and assuming leadership of the progressive faction.
Freed of what she seems to think are vice presidential obligations, she could speak out, fundraise, and prepare for the 2024 race, where she could attempt a primary challenge to Mr. Biden, should he run, or to whatever contenders might emerge.
Ms. Harris could also end up in the position of Vice President Henry Wallace, whom Franklin Roosevelt dropped in 1944 in favor of Harry Truman. Wallace took as a consolation prize the position of Commerce Secretary and went on to challenge Truman in 1948 under the banner of the Progressive Party. He was crushed.
One other possibility lurks in the background — that Mr. Biden might himself resign and President Harris would then choose the new vice president.
Image: White House photo by Lawrence Jackson.