There are so many ways to delegitimize a woman in politics: Attack her for the sound of her laughter, for shedding a tear on the campaign trail, for her choice of clothing, for being cranky with her staff or eating her salad with a comb.
But no tactic is more tiresome than trying to exploit a rift between two major political figures who happen to be women.
In January, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was asked during a Boston Public Radio interview whether President Joe Biden should keep Vice President Kamala Harris as his running mate in 2024. Apparently not wanting to step on the president’s toes, Warren politely dodged the question.
“I really want to defer to what makes Biden comfortable on his team,” she said. “I’ve known Kamala for a long time. I like Kamala. I knew her back when she was an attorney general and I was still teaching and we worked on the housing crisis together, so we go way back. But they need — they have to be a team, and my sense is they are.”
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Seems like a reasonable if somewhat bumbling response from one politician trying to avoid being put on the spot by predicting what another politician will do.
According to subsequent news reports, however, Warren’s wishy-washy words ticked off Harris, her aides and some top Democrats. “Pretty insulting,” said someone in Harris’ circle who was quoted anonymously by CNN.
In their minds, I suppose, Warren should have responded with a full-throated endorsement championing Harris’ indispensability to Biden, to the future of the Democratic Party and to America.
But, of course, no vice president is indispensable. Lack of indispensability is practically a requirement for the role. The job of the vice president is to stay alive, and to assume the presidency if something terrible befalls her boss. That’s it. Which is why FDR’s vice president, John Nance Garner, famously quipped that the office “is not worth a bucket of warm piss.”
We know that for the most part, vice presidential candidates do very little to sway voters. (The exception, say some researchers, is that they can provide a slight home-state advantage.) And we also know that no presidential candidate picks a veep based on what a fantastic successor they believe he or she will be.
Sarah Palin and Mike Pence were sops to the conservative Christian wing of the GOP, which deemed John McCain in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016 insufficiently pious. Biden in 2008 was a sop to those who thought Barack Obama lacked foreign affairs experience. The bland Tim Kaine was a sop in 2016 to the voters whose heads would have exploded if Hillary Clinton had chosen a person of color or another woman. Dick Cheney, George W. Bush’s running mate in 2000, was a sop to the armies of Sauron — kidding! (Sort of.)
Putting Harris on the 2020 Democratic ticket was the fulfillment of Biden’s campaign promise that he would choose a woman as his running mate. That she was relatively youthful and a woman of color was a bonus. Her age may have helped neutralize concerns about Biden’s advanced age.
Is there any reason to think that Biden, already in the ageist crosshairs, would dump Harris in 2024?
Of course not. He can’t. He shouldn’t. He won’t.
Warren surely knew that.
Two days after her Boston Public Radio faux pas, Warren clarified her remarks in a statement to the station: “I fully support the president’s and vice president’s reelection together, and never intended to imply otherwise. They’re a terrific team with a strong record of delivering for working families.”
Warren, reported CNN, tried to call Harris twice to apologize, but was rerouted to Harris’ chief of staff, Lorraine Voles, who returned her call. Some conservative news outlets — the New York Post, the Washington Times and Fox News — have portrayed this as a consequential rift between former rivals (both women ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019; both aspired to be Biden’s running mate).
Maybe in a normal political environment, no one would really care. But Warren’s failure to avidly embrace Harris has coincided with a spate of Democratic fretting about 2024. Could Harris, who is the object of intense vilification and whose approval ratings are wan, be a drag on the 2024 ticket?
“Multiple Democratic leaders contend that if people don’t start feeling more positive about the next person in the line of succession,” CNN reported on Sunday, “they might turn away from the ticket entirely.”
It’s hard to imagine a world where people would sit out an election or vote for a Ron DeSantis or a Donald Trump instead of a Joe Biden because they find Kamala Harris’ laugh grating.
But political journalism abhors a vacuum, and speculation about the fate of any vice president occurs around this time in every four-year cycle. So, naturally, there has been a spate of negative stories about Harris of late — saying that Democrats are disappointed in her, that she has done nothing to distinguish herself as vice president, that she has not, as the New York Times put it last month, “risen to the challenge of proving herself as a future leader of the party, much less the country.”
To borrow a favorite Biden phrase, that’s a bunch of malarkey.
By definition, vice presidents are not in a position to demonstrate their leadership skills, lest they be accused of undermining the boss. Yes, Harris’ approval ratings are low, but I attribute this to the country’s persistent racism and sexism, not to mention the much higher expectations for Harris than would ever be placed on the shoulders of a man in her position.
Biden should announce that he’s running for reelection, and that Harris will be his running mate. Then Democrats can get to work explaining why they deserve a second term instead of picking at Harris.
And to finish off a sexist story that deserved no oxygen in the first place, Harris should stop ignoring Warren and accept her apology. It’s what a leader would do.