Talking Points

The reason Kamala Harris is having a lousy vice presidency? It's a lousy job.

The vice presidency of the United States is a terrible job. It always has been. And right now, that terrible job belongs to Kamala Harris. It's turning out about how you'd expect. 

On Sunday, CNN ran a lengthy story about how Harris and the White House are at odds — the result of dysfunction in Harris' office and an administration that doesn't quite know how to make the best use of her. That followed a Saturday piece from the Washington Post suggesting Harris' status among Democrats as the heir apparent to President Biden is increasingly in question. A recent poll puts her approval rating at a disastrous 28 percent.

The vice president isn't speaking publicly about all these criticisms, but Harris' allies have risen to her defense. Some note that President Biden has stuck Harris with some of the most intractable challenges facing his administration — most notably, immigration — while failing to give her a chance at a real win. "It would be nice to have some things that she could rally the nation around," one Democrat told the Post. "But that's not what she's been given." Others say the critical coverage is "racist and misogynist." 

Maybe. But Harris' real problem is probably that the vice presidency isn't really a "rally the nation" kind of post. Usually, it's not even all that consequential; Dick Cheney, who served as a de facto prime minister during George W. Bush's presidency, was the exception to the rule.

Otherwise, the veep's role in American politics has mostly been to serve as national laughing stock and occasional political attack dog for the president — often but not always on the outside looking in when the big decisions are made.  We don't remember vice presidents for their leadership but for outrageous or ridiculous moments: Spiro Agnew's "nattering nabobs" speech, Dan Quayle's spelling mishaps, and Joe Biden's "big f--king deal" gaffe. Even Lyndon Johnson, who was enormously consequential as both president and Senate majority leader, found himself bereft and purposeless as vice president. "I don't think I ever saw a more unhappy man," one of his secretaries said.

Vice presidents are enormously ambitious people who have to sublimate their own egos to serve a president's agenda while waiting in the wings — often fruitlessly — for the top job. That means the role often produces a lot of seething behind-the-scenes drama, and that seems to be what Harris is experiencing now. It's nothing new.