Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Opinion | Kamala Harris must keep walking a tightrope for Biden’s reelection bid

Opinion | Kamala Harris must keep walking a tightrope for Biden’s reelection bid

It is no accident that Vice President Harris appears more than a dozen times in the video kicking off President Biden’s reelection campaign. She played a big role in mobilizing the Democratic Party’s base in 2020 — and should be expected to do the same thing again in 2024.

As has been the case with virtually every vice president since the nation’s founding, Harris gets a bad rap. The first duty of the job is to avoid upstaging the president, which means surrendering any political autonomy and never being out in front of the West Wing on any issue. Recall the way Mike Pence always stood like a hyperrealist statue, mute and expressionless, while President Donald Trump ranted and raved. Somehow, Pence managed to never even lift an eyebrow.

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And when vice presidents are given actual tasks, they tend to be the impossible ones. Biden put Harris in charge of the border — at a time when there was absolutely no possibility of getting Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform that might reduce the flow of would-be migrants. It was a classic no-win situation: She could make a show of raising hopes, which then would be dashed; or she could hunker down and keep expectations low. Either way, she was bound to be criticized for having failed.

At times, being vice president means going along with policies you oppose. Biden, as vice president, was deeply skeptical of the Pentagon’s 2009 request for a “surge” of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But when President Barack Obama sent 30,000 additional troops, Biden did not publicly complain.

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Those are the rules, and vice presidents who break them are blasted for going off-script or being a loose cannon. In 2012, on “Meet the Press,” Biden surprised the nation — and his boss — by endorsing same-sex marriage. At the time, the Obama administration position went only so far as to favor civil unions. Biden’s declaration, coming just a week before Obama was to launch his reelection campaign, sent the president’s advisers into apoplexy. Harris, by contrast, has not spoken out of turn.

She has, however, sometimes lost her way in the wilderness of syntax. The right-wing echo chamber accuses her of speaking in “word salad.” It is true that she often burdens her sentences with more dependent clauses than they can bear, and verbatim transcripts of her extemporaneous remarks can sometimes be hard to follow. But she also connects powerfully with audiences and communicates her message, even if it might be hard to diagram.

I glance at Harris’s public schedule every day, and one thing that stands out is how much time she has spent on foreign policy. It is not uncommon for visiting leaders to stop at the vice president’s residence. Her recent trip to Africa was well publicized, but she has also become a regular at gatherings such as the Munich Security Conference — where, in February 2022, she was the last high-ranking U.S. official to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky before Russian tanks rolled into his country. She reportedly implored him to believe the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia would indeed invade.

That experience is particularly relevant because of Biden’s age. Republican candidate Nikki Haley has already previewed the GOP line of attack. “I think we can all be very clear and say with a matter of fact that if you vote for Joe Biden, you really are counting on a President Harris,” she said Wednesday on Fox News, “because the idea that he would make it until 86 years old is not something that I think is likely.”

Fact-check: Biden is in good health, according to his doctors, and I know of no reason why he should not be expected to live through a second term. But one of Harris’s important tasks during the campaign will be to demonstrate that she is prepared to assume the awesome responsibilities of commander in chief if necessary.

Her other big task will be to energize voters around the issues on which the Republican Party has boxed itself into fringe positions that are rejected by most Americans. Especially on abortion — and the GOP’s ongoing attempt to deny women autonomy over their own bodies — I expect her voice to be a clarion call. And, as in 2020, I expect her to inspire and motivate the Democratic Party’s most loyal voters, African American women.

As the first woman and first Black and South Asian American to serve as vice president, Harris was destined to be held to an impossible standard. Now, as the reelection campaign begins, she gets to show the talent and drive that got her there.

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