This is the March 31, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.
Vice President Kamala Harris was in the middle of a dream political assignment: Traveling the country to tell people that the government would be sending them checks.
From the start, administration officials have had trouble explaining what the assignment is about, and what it’s not. That’s a distinction with big political implications. They’ve tried to stress that Harris’ job is to coordinate diplomacy with Mexico and the three countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle — and that she’s not in charge of the border itself or the influx of migrants overwhelming U.S. officials there.
“There is some confusion over that,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki conceded Monday.
Good morning and welcome to Essential Politics, Kamala Harris edition. Today, we will talk about Harris’ first solo assignment, and the trouble she is already having in explaining exactly what she is responsible for.
Handing out stimmies
In giving Harris the assignment last Wednesday, Biden noted that he had a similar job when he served as vice president under President Obama. It smacked of the type of thing high school seniors tell freshman when they’re hazing them: I had to do it, now it’s your turn.
Biden spoke of the money he distributed to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in 2014 in hopes of reducing poverty, corruption and lawlessness — the factors that drive families there to make the dangerous trek north, or to send their children alone.
The fact that he was sending Harris on the same mission — seven years later — suggests the futility of solving those issues from the White House, which has limited control over the behavior of governments and people in other countries.
The writers at NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” may have summed it up best over the weekend. “Such a fun, solvable problem,” Maya Rudolph, in the role of Harris, deadpanned, shaking her fist with faux excitement. Alex Moffat, as Biden, gloats that he will be busy, meanwhile, handing out “stimmies.”
“Make it rain,” he says, flicking his hands.
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Patience? In Washington? You must be new here.
Harris and her staff have pleaded for patience.
“This is not work that will be addressed overnight,” Symone Sanders, Harris’ chief spokesperson and senior advisor told reporters aboard Air Force Two on Friday, as Harris was headed to Connecticut to celebrate the COVID-19 relief package. “This is a challenging situation.”
Sanders, asked by reporters when Harris would travel to the border, said she had no trips “planned in the near term.”
“I will just reiterate that the vice president is not doing the border,” she said a few minutes later, trying again to make the distinction with Harris’ diplomatic duties.
You can see where this is headed politically. Republicans have been eager to saddle Harris with responsibility for the entire border, including the images of overcrowded rooms with children sleeping on mats and foil blankets, which has the potential not only to drag down Biden’s popularity but also to tarnish Harris’ future prospects. Meanwhile, she’s trying to stay far away from the scene, literally and figuratively.
“So now that Kamala Harris is in charge of the border crisis, can we finally get an answer on when she’ll visit the border? Or is she still laughing about it?” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel tweeted Saturday.
Building the airplane while trying to fly
Harris also has yet to schedule trips to the Northern Triangle countries, though she has begun getting briefed on the diplomatic issues. On Tuesday, she held a call with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, in which the two “agreed to explore innovative opportunities to create jobs and to improve the conditions for all people in Guatemala and the region, including by promoting transparency and combating crime,” according to her office.
When I asked a Harris advisor last week how the administration would define success, she conceded the team was still figuring that out.
Even if Harris convinces many people that she is not directly responsible for the border plight, she will still own at least a part of it, given her argument that she is trying to solve the “root causes” of migration that send people from their home countries.
“I don’t think Republicans are going to let people make that distinction,” said Jose Dante Parra, a former advisor to Senate Democratic leaders who advises immigration advocacy groups. “They’re going to keep messaging that she’s in charge of the border situation.”
Parra, who is based in Florida, noted that Republicans are also spreading their message in Spanish-language media, reflecting the party’s belief that it can win over some Latinos with restrictionist immigration arguments — as former President Trump did in carrying Florida and Texas in last year’s presidential election.
Parra generally agrees with the Biden administration’s approach at the border — which includes speeding up asylum seekers’ processing and placing unaccompanied minors with guardians — but says the politics are tough.
“They have a challenge that they’re basically trying to fly the airplane as they’re building it,” he said, “and that’s difficult to message.”
I posed similar questions to some of Harris’ former advisors last week, granting them anonymity in hopes of some candor.
Here’s how one summed up her new role: “High risk. Very low reward. But she is passionate about it.”
Another was less concerned for Harris, believing the “risk is limited here” because few would blame her for the problem she and Biden inherited.
“A leader seizing control of any crisis comes with political risk,” the former advisor said, “but that’s the job they signed up for.”
The view from Washington
— Mike Pence 2024? The former vice president is steadily reentering public life as he eyes a potential run for the White House. He’s joining conservative organizations, writing op-eds, delivering speeches and launching an advocacy group.
— And in a rebuke of how its predecessor attempted to recast and limit the defense of human rights, the Biden administration on Tuesday issued an annual global report that promises to renew focus on women’s issues and reproductive rights, writes Tracy Wilkinson.
— The idea was a bait-and-switch: Give people searching online for terms like “join Oath Keepers” or “bomb instructions” an alternative to extremism. But that alternative turned out to be an anarchist with anti-Semitic views, report Anita Chabria and Evan Halper.
— Biden’s first slate of judicial nominees aims to put a diverse cast on the federal judiciary. His choices place a 50-year-old federal judge in position to potentially become the first Black woman nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, David Lauter writes.
— Biden announced steps Tuesday to protect Asian Americans from discrimination and violent attacks, including establishing a Justice Department initiative to address a rising number of hate crimes, reports Chris Megerian.
The view from California
— A majority of likely California voters would keep Gov. Gavin Newsom in office if a recall election were held today, according to a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. The poll was conducted as vaccinations in the state increase and the Democratic governor ramps up his campaign to fight the effort to remove him.
— Skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccine has fallen steadily in California as inoculations increase. But according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll, resistance still remains particularly high among one group: Republicans.
For the Record: Friday’s newsletter incorrectly stated that after Frances Perkins in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, no woman headed a Cabinet department until 1975. Oveta Culp Hobby served as the first secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Eisenhower from April 1953 to July 1955.