Kamala Harris has been vilified by critics on the right, but the people who may end up detesting her most are not conservatives or even contemporaries. They are future vice presidents, who will curse her for loading up the office with heavy burdens.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced that she will lead the administration’s charge against voting rights restrictions being devised in one red state after another. The assignment reportedly came at her request, and it’s easy to picture Biden pondering the idea for 0.01 seconds before offloading the issue to her.
He had already given his veep a job that might have gone unfilled if he had invited applications: figuring out the reasons and remedies for the migration crisis at the southern border. Given that large numbers of people from Latin America have been sneaking into this country for decades, there isn’t much chance Harris will find a way to dry up the flow.
By now, it should be clear that unauthorized migration is not a problem that can be solved but a situation that can only be managed.
If Harris wants to keep busy, it’s an ideal portfolio. But it carries extensive political risks, because any policy she offers is likely to inflame conservatives who oppose immigration, legal or illegal, or liberals who favor making it easier for foreigners to come and for those already here to stay. Most likely, she’ll alienate both, no matter what she does.
A campaign against GOP measures to curtail voting won’t antagonize people across the board, but it’s pretty much doomed. In states where Republicans wield power, governors and legislators would no more heed Harris’ recommendations than they would pierce their navels.
After Georgia passed new restrictions in April, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola and Delta joined the chorus of critics denouncing them. Major League Baseball moved the All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver. Will Smith’s film company, which had planned to shoot a movie in Georgia, pulled out. None of it mattered: The voting law stayed in place.
Likewise, opposition from American Airlines and Dell Technologies cq could not deter the Texas legislature, which was poised to approve a strict voting law until Democrats walked out to block action on the bill. But the bill will undoubtedly pass in the special session that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott plans to convene.
Nor does Harris stand much chance of persuading enough senators to support federal voting rights legislation, unless Democrats unite to scrap the filibuster. About the best she can hope for is to rouse enough public disgust with new voting restrictions to elect more Democrats in 2022 — a beastly challenge for the party in power in an off-year. But the more exposure she gets, the more Republicans will depict her as the terrifying reincarnation of Lady Macbeth.
All this represents a further transformation of an office that used to be the functional equivalent of a long vacation — or a long detention. Under most of our presidents, the vice president’s job description was to get up each morning, check to see that the boss was alive and then pass the time with funerals, photo ops and crossword puzzles. “You die, I fly,” said George H.W. Bush when he was Ronald Reagan’s spare tire.
The 19th-century Senate titan Daniel Webster declined an invitation to run for the office with the comment, “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.” Nelson Rockefeller, appointed by Gerald Ford in the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s resignation, groused, “I never wanted to be vice president of anything.” But Bob Dole, Ford’s running mate in 1976, looked at the bright side: “It’s indoor work and no heavy lifting.”
It was Walter Mondale, under Jimmy Carter, who managed to acquire meaningful duties in the White House, and that role has grown with Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden and Mike Pence. Harris is on course to enlarge it further.
All this will pay off should she eventually become president, by acquainting her with the impossible responsibilities that go with the office. As Barack Obama said, when “something reaches my desk, that means it’s really hard. Because if it were easy, somebody else would have made the decision, and somebody else would have solved it.”
And if Vice President Harris doesn’t solve the problems she’s been assigned, President Harris will know just the person to give them to.
Photo by: Gage Skidmore at https://flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/48571349961