As Vice President Kamala Harris jets back this week from talks on immigration policy in Mexico and Guatemala, she might want to review a memo Vice President Walter Mondale sent his boss, Jimmy Carter, in 1976. “Defining an appropriate and meaningful role for the Vice President has been a problem throughout the history of this country,” Mondale wrote. “While custom and statute have changed the office gradually over 200 years, generally speaking, the Vice President has performed a role characterized by ambiguity, disappointment, and even antagonism.”
What is Harris’ role? After a quiet start, President Joe Biden has put her in charge of two of the most radioactive issues facing the nation: immigration and voting rights. It prompted headlines like these: “Biden handed Harris a political grenade” and “Kamala Harris Can’t Win.”
With a portfolio that undoubtedly has Republicans already designing attack ads in the event Harris is the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 2024, a reasonable question becomes: Is Biden setting up Harris to fail?
Mondale, who died in April at 93, is often cited as a transformative vice president, having established a role as adviser to President Carter, making him a true second in command. The seven vice presidents who followed Mondale each assumed expanded roles in shaping and executing policy.
VP Harris talks of task ahead of Guatemala visit
VP Kamala Harris says her “first trip,” abroad and her meeting with the President of Guatemala will be the “front leg of the trip” to discuss what we can do “to both support the folks who need help” and have “very frank and honest conversations.” (June 2)
Al Gore and Dick Cheney, in particular, were powerful forces in the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. And as second in command to Barack Obama, Biden compiled a packed portfolio – providing talking points for his own presidential campaign in 2020.
But Harris might have a tougher job than any modern vice president before her. She works for a 78-year-old president who, I believe, will not seek a second term. Harris is already the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2024, making everything she does – and every assignment she is given – fodder for political attacks. And the job is not exactly a glide path. In 1988, George H.W. Bush was the first vice president in more than 150 years to be elected to succeed the boss.
Harris has to be wondering why she can’t have a no-lose task like, say, dealing with outer space. President John Kennedy named his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, to chair the National Aeronautics and Space Council. Bush later named Vice President Dan Quayle chairman of its successor, the National Space Council. Biden wasn’t responsible for space, but Obama put him in charge of the cancer “moonshot” initiative – about as noncontroversial a role any vice president has ever had, except perhaps when Johnson named Hubert Humphrey head of the President’s Council on Recreation and Natural Beauty.
As Harris conducts meetings with leaders in Guatemala and Mexico, the White House is stressing that her mission is not to fix immigration at the U.S. border but rather to address root causes prompting thousands of migrants to flee north from Central America and Mexico. When Biden was vice president in 2015, Obama gave him responsibility for a similar program that provided $1 billion to Central America. His efforts were largely wasted, as immigration continues to be an almost impossible challenge for both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Just before her trip, Biden gave Harris responsibility for voting rights – from waves of state bills and laws that restrict voting to the House-passed For the People Act, the Democrats’ high-priority election reform bill that faces an uphill battle at best in the Senate.
To her credit, Harris requested the assignment, according to The New York Times. But at a time when many Trump voters continue to believe that Democrats stole the last election and Democrats can’t corral their own senators to support the voting rights bill they view as crucial, Harris can hardly count on running in 2024 as the person who protected the vote.
Biden has modeled much of his presidency on the Obama administration. Obama gave his vice president meaty assignments but didn’t exactly work to pave a path to the presidency for Biden. In fact, Obama did more to smooth the way for his secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
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In his 1976 memo, Vice President Mondale cited an observation by the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: “History has shown the American Vice Presidency to be a job of spectacular and, I believe, incurable frustration.”
As if fixing immigration and voting rights aren’t enough, Kamala Harris, it seems, must also change history.
Peter Funt, a writer and host of “Candid Camera,” is working on a book called “Playing Potus,” about TV portrayals of sitting presidents. His memoir, “Self Amused,” will be published in July.