Conflict Between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden Is Inevitable

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris
Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Updated on August 19, 2020 at 11:18 p.m. ET

When Kamala Harris spoke at the Democratic National Convention tonight, she projected an image of absolute harmony with presidential nominee Joe Biden, the man who has lifted her to newfound fame and potential great power. Tomorrow night, Biden will glory in his history-making decision. The two candidates will bask in their mutual regard. But if they’re elected, policy differences and irritations are going to arise. Vice presidents are usually politicians who got pretty far on their own, and they’re human beings; to constantly subordinate oneself to one’s boss requires exceptional discipline and self-effacement, something at which politicians don’t excel.

Even Biden himself, whom Barack Obama selected under the misimpression that he was finished with running for president, stepped out of line, getting ahead of Obama in calling for legalizing gay marriage during an appearance on a Sunday television talk show. (The two men had been discussing the matter.) Obama was not amused, but their relationship survived about as intact as any such partnership has.

There’s circumstantial evidence that Biden had hesitations about picking Harris, mainly because of her obvious desire to be president. Some of his close advisers questioned how loyal she would be. After months of speculation about Biden’s choice, with time running out, his advisers suddenly tossed the name Karen Bass, a representative from California and the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, into the mix. Although Bass is popular with her colleagues, a reason she particularly appealed to Biden was that she had indicated she wasn’t interested in the presidency. But Bass had not been sufficiently vetted; reporters and rival candidates’ camps soon found political liabilities she wasn’t sufficiently prepared to explain. Her candidacy, such as it was, quickly collapsed.

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The current form of the vice-presidential role—its transition from being a position of ridicule to being a significant part of the governing of the country—began when, following their election in 1976, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale redefined the relationship to grant the vice president unprecedented access to the president. Mondale was made a close presidential adviser with a broad portfolio, rather than simply given jurisdiction over some issue the president didn’t want to be bothered with.

Carter and Mondale had a good enough personal relationship: They had both been small-town boys and had strong religious streaks in their background, and Carter gave Mondale plenty of room to pursue his own interests, to fight his own bureaucratic fights. But they fell out over a speech proposed by the Carter adviser Patrick Caddell to confront what Caddell called the “malaise” that had come over the country due to high gasoline prices and an economic slowdown. (Contrary to myth, Carter didn’t actually use the word; it was in a Caddell memo advocating the theme.) Mondale made it clear in bitter strategy meetings at Camp David that he thought it was the craziest idea he’d ever heard. “I kind of lost my cool,” Mondale told me recently.

In this particular episode, Mondale endured one of the more unpleasant aspects of being vice president: the inability to be absolutely certain of one’s position. “I wondered if he was going to try to get rid of me,” Mondale said of Caddell. That turned out not to be the case, but “a vice president can’t be sure” of surviving in the job, Mondale said. “People can make a move on you.” It had happened not long before: In the previous administration, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller had been ditched by President Gerald Ford ahead of the 1976 election, mainly because some strong Ford aides didn’t find Rockefeller helpful enough (and he was too liberal). President Donald Trump has toyed with dumping Vice President Mike Pence. He discussed the possibility of substituting Nikki Haley for Pence with others, including John Bolton, according to Bolton’s book The Room Where It Happened.

Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who in their two terms in office established one of the most successful White House relationships to date, show how even a good relationship between a president and a vice president can come under tremendous strain. Clinton had broken with tradition by choosing as his running mate a fellow Baby Boomer from the same part of the country, rather than balancing the ticket geographically. But in the end, no matter how close the two figures are personally, it’s never forgotten who is the president and who is the deputy. Clinton and Gore rarely argued over policy (the Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos was Gore’s verbal-sparring partner, generally believing that the vice president was a bit too dreamy).

But soon enough Clinton and Gore differed over whether to bomb Serbia, where Muslims and Serbs were engaged in a brutal war over hegemony in the area. Clinton, inexperienced in foreign policy, had campaigned on being more muscular in world affairs than his predecessor, George H. W. Bush, which sometimes led him to issue threats he would later regret. After a strong and lengthy argument within the administration, Clinton announced a somewhat vague but robust policy toward Serbia and dispatched Secretary of State Warren Christopher to line up European support. While Christopher struggled to sell America’s allies on the new approach, Clinton got cold feet, having read a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. arguing that the new policy would spread violence in the area. Gore typed up a point-by-point rebuttal. He also advocated bombing, which Clinton resisted.

Clinton’s Serbia plan, such as it was, was abandoned for the nonce. When Serbian ethnic cleansing of Muslims became intolerable, the United States entered the Balkan wars, which ended in the defeat of Serbia, and peace through the Dayton Accords in 1995. (Also, Clinton and Gore had a serious falling-out over Clinton’s reckless affair with Monica Lewinsky in the study right off the Oval Office—from which their friendship never recovered. Presumably, though, this won’t be a frequent problem.)

As for the likelihood of issues arising between a president and his deputy, Mondale said, “there are simply things you’re going to disagree on.” How well these disputes work out depends a lot on the temperament of the president. Harris is fortunate to have been selected by a relatively sweet-natured man—though Biden is known to display an explosive temper on occasion. For all of her considerable charisma and political talent, she’ll be facing her own challenges. She obviously has higher ambitions. Though she’s smart enough to understand that she’ll need to avoid antagonizing Biden’s powerful aides and friends, including Obama, she’ll at times be tempted to assert her own views, even to protect herself from possible Biden blunders. Harris has an evident opportunistic side—it’s clear from comments by both candidates that she used her friendship with Joe Biden’s beloved late son, Beau, as an angle for getting the job. If differences in substance and self-interests don’t arise at some point between Biden and Harris, that would be out of the ordinary.