More sniping: Dems still whispering that Harris's office is in turmoil

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

A few days ago, when Politico ran a story accusing her office culture of being “abusive” and unhealthy, I thought it was a case of departed staffers grinding their axes.

After reading this Axios update, I wonder if there’s more to it.

They’ve got “several” administration sources supporting the claim that the VP’s office is a mess. And they’ve also got a theory about why the leaks have started to flow. It’s not axe-grinding.

It’s Democrats beginning to doubt whether Harris can carry the party if forced to do so in 2024.

Relations between the West Wing and the Vice President’s office are tense.

Several administration officials used “shitshow” when describing Harris’ office, and contrast her operation with disciplined, virtually leakproof Biden aides.

Some Biden officials view the Harris operation as poorly-managed and staffed with people who don’t have long-term relationships with her. They feel she’s gotten bad advice from her press and communications shop and think it’s telling that she’s already lost two advance aides and a digital director.

“Poorly managed” is getting to be a habit with Harris operations. Everyone knows about the fiasco inside her presidential campaign by now, but reporter Dave Catanese reminded Twitter followers this morning that Harris’s Senate campaigns weren’t smooth sailing either. From 2017:

“Her travel would be a first-class seat and a fine hotel. Maggie Hassan would be at the Sheraton in New York City, and Kamala would stay at the Ritz,” says a former staffer at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, referencing the former New Hampshire governor who successfully ran for the Senate in 2016. “She’s not frugal; she’s fancy.”

While some on her team always doubted the ambitious Warren-like finance plan, Harris signed off on a risky strategy that required a high burn rate up front for a planned payout later, according to two sources involved in the campaign.

But as stories began to surface about her spending, Harris became increasingly frustrated, lashing out at her team and denying culpability for a plan she had signed off on, these sources say.

If a single phone number was wrong on a donor list, Harris would become flustered and refuse to continue the calls. She also spurned spending time at fundraising events that would yield less than $100,000.

Her campaign manager ended up quitting and two fundraisers jumped ship.

Why would White House sources be backbiting their own VP by whispering to Axios about her? Well, not all of them are. Biden advisor Cedric Richmond complained about the leaking, saying of sources, “You’d just hope if there’s a legitimate criticism they’d put their name next to it.” Yeah, I don’t know — going on the record while trying to shame the vice president into doing a better job of managing her shop seems more likely to end in your termination than her getting her act together. And Democrats are understandably sensitive to criticism of the first African-American woman VP. Already there’s been some pushback from Harris allies that sniping at her for being a bad boss or “indecisive” is nothing more than racist and sexist stereotypes being flung at her to damage her.

But there may be a deeper reason for the gossiping. According to Axios, some Dems are increasingly skeptical that Harris can win a national election if Biden decides not to run again. They fear that she’s shaky on the issues and politically tone-deaf — and, uh, they are correct, as anyone who followed her primary campaign or watched her stumble in her new role as border czar understands. One Democratic operative told Axios that the feeling within the party is less “Oh, no, our heir apparent is f***ing up, what are we gonna do?” than “Oh, she’s f***ing up, maybe she shouldn’t be the heir apparent.” And yet they may be stuck with her as nominee. Almost never does a major party deny the presidential nomination to an incumbent VP who seeks it. If Harris became a rare exception to that historical rule, her defenders would insist that she was being held to a higher standard due to her race and sex, not the fact that she’s, you know, not a very good retail politician.

Encouraging a more proficient Democratic pol to challenge her, particularly if they were white or male or both, would risk alienating black and women voters, which in turn might imperil the party in 2024 even more than sticking with Harris and hoping for the best would. On the other hand, the more inept she seems, the more certain defeat looks. Dems might be damned if they do and damned if they don’t with her. I stand by what I wrote a month ago: “I think she’d lose to Trump. And I think she’d lose handily to a more traditional politician like DeSantis, whose candidacy would deprive her of millions of anti-Trump votes that benefited Biden in 2020.” Maybe Democratic leaders are coming around to that view too.

And if they are, that might explain the leaking. The only way to prepare the party for not nominating Harris in 2024 without tearing it apart is if Democrats start raising public awareness about her early, convincing voters that she’s a likely loser. “More interviews and stories like these and Harris will soon be living the politician’s worst nightmare: becoming a punchline,” writes Matthew Continetti today about the rumors of dysfunction in Harris’s office. Maybe that’s the point. The sooner White House officials put out the word that Harris may be a bad bet as future nominee, the sooner party movers and shakers can begin shaping public opinion on the left into clamoring for someone else. Michelle Obama, maybe? Stacey Abrams? Neither one would reproduce the Biden coalition but they might be able to form winning coalitions of their own. It’s increasingly hard to imagine Harris doing the same.

But if that really is the strategy in leaking, to raise the alarms that Harris might not be ready for primetime, it’s immensely risky. She’s just one 78-year-old heartbeat away from the presidency. If Biden doesn’t make it to 2024, the party will assuredly nominate her. Diminishing her reputation now would make it that much harder to rehabilitate her later if necessary. Oh well. This is what they committed themselves to in placing her on the ticket. Enjoy the ride.