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Kamala Harris, the first woman vice president ever, should be more popular than she is. In her biography and her background, she is a politician for our time in a way her old white male boss is not. By all rights, she should be enjoying some bump from her unprecedented ability to crash through one of the most impermeable glass ceilings.
But it seems to be quite the opposite. The president’s polling remains static, while the vice president’s popularity remains a significant notch lower. In May a YouGov.com/ Economist poll showed her at 41 percent approval. Biden, meanwhile, polled ten points higher in that same poll. Maybe it’s because he’s old and white and looks kind of like a Republican; the vice president doesn’t enjoy the same elderly white man protection.
Then there’s the less quantifiable level of acclaim or attack that each of them is subject to. Biden seems immune to the kind of criticism that drives entire news cycles about the vice president. Biden can make a gaffe—like when he accused two Republican governors of “Neanderthal thinking”—and seem to skate out relatively unscathed. Meanwhile, on Memorial day, the Veep was subjected to an entire news cycle for a tweet, likely written by her office, that urged Americans to “enjoy the long weekend,” excoriated for her insufficient acknowledgement of the fallen service members on Fox news and in countless right-wing dunks.
Some vice presidents just go to funerals and make their boss look smart (Dan Quayle). Biden, on the other hand, is taking his relationship with the veep to an unprecedented level, treating Harris like his successor and tasking her with real duties—perhaps the most essential duty after the pandemic: fixing the crisis at the border.
This presents its own challenges beyond an already very complicated socio-political situation. Part of the problem for Harris is that the Republican messaging around the border has been so incredibly effective that Democrats find themselves continuously playing defense. Even NBC news anchor Lester Holt seems to have absorbed the right-wing talking points, pushing the vice president in an interview this week on why she hadn’t yet visited the border.
Harris deflected, somewhat awkwardly, but you could tell she was frustrated—and understandably so. She should have explained to Holt why the border wasn’t the place that these problems get solved; instead she was defensive. And unfortunately, when you’re defending yourself, you’re looking defensive, which reads badly on TV.
This whole line of “going to the border” is just a GOP talking point twisted into a question. Republicans are obsessed with the United States and Mexican border. But they’re not obsessed with creating a path to citizenship, nor are they obsessed with preventing people from taking the dangerous journey. No, to most Republicans, these children, these South American immigrants are the perfect foil, the bogeymen who are coming to take your jobs. (Meanwhile, America has a labor shortage and our population is not growing the way we need it to in order to keep our economy booming, but I digress.)
For the GOP, the border is about scaring people into voting Republican. Trump’s entire campaign was based on the lie that he was “going to build a great wall on our southern border and make Mexico pay for it.” In March, Senator Cruz took a bunch of Republican senators on a ridiculous boat trip on the Rio Grande River. They wore bulletproof vests and carried automatic weapons and looked like middle-aged tourists (or, in some cases, elderly tourists who had just eaten something a little too spicy). For these Republicans, the border is about photo opportunities and fundraising emails. It’s a chance to show their constituents that they are “out there” doing something when, really, they’re just performing theatrics. And reporters are helping the GOP with this message, pressuring the vice president to do her own photo op.
Policy isn’t made at the border. There are no presidents in those camps, no elected leaders in boats on the Rio Grande. The situation at the border is a humanitarian crisis and should be treated as such, but this crisis won’t be solved at the border. America needs to work with the leaders of these countries to address climate change, poverty and crime. “These are not new issues,” said Texas Democratic representative Silvia Garcia when I called her to ask for her input, “and it will take both short- and long-term solutions to address them. The VP understands this and she is working hard to make sure that we get to those root causes. This is a giant step in the right direction.”
Kamala Harris seems to be experiencing what Obama went through, a kind of rightwing media hazing. But instead of almonds and tan suits, she’s being targeted for tweets or nervous laughter in an interview. The mainstream media wants to cover things fairly; the conservative media wants to destroy democratic stars before they can get traction. And Kamala Harris finds herself at the nexus of this tension. The question isn’t why Vice President Harris didn’t go to the border, the question is how this question eclipsed all the others.
Originally Appeared on Vogue