By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Vice President Kamala Harris has had to spend a lot of time lately defending the Biden administration, Democrats, and most importantly herself, from withering criticism. So withering that the overwhelming majority of Americans think she is doing a lousy job as vice president.
Her rating in an October USA Today/Suffolk poll bottomed out at 28% approval. That was a historic low. No vice president and that included President George W. Bush’s always controversial vice president, Dick Cheney, had reached that low point.
In any other time, that might not mean much. The president, not the vice president, totally runs the administration show. The long-standing view is that the vice president at most is a trusted advisor to the president. At the least, its mostly a ceremonial position.
The single most important and somewhat visible role for the vice president is as the presiding officer of the Senate. When you have a Senate that’s evenly split as the current Senate is at 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, the vice president casts the deciding vote on crucial pieces of legislation.
Yes, some presidents have tasked their vice presidents with important assignments and administration policy reviews. All major policy decisions, though, still remain firmly in the president’s hands.
In the case of Harris, it gets a little more complicated, with much at stake. Before, during and after Biden’s White House win, the talk was non-stop about his age and health. There was endless speculation over what to do if Biden faltered from illness or something age related in his first years in the White House.
There was even more speculation over whether Biden, who would turn age 80 during a reelection bid in 2024, would be up to the grind of a campaign, or even make the effort. In every instance, the chatter about Biden’s future immediately turned back to Harris.
She would be the logical successor as a presidential candidate or as a fill-in president if illness rendered Biden unable to perform his duties.
The Republican Party sniffed blood and deep vulnerability, and yet another monumental opportunity to attack. Harris now has become their prime target. The GOP game plan is to simply wage a gutter campaign of sniping, rumor-mongering and flat-out attacks on her.
A parade of GOP officials and candidates have snatched at that hit tag on Harris since she assumed office. It combines the crucial elements of a personal and political hit attacks to weaken the GOP’s perceived major rival for the White House in 2024.
The withering attacks on Harris serve another purpose. They brush off on Biden. Initially, he was a tough nut for the GOP to crack. He’s white, male, a very mature adult, from a border state, and has a lot of GOP friends in the Senate from his long tenure there. He also initially generally got high poll marks and his likeability was high.
But by pile driving on Harris, Republicans could pirouette easily to hammer the supposed flubs, missteps, and deficiencies of Biden’s administration on, for instance, the massive infrastructure bill which House Republicans and dozens of GOP senate Republicans opposed. Harris has been pulverized for her statements about voting rights and supposedly being missing in action on an immigration tangle at the border.
This was more grist for the GOP’s attack mill on the supposed ineptness of Harris and the Biden administration.
The other Harris vulnerability is the same one the GOP played on with Hillary Clinton. Strong, tough, decisive, and, yes, aggressive, are the exact qualities that voters and millions of Americans want and expect in their leaders. For many, that means the presidential office is a man’s office.
Polls still show that a considerable number of voters say they have reservations about a woman president.
Trump exploited that sentiment to the hilt. He was the biggest sexist, misogynist, female abuser that ever sat in the White House. But he was still seen as brash, tough and outspoken.
For many women, that seemed to mark him as having the right stuff to be president. More than 74 million voters still thought that about him in his losing bid for reelection. Millions of those voters were women voters.
The GOP’s shots at Harris have done much harm. In a June poll, her favorability rating was still high. Yet, in the stunningly short span of three months the reversal in her rating’s downward plunge have been breathtakingly astounding.
The GOP believes it’s got the perfect fill in Harris to cripple Biden and his policies. The vice president who could well be the Democrat’s candidate for president in 2024 will remain under relentless attack from the GOP.
Much now depends on Harris’ ability to seize the initiative, parry the attacks, and assure millions that she has the experience and political savvy to handle the wheel of governing as well as a viable candidate for the Oval Office if the need arises.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is “Duped–The GOP’s Lock on America’s Underclass” (Middle Passage Press). He also is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays at 9 a.m.