A Struggling Kamala Harris: Quayle To The Chief?

Thursday, April 14, 2022
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Not one to miss out on a chance to take advantage of world events, Netflix currently is airing reruns of Servant of the People, the television comedy that launched Volodymyr Zelensky’s improbable political career (he ran for president of Ukraine after the series had aired for three seasons).

Which prompts the question: Why isn’t HBO showcasing past seasons of Veep, the satirical dark comedy featuring a female American vice president who’s a bull in a china shop, if you’ll forgive the misplaced gender reference?

What HBO gifted to world, from 2012 to 2019: a vice president who’s crude, clumsy, and possessing little in the way of a moral compass. Her one political talent, it seems: an ability to fail upwards by chance.

Not all of those descriptors apply to the current nonfictional vice president of the United States. As far as we know, Kamala Harris isn’t a man-hater, nor does she curse like a sailor or walk through glass-plated doors, as did the fictional vice president Selina Meyer.

Still, it’s Harris’s day-to-day stumbles that’ve prompted comparisons to her fictional counterpart.

Which has me wondering: Is Kamala Harris channeling a television character or instead a previous vice president who never made it to the Oval Office? That would be Dan Quayle, like Harris a US senator at the time of his ascent to national office, who served as America’s vice president from 1989 to 1993. He never ran for another elected office after the first Bush presidency came to an abrupt halt courtesy of Bill Clinton’s political skills, a weak economy, and the end of the Cold War.

Whereas Harris made all sorts of pioneering sense as Joe Biden’s running mate (the nation’s first woman of color to hold the job), Quayle was a surprise choice as George H. W. Bush’s pick, even if he did spend six months lobbying for the slot.

Only 41 at the time, Quayle got off to a rough start by coming across as overly exuberant in his first public appearance with Bush (the Washington Post observed: “News media coverage of the event compared Quayle to a cheerleader or a game show contestant who had just won the Oldsmobile”).

That didn’t dissuade voters, as the Bush-Quayle ticket went on to carry 40 states that fall. Still, Quayle’s stumbles became a media narrative for the next four years—helped by the vice president providing fresh material.

There was the infamous moment at the one vice presidential debate prior to the election when Quayle took a rhetorical face-slap after likening his credentials to those of John F. Kennedy.

Once in office, Quayle would stumble through a series of seemingly picayune gaffes that reinforced the early negative impression—referring to American Samoan children as “happy campers,” butchering the United Negro College Fund’s slogan (“what a waste it is to lose one’s mind”), misspelling “potato,” plus an assortment of other verbal blunders.

The problem with such gaffes: they clouded Quayle’s ability to wade into serious topics (for example, a speech about single motherhood). And they overshadowed an eight-year Senate record that was more nuanced than one might expect from an Indiana conservative (for example, teaming up with the late Edward Kennedy on a job-training bill and breaking with the Reagan administration on its veto of South Africa sanctions).

Back in 1990, when I was a political journalist trying to make sense of that year’s midterm election as well as Quayle’s political future, I spent a day aboard Air Force Two and a one-day campaign swing through the Midwest. Two things stood out: the vice president was relegated to stumping for second-tier gubernatorial races in Wisconsin and Oklahoma; and the other reporters that tagged along on the trip went from event to event hunting (and maybe hoping) for fresh gaffe material.

Keep this in mind as the November election nears and Democratic surrogates hit the campaign trail: Does Kamala Harris work the “A-list” of contested races—specifically, competitive Senate contests in battleground states that have 2024 implications (think Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania)?

And when she’s not campaigning, what does the vice president do in the way of substance?

Here, the vice presidency that Kamala might have imagined when she took office in January 2021 hasn’t materialized. She didn’t, for example, get to cast the tie-breaking vote elevating Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court (though she did pen a letter to her teenage goddaughter about the significance of the moment). Fitting for a star-crossed vice president, Harris did have reporters asking why she hugged the justice-elect sans mask while COVID has infected Washington’s political elites.

So how does Kamala Harris right her ship—a ship that’s not necessarily sinking but certainly foundering (per YouGov polling, her unfavorable rating now topping 52%)?

Domestic politics doesn’t seem a likely venue, not with a divided Congress showing little chance of productivity between now and November. Besides, Harris’s previous forays into domestic affairs—the lead on an ill-fated voting-rights bill; the Biden administration’s go-to source for better understanding the southern border crisis—were abject failures.

That leaves the vice president with the international stage—say, following Boris Johnson’s lead and staging a photo op in Kyiv (Britain’s prime minister did so by flying to Poland, then riding by rail into Ukraine). Then again, Harris’s March visit to Poland was marred by verbal fumbling and her now-signature nervous laughter (what some call “cackling”).

Harris’s future prospects might best be served for now, by tending to internal matters. They would include addressing staffing issues within her office (she’s lost nearly a dozen aides since taking office almost 15 months ago), plus the decidedly unsexy business of doing her homework (staffers have complained that Harris refuses to read her briefings then berates her aides for coming across as policy-unsavvy).

One other thought about Kamala Harris and Dan Quayle: it’s not an exact parallel—at least, as far as job security is concerned. Presidents struggling in their first term invariably face pressure from within their party to dump their running mate. Indeed, Quayle was the subject of such rumors at this point in the Bush 41 presidency 32 years ago. Don’t expect the same rough treatment for Harris—certainly not in a Democratic Party consumed by identity politics.

But here’s where the parallel is worrisome for fans of the vice president: What happens to Kamala Harris should she and Joe Biden once again run as a ticket but fail to earn a second term?

Three decades ago, Dan Quayle faced such a scenario. What he discovered, as he pondered a presidential run in 1996: the money wasn’t there to be a top-tier contender—an ironic turn of events in that the old joke about vice presidents is they have but two responsibilities: funerals and fundraisers.

Could Kamala Harris suffer the same fate in a post–vice presidency?

Perhaps so. And for America’s real-life “veep,” that’s no laughing matter—nervous or otherwise.