Democratic leaders want the party to stop its Kamala Harris pile-on ahead of 2024
By Jasmine Wright and Edward-Isaac Dovere, CNN
(CNN) -- Elizabeth Warren has called twice to apologize. Over a month later, Kamala Harris hasn't called back.
In a local Boston radio interview in late January, Warren was enthusiastic about President Joe Biden running for reelection but, asked if Biden should keep Harris as his running mate, she said, "I really want to defer to what makes Biden comfortable on his team."
The incident and its aftermath, different details of which were described to CNN by multiple people close to the Massachusetts senator and people close to the vice president, has fed an ongoing breakdown of accusations and purported misunderstandings.
"Pretty insulting," is how one person close to Harris described the feelings of many in the vice president's office and in her wider orbit.
Several people close to Warren said the senator was calling to explain her statement as purely a mistake -- a fumbling, unintentional attempt to avoid stepping on a campaign announcement from the president. A spokesperson for Warren pointed to the statement the senator issued hours after the original interview clarifying what she said, and an additional person close to Warren cited a personal and political relationship that goes back to being the first senator to endorse Harris for Senate and said of her support, "she didn't mean to imply otherwise.
Warren made her case to Harris' chief of staff Lorraine Voles, who returned the senator's call in place of Harris, a source familiar with the callback told CNN.
But the Warren moment is infuriating many in Harris's circle: To them, it's the latest in a long string of snubs to a vice president whom they say has never gotten the respect or support she deserves. Warren's words sting even more, they say, because they came from a former rival who in 2020 hoped to be picked as Biden's running mate instead.
Harris diehards aren't the only ones who say they have had enough. Embedded in many top Democrats' thinking as Biden appears headed toward a reelection campaign announcement, according to CNN's conversations with three dozen leading Democrats, is fear that years of Harris negativity could now prove a political problem. Any running mate is a heartbeat away from the presidency, they say, but that's a different proposition when the heart in question has been beating for more than 80 years.
Multiple Democratic leaders contend that if people don't start feeling more positive about the next person in the line of succession, they might turn away from the ticket entirely. They're urging allies to stop the Harris pile-on, if only for Biden's sake -- or for Democrats' sake, or the party's future.
"People who are denigrating her are aggrandizing themselves," said Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has looked at a post-Biden White House run himself, speaking generally of Harris' critics.
"Right now, she seems to be an albatross," fretted one state Democratic Party chair who is concerned about Harris' poll numbers and about Biden's reelection chances. "She's either going to be a liability or a help. And you better embrace her because it's not like she's going to be off the ticket."
"It's gone from the negative, 'We can't have her be weak,' to the positive, 'She must be a force, and she's demonstrated that she can be,'" said one top party operative. The party chair and the party operative requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Harris declined an interview request but has repeatedly dismissed attacks on her as "political chatter" in interviews while saying she's looking forward to another campaign and continuing to build out a partnership with Biden that has started to find its complementary rhythms.
"There is still so much work to be done," Harris said at a fundraiser in Miami Beach. "And we've accomplished a lot, but we still have more to do."
Harris' press secretary Kirsten Allen declined to comment on the Warren call with CNN, instead issuing a statement about what the vice president thinks is important in her job.
"Whether advancing the priorities of the Biden-Harris administration, defending Americans from unrelenting Republican attacks on freedom and liberty, or helping to restore our nation's reputation on the global stage, the vice president remains laser-focused on improving the lives of the American people," Allen said in her statement.
Biden advisers say he is committed to making sure Harris is a key player, just as he was as President Obama's vice president. Jen O'Malley Dillon, White House deputy chief of staff, said Harris's work within the administration and on the midterm campaign trail is a critical part of White House strategy.
"There is nobody -- just like there was nobody who was more prepared to make a decision about who his vice president should be -- who understands how critical it is to have a strong partnership and a strong VP out there helping lead the ticket across this country," O'Malley Dillon said.
Feeling trapped in a caricature
While Warren may not have meant to express doubts, the Zoom call organized by a onetime Biden Senate speechwriter and attended by Hollywood donors, executives and actors, including Helen Hunt, Ron Livingston and "Beverly Hills, 90210" star Gabrielle Carteris, was full of them.
Harris is a huge liability, they complained to former California Sen. Barbara Boxer, according to two people on the call. She would hurt Biden's chances, because people will focus on her, given his age. How, one asked Boxer, do they get Biden to replace her?
Boxer -- whom Harris succeeded in the Senate in 2016 -- gave a muted response.
"If that's how you feel, you should let Biden know," Boxer told them, according to people on the call. Asked about the comments, Boxer told CNN, "I said it was the president's choice."
Harris allies say she's trapped in a "word salad" caricature, part Dan Quayle and part Liz Truss, which was set during her first year on the job and has been propelled by Republicans and a political press corps eager to tear her down. They argued to CNN she can only do so much to change public perception of her when the job is fundamentally about being in the background.
They also point out that it was right around this time in 2011 that Democrats began to speculate about Barack Obama replacing Biden on his own reelection ticket.
"If she shines too much, then she's overshadowing the president," Rev. Al Sharpton told CNN. "If she doesn't overshadow or shine too much, she can't rise to the occasion."
Sharpton said he's called the vice president a few times since she took office to vent about coverage he thinks has been unfair, only to find her talking him down.
Harris aides point to mid-February as an example of how involved she is: She was the one charged with announcing at the Munich Security Conference that the US government determined that Russia committed crimes against humanity in Ukraine, and in the following days promoted a new homeowners savings measure at an HBCU and then hosted reproductive rights leaders at the White House.
Trips like those or her January speech on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade in Tallahassee, the capital city for likely Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, not only boost Biden but present "the best counter to this false narrative that everyone wants to write up," said her former aide and current top Biden staffer Julie Rodriguez.
Harris defenders say this isn't about reassuring Americans they'd be in good hands reelecting the Biden-Harris ticket even if tragedy struck but serve the larger project of getting Americans used to something unfamiliar: A Black woman in a position of political power.
"What we have in Vice President Harris is a competent, capable, intelligent, authentic leader of color," said Laphonza Butler, a former senior aide who is now the president of EMILY's List. "People have to get comfortable seeing women, and women of color, in places of leadership, period."
Supporting, without supplanting, Biden in the campaign
To Biden advisers, the images of the president walking the streets of Kyiv in his aviators -- on top of a report from his doctor after his latest physical which referred to him as "vigorous" -- answer any of the questions of whether he's up to running a normal campaign.
Suggestions that Harris will have a more active role on the trail or in any way pick up slack from a lightened Biden schedule are immediately shot down by the West Wing and the vice president's office, who coordinate to insist the point is moot because there won't be any slack to pick up.
Not that they expect much stumping for at least a year, even if Biden makes a formal reelection announcement in the coming months, with a focus on promoting his legislative agenda more than official political events.
Same for Harris: "She can do a lot of outreach and a lot of effective communication on behalf of this administration without having to be in candidate mode," a senior Biden adviser said.
Many Democrats say Biden should do more to lift up Harris -- the person he anointed as the future of the party -- even if they don't know exactly how.
"I think it's up to the president to answer that question, not me," said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who briefly ran in the 2020 primary race against Biden and Harris.
Several strategists preparing for a reelection campaign say that if all Harris did was help drive up Black turnout by championing issues that matter to those voters and light up women -- including suburban women -- on anger over Republicans' abortion restrictions, that in itself might be enough to win Biden a second term.
That was a big part of why Washington Sen. Patty Murray said she asked Harris to come campaign in her surprisingly intense reelection race last year.
"She was just a dynamo. She was powerful. She was moving. She spoke about what's at stake," Murray said, calling the appearance "a great turning point for all of us."
Murray acknowledged that it isn't the sense many have of Harris but argued that if more Americans see the vice president talking about women's rights and civil rights the way she did, they might change their views.
But forcing voters to give her a second look, Murray said, is part of what can come out of a reelection campaign.
"She's an invaluable asset," said New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, one of the Democratic senators who embraced Harris since she first arrived in Washington. "In some of the tough battleground states, she's going to be pretty damn powerful, frankly."
A disorienting time warp despite internal changes
Harris has shaken up some of her operations, bringing on a new chief of staff, a deputy chief of staff and press secretary all known to and favored by the West Wing.
Cedric Richmond, the former congressman and Biden White House adviser, met with Harris several times himself over the last year. His advice, he recalled, started with the psychological -- "Ignore the haters. Ignore the noise. Do what you've been called to do."
But it also was practical, matching what others have told her: She needed to get out more, both for the sake of people seeing her and for getting more comfortable in public.
Pointing to Harris' work on issues like HBCU funding, police reform and expanding access to health care, Booker said, "I can't think of a time that I've seen somebody have earned her chops but not get the credit where credit is due," capturing a pervasive feeling among the vice president's defenders.
Some adjustments were made. Others were not, in part because of Harris's own resistance. Her second communications director in two years, meanwhile, departed the office around New Year's for family reasons. A search for a replacement or possible restructuring to give Harris what several involved feel is a much needed role of senior counselor, has remained underway for months.
In her midterm travel and over the holidays, Harris began reconnecting with old donors, advisers and friends, people close to Harris told CNN. Freed from most pandemic concerns, she hosted a string of holiday receptions at the Naval Observatory, including a big bash in December that a wider world of supporters flew into Washington for. She reached out to members of the media she didn't know.
But that was followed by more questions about whether she is up for the job -- including in a new round of negative news stories that Harris loyalists felt contained backstabbing from supposed friends.
"Folks are going to take shots because folks would hope to see themselves where she stands," said one Harris aide. "The trap is to get distracted by that."
But the frustration that the vice president is constantly being judged by different standards is hard to get past.
"Who the f**k knew what Mike Pence was doing?" one senior Harris aide told CNN in exasperation.
'Momentum' as mantra
Harris' team has embraced Biden's move toward running again, grateful for the spotlight to be off her for a few more years and getting a break from every move she makes potentially being interpreted as subterfuge to nudge him off the stage.
"Momentum" is the theme of her new stump speech for a reelection a campaign, which she road-tested in a well-received speech at the DNC in February. It's meant as a catchphrase for Democrats and as a mantra for her, especially as her team continues to plan a schedule which will have her traveling at least one day each week.
Harris fought to attend Tyre Nichols' funeral in February after winter storm weather canceled flights across the country. To Sharpton, the impromptu speech he invited her to give proved criticisms against her are "unfounded."
"Americans saw for what it was," Sharpton said. "She was speaking from the heart."
Still, despite any momentum they might feel, the issue of Biden's age continues to creep in every conversation about Harris's role.
"She'll never be a 'normal VP,'" South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the assistant Democratic leader in the House and a key booster of both Biden and Harris, told CNN. "My goodness, she's the first African American VP. She's the first Asian American VP. This is the first female VP, having to be normal. How can it be normal? It's never going to be normal."
To Murray, it remains more basic than that.
"Everyone who says you can't do something," she said, "is afraid that you will."
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