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Is Kamala Harris failing, or has she been set up to fail?

Vice President Kamala Harris.Hector Vivas/Getty

It has not been a good week for Vice President Harris. Consider all that happened: President Biden put her in charge of passing a major voting rights bill, just before it went down the tubes because of Democrats. And now she is in the middle of her first foreign trip as vice president trying to make progress on the second can’t-win issue Biden put in her portfolio: fixing the migrant surge at the southern border and addressing the causes of migration from the Northern Triangle.

Harris’ trip to Guatemala and Mexico has so far made headlines for two things. First was a carefully worded statement telling those in the Northern Triangle countries to not come to the United States, which was roundly criticized by prominent liberals. Second was her admission to NBC News anchor Lester Holt that she hasn’t been to the border and really has no plan to do so. She also quipped that she hasn’t been to Europe either, and then said she wasn’t downplaying the situation.


Harris, it should be pointed out, has been to New Hampshire ― traditionally the site of the nation’s first presidential primary ― having visited in April to sell Biden’s infrastructure plan. That visit is in line with where this is all headed for Harris: another future run for president. This is why we were told by the Biden campaign last summer that the team was taking their time in selecting a promised female vice presidential nominee — since Biden would be providing a major boost for the probable future campaign of the first female president as well.

This is all logical enough. That said, the last three vice presidents were not set up to run for president themselves: Dick Cheney didn’t run, Barack Obama groomed Hillary Clinton to succeed him, not Biden, and Mike Pence isn’t getting that much love from Trump’s base these days as he figures out whether he will run in 2024.


To be clear, the mistakes Harris is making as vice president are all her own ― the tone-deaf tweet urging followers to “enjoy the long weekend” sent on her account during Memorial Day weekend without any mention of troops or those who were being honored is a case in point. But at the same time, she also appears to be in a no-win situation.

Harris cannot resurrect a major voting rights bill through the Senate on her own if Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer cannot. And Harris isn’t set up to be the person to fix the situation on the border, a problem that has eluded several presidents over decades, and even her own boss.

Harris aides have been quick to point out that, no, she is not the border czar as some in the conservative media want to portray her. She says she wants to have a more productive relationship in the countries where the “root causes” of migration are playing out. However, just throwing more money at these countries is exactly what Biden did as vice president when he was tasked with the same thing. That didn’t help then, so why would it now? Further, she hasn’t even put pressure on the corrupt presidents of Honduras or El Salvador, which tells you a lot about what she is working with.

To be sure, Harris does seem interested in burnishing her foreign policy credentials as a way of boosting her presidential prospects, whether in 2024 or 2028. But even if she were to succeed in easing the difficult issues of poverty and violence that are driving migration, Biden will want credit for the big successes and not hand them to her. She just gets, it seems, the impossible tasks. Such a dynamic is not new to this presidency by the way. Remember when Donald Trump put Pence in charge of the COVID task force before Trump undermined it nearly every step of the way? There was no way Pence was going to win that either.


But unlike Pence, there is an added negative dimension for Harris. Where Trump wanted all the attention and the arrows pointed at him, Biden has been trying to put his head down, leaving Harris to get the nastiest criticism from conservative media ― while she is hamstrung to defend herself much since this is not her presidency.

It is still early in the administration and Harris, the first woman and first woman of color to hold the job of vice president, has already made history. But Harris is now at a surprise inflection point. Her status as the de facto next Democratic presidential nominee is less sure now than it was even a year ago.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.