In the US, the position of vice president is essentially a symbolic one that only becomes important on a few occasions, such as when the president is suddenly taken ill, or if the president dies unexpectedly, or if the president is impeached or resigns for legal or constitutional reasons. In the history of the US, only nine vice presidents were promoted to president due to one of these three factors.
However, there is a fourth, albeit rare, circumstance when a vice president can yield exceptional power due to his ability to corral the president and most of his administration under his direct influence. We saw this in the two terms of George W Bush, when vice president Dick Cheney became the strongman behind the scenes, to the extent that BBC correspondent Paul Reynolds described Cheney as “the most powerful vice president ever” in US history.
Since Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is older and peppered with a variety of illnesses, and because he promised to only run for one term, his vice president pick of Senator Kamala Harris to run against a Trump-Pence ticket suggests that Harris could become the Cheney of a Biden White House. Could Harris take advantage of Biden’s health and cognitive troubles and become the strongwoman behind the scenes? Or perhaps fate would make her the constitutional president if Biden steps down due to his health or sudden death in office.
Harris’s experience and capabilities pale in comparison to Cheney’s before he became vice president. Before 30 years old, Cheney had served in the administration of President Richard Nixon and eventually served in several key positions, such as Secretary of Defense under George H Bush, winning a congressional seat six times since 1978. This experience enabled him to watch the mechanisms of US politics up close and personal.
On the other hand, Harris only won her Senate seat in 2016 and most of her practical experience is within the judicial and legal system. Her political activism focuses on freedoms and rights of minorities only, without any experience in foreign policy except as a member of the Jewish lobby AIPAC, expounding unconditional support for Israel.
The difference between Cheney’s CV and Harris’s may not be enough to stop her, however, if she wanted to yield more power than Biden when he becomes president. The political environment that made Cheney more powerful than his president— namely, the sharp rise of the neoconservatives within the Republican Party and American politics since the 1980s — could be compared to the current political climate in the US that is characterised by the growing influence of rights groups and those opposed to classic liberalism. This makes Harris, who is very involved in defending the rights of African Americans and calls for universal healthcare for all, the ideal representative of this climate.
Therefore, just as Cheney took advantage of the conservative lead on political and social issues at the time to inflate the role of vice president, Harris could take advantage of the current substantial influence of leftists and neoliberals in American society to do the same thing as vice president. This comparison will not necessarily be in Harris’s favour since there are many obstacles. Most notably that we are hypothesising that Biden will win the election, and she could be more reticent about her ambition to supersede Biden and become a Cheney out of concern that this would destroy her chances of being the natural Democratic pick in the following presidential race (since Biden promised he would not run again). It will also depend on the composition of Biden’s administration, which will likely be a majority of moderate Democrats.
Some believe that Biden will pick Susan Rice as secretary of state or national security adviser due to their friendship and Rice’s conservative or moderate tendencies, which would hinder Harris. Unlike Cheney, who as the leader of the neocons was able to dominate Bush’s administration, which mostly came from this camp, including defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, and the weak character of Condoleezza Rice who served as national security adviser and secretary of state under Bush. Rice was unable to prevent Cheney from dominating Washington’s security and foreign policies during Bush’s tenure.
Perhaps due to these factors, Harris is torn between showing her loyalty to the left camp in the Democratic Party, which she partially owes for becoming Biden’s pick for vice president, and her attempts to present herself as the representative of the moderate or centre current in the party. The New York Times reported 12 August that Harris described herself as a progressive prosecutor when she served as district attorney, but after being added to Biden’s ticket she now presents herself as pragmatic, seeking a vision for the US’s future that will bring together the majority of Americans.
In fact, Harris is worried about the influence of politically and socially conservative voters, as noted in a recent article in Newsweek titled “Kamala Harris More Liberal Than Bernie Sanders, Senate Record Analysis Shows.” The article is based on a study by the government watchdog website GovTrack.us which ranked all 100 senators with an “ideology” score, and revealed that Harris’s track record in the Senate showed her on the left of Bernie Sanders, who ran in the Democratic Party’s primary race for the presidential nomination and failed.
Overall, the question of whether Harris will be the Cheney of the Democratic Party can be put aside for now, until the race for the White House is decided.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.