At Monday afternoon's signing ceremony for the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, Vice President Kamala Harris stepped up to the microphone to speak—just as someone else was being introduced.
"Please welcome Heather Kurtenbach," the White House's announcer said, calling up the union activist who joined Harris and President Joe Biden at center stage for the event.
Harris wasn't having it. "In a moment," she said, with a nervous chuckle.
Announcer: "Please welcome Heather Kurtenbach"
Kamala Harris: "In a moment." pic.twitter.com/oLo2R4NArY
— Charlie Spiering (@charliespiering) November 15, 2021
Yes, it was nothing more than a brief, awkward moment during a series of forgettable speeches. But it was also fitting, given this week's news cycle about the apparent disharmony between Harris and the White House. "Key West Wing aides have largely thrown up their hands at" the vice president and her staff, CNN reported on Sunday. Harris' confidants, meanwhile, seem to believe she is being deliberately sidelined by the White House.
The palace intrigue should hardly be surprising. Pretty much all presidents and vice presidents have rocky moments in their relationships. Given the results of this month's elections in Virginia and elsewhere, coupled with ongoing economic inflation and polls showing Republicans gaining a huge lead in the early phases of next year's midterms, Democrats' fuses are understandably growing short. Like a baseball team mired in a losing streak, the White House needs someone to blame for the recent run of misfortune and the finger-pointing in the clubhouse is now spilling into the media.
Harris' biggest problem, however, isn't that some anonymous staffers in the White House are snarking about her to reporters. It's that polls show the vice president to be deeply unpopular with voters—even less popular than Biden, whose approval numbers have been underwater since August. A recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll found just 28 percent of voters approve of Harris. As Politico notes, even famously despised former Vice President Dick Cheney never saw his approval ratings tumble so low.
Even among Democrats, Harris lags. That same poll found that 63 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Biden voters approve of Harris' handling of the job. By comparison, 83 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of Biden voters give a thumbs up to the president.
Those low approval ratings make Harris a convenient scapegoat for the White House and likely reflect some of the political and policy missteps Harris has taken during her first year as vice president. She was put in charge of handling the administration's diplomatic efforts with "Northern Triangle" countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras), which are where many of the refugees seeking to cross America's southern border are coming from. That's a tough assignment, to be sure, but Harris has bungled it.
Called in as a last-second surrogate to save Terry McAuliffe's doomed Virginia gubernatorial campaign, Harris delivered this thoroughly underwhelming moment that seems like a perfect metaphor for Democrats' current electoral malaise:
Kamala fails to fire up the crowd at a McAuliffe rally tonight in Virginia. pic.twitter.com/hL109sjaRH
— The Post Millennial (@TPostMillennial) October 29, 2021
None of them are singularly debilitating, but there's an undeniable pattern here. Harris' aides can complain all they want to CNN about how the White House is "consistently sending her out there on losing issues in wrong situations for her skill set," but they should consider the possibility that the real problem is that Harris seems ill-equipped for so many situations.
At a time when politics mostly just makes people angry, few politicians are genuinely well-liked. But being disliked isn't a political death sentence, either. Indeed, some politicians thrive in the role of the heel—perhaps none as well as former President Donald Trump. Others survive being unlikable because they hew to certain principles, a strategy that requires occasionally doing the unpopular thing.
Harris has neither of those options as a backstop.
Her flame-out during the presidential primaries suggests that she was never all that popular with Democrats to begin with. Her attempts to be more pugilistic ended in humiliation. Elsewhere, Harris' sloppy attempts to rewrite her biography to seem more hip—everything from possibly lying about listening to Snoop Dogg while she was in college to definitely lying about her history of opposing drug legalization—attest to an uncomfortable relationship between who Harris is and who she's trying to convince you she is.
As for principle, well, that's even a bigger joke. Harris is a cop and that won't change no matter how many times she tries to awkwardly mouth the buzzwords of the progressive youths. If you're the type of person who defends dirty cops, throws poor parents in jail when their kids miss school, or laughs at the idea of inmates being denied food and water, then you're probably never going to be believably woke.
Where does that leave the vice president? Harris is a law-and-order politician in a party that no longer has much room for cops and heavy-handed prosecutors (unless they're prosecuting the right people). Her attempts at evolving her image have been disingenuous and unconvincing. And now she's tethered to a sinking ship of a presidency, and she doesn't seem too interested in helping to bail—only in complaining that her feet are getting wet.
And, no, don't chalk up Harris' poor poll numbers or criticism of her political performance to sexism and racism. Of course, that might play a role in how some voters see the vice president, but there are plenty of more popular politicians out there who are racial minorities and/or women. Harris' popularity problems are her own.
"Perhaps the worst-kept secret in Washington is that tons of Democrats are terrified of the prospect of Kamala Harris becoming the Democratic Party presidential nominee at some point in the future," wrote liberal political blogger Matthew Yglesias in July.
The good news for Democrats is that Harris' time on the national political stage—from her flailing presidential primary campaign in 2019 through her current struggles—suggests they are in no danger of having Harris at the top of a presidential ticket anytime soon. That's good news for the rest of us, too.