Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 14 June 2021


Stop Blaming Kamala Harris

It’s not her fault she has no good answers about the border. It’s President Biden’s.

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Kamala Harris has been home almost a week now from her first foreign trip as vice president. Even so, the political class is still feasting off the disaster that her two-day visit to Guatemala and Mexico became.

Republicans are mocking the vice president not only for continuing to avoid a visit to the border but for her inability to articulate exactly what Joe Biden plans to do about the record number of people trying our southern border with Mexico. The U.S. Border Patrol reports that in May it stopped 180,034 people trying to cross through there, the highest number since Mr. Biden took office and nearly eight times the 23,000 stopped in May 2020.

No doubt this explains why on her first stop, in Guatemala, Ms. Harris tried to deliver some of the clarity that her Latin American hosts complain has been lacking from the administration. To anyone “thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border,” she said, the message is simple: “Do not come. Do not come.” The U.S., Ms. Harris said, will “enforce our laws,” and “you will be turned back.”

But this only provoked a new round of criticism—this time from her left. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that she found the vice president’s words “disappointing,” and others have piled on.


Even the White House bailed on her behind the scenes. CNN reports that “some administration officials are quietly perplexed” by Ms. Harris’s performance, and worry that her trip was “perhaps overshadowed” by the awkward answers she gave about the border.

The most awkward of these came in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, when she told him, “We’ve been to the border.” He corrected her, pointing out that she has not been to the border. “And I haven’t been to Europe,” Ms. Harris responded. “I don’t understand the point that you’re making.”

Understandably, her critics are having a field day. But here’s the real question: What in heaven’s name can she say?

That the crisis at the border is of Mr. Biden’s own making, created by a slew of grandstanding executive orders issued right after he was sworn into office, which would-be migrants took as a green light to come on in? That the administration still has no comprehensive policy to address the problem, even as the White House knows his handling of the issue is his weakest polling point with the American people? That Mr. Biden needlessly ended the “Remain in Mexico” policy for asylum seekers simply because Donald Trump had been for it? That given all this, any sane vice president surely recognizes the political reality that any visit to the border will quickly become a national gotcha moment?

Yes, vice presidents are often assigned the tough sells. It’s also true that a President Harris would likely have done the same thing Mr. Biden did. But “root causes,” to which Ms. Harris turns whenever she’s asked about the border, is what you say when you know that what you’re doing isn’t going to work, the implication being that it really can’t be fixed at all.

The irony is that south of the border there’s no lack of clarity. In an interview with CBS News the day before Ms. Harris landed in Guatemala, her host, President Alejandro Giammattei, said he and Ms. Harris are “not on the same side of the coin.” He was remarkably candid about what he considers the “root cause” of today’s border crisis: Mr. Biden.

“The message changed to: ‘We are going to reunite families and we are going to reunite children,’ ” he explained. “The very next day the coyotes here were organizing groups of children to take them to the United States.”

The other, unspoken root cause is Congress. Mr. Biden may have encouraged a surge at the border, but the overall system he inherited is dysfunctional, and any grand bargain is, at least for now, politically unworkable. Instead, Mr. Biden and Congress, including Republicans, ought to look for areas where they can make modest, straightforward trade-offs that make the situation marginally better. This would at least get Congress back into the business of meeting its responsibly for our immigration system. Until then, the debate will remain stuck as it is now—with each side accusing the other of putting children in cages.

As for our vice president, she’s a politician who willingly signed up for the job. It’s fair game to mock her performances and the nervous little laugh that substitutes for an answer whenever she’s asked a hard question.

But a little honesty would acknowledge that all the fire now being directed at Ms. Harris is giving Mr. Biden a complete pass. Shouldn’t the same people badgering her about a border visit be pressing the president as well? If Ms. Harris has no good answer for the chaos at the border, that’s because the administration she serves hasn’t given her any good answers.

And that’s on her boss.

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