Did Kamala Harris's Staff Damage Her Vice-Presidential Chances?

Many campaigns end with leaking and backbiting—but not like hers did.

Steve Marcus / Reuters

For almost all of the current Democratic presidential candidates, Kamala Harris would, on paper, be a plausible—and in some cases, the ideal—running mate. She’s a charismatic, relatively young senator who has demonstrated her skill at taking on Donald Trump’s administration; she now has experience in nationally televised debates; and as a woman of color, she’s an obvious demographic ticket-balancer in a party that still doesn’t have many prominent nonwhite national leaders. One reason she ended her own presidential campaign last week, according to people close to her whom I spoke with, was so that she could get out before any further humiliation tarnished her future appeal.

But the way her candidacy ended—with leaking, backbiting, and blame-slinging by her staff—demonstrated such dysfunction that the chatter over the past week among both rival campaigns and some of her own supporters has been about whether the senator from California has made herself too radioactive for another candidate to bring her on board as a running mate.

“A primary goal is to have a VP nominee who complements and bolsters the ticket. One would think the chances of Senator Harris being on the ticket have gone down with her having a team so comfortable with leaking negative information,” an aide to another candidate told me.

Harris aides weren’t just worse than those from other campaigns in fighting with one another in public—they were much, much worse. Harris’s sister and top adviser, Maya Harris, was known to be fighting with the campaign manager. The campaign manager was known to be fighting with other aides. The aides were known to be fighting with the outside consultants. Things got so bad, staffers joked that even the security guard knew how deeply their problems ran—which the security guard could easily have learned simply by reading the internet. (Even before Kamala Harris dropped out, rivals, along with people inside the campaign, were aghast at what they were seeing, especially when The New York Times found 50 people from the campaign to dish on one another.) Aides I talked with would tell me how terrible the dynamic was in one breath and then slam someone else on the team in the next. It was as if they were dousing themselves in gasoline and wondering how they kept catching fire.

Along the way, Harris left the impression that she was either unaware of what was happening or unable to stop it.

“When a campaign ends, there is always time for reflection, but dragging each other through the mud doesn’t help,” an aide to a different candidate told me. “Staff trashing each other just looks like you can’t manage your own staff.”

Many top aides on other campaigns told me that they would be leery of working with staffers so willing to sell out one another. “It’s clear to a casual observer that her campaign didn’t do her any favors, and there are certain elements that would need to be gotten under control,” a person who regularly speaks with Joe Biden told me.

Still, Harris could bring a lot to a candidate like Biden, whose candidacy would derive obvious ticket-balancing benefits from her. Indeed, that same Biden confidant said that her staff melodrama “shouldn’t take away from what a strong, talented candidate she was.”

The advantages Harris could bring to a Democratic ticket might overwhelm the concerns about her organization’s dysfunction— particularly if the nominee is Biden, Pete Buttigieg, or Michael Bloomberg. Though she went after both Biden and Buttigieg at times during her campaign, she might gamble that endorsing whichever of them seems more viable before the California primary on Super Tuesday (March 3) could enhance her odds of becoming the running mate. She seems less likely to endorse Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, whose politics she disagrees with.

An additional factor to consider for anyone contemplating making Harris their running mate is that she’s young enough and ambitious enough to think about running for president again—meaning that she might not always be trusted to subordinate her own political agenda to the president’s, if elected. This was the dynamic that existed between Bill Clinton and Al Gore: The West Wing was always suspicious that the vice president was acting primarily in his own long-term political interests, rather than in the president’s. Hillary Clinton sought to avoid this problem in 2016 by selecting as her running mate Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, whom she believed she could count on to be a team player.

Back in 2008, Barack Obama figured that he could dodge this problem by picking Biden as his running mate, since the thinking then, ironically, was that the senator from Delaware was old enough to be done running for president, and so would be fully committed to the Obama agenda. (He mostly was—a rare exception being when Biden went on TV to endorse gay marriage in the spring of 2012, enraging Obama staffers who had carefully prepared a plan for the president to lead the way on that issue in the fall.) In 2008, Obama aides had less concern about Biden’s ambitions than about those of his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton; partly to address this worry, they created a list of aides whom Clinton could not bring with her to the State Department, for fear they wouldn’t be team players. (She successfully fought to get at least one aide off the blacklist.)

Many campaign strategists I spoke with said that getting comfortable with Harris as a running mate might just be a matter of the nominee having a couple of tough conversations with Harris about changing her behavior, and getting her to agree not to bring certain staffers along with her. Given what Harris could potentially bring to the fight against Trump in the fall, these strategists said, the risk might be worth it. Harris’s supporters certainly believe this. And so do Biden people I spoke with, even though the two candidates have had some rough exchanges during the campaign.

For her part, Harris’s communications director, Lily Adams, dismisses speculation about the senator’s vice-presidential prospects as meaningless chatter. “Senator Harris is fully focused on the tasks in front of her representing the people of California in the Senate and during an expected Senate impeachment trial, and doing everything she can to help defeat Donald Trump in November,” Adams told me. “She’s not interested in D.C. cocktail-party prognosticating about any potential ticket.”

Except that what Harris may need to worry about next is not cocktail parties, but vetting committees.