Other videos tell a more complicated story. Some of the clips in Harris’s catalog of supposed gaffes are in fact intentional wordplay, or momentary slips of the tongue, or the kind of verbal spew that, if you were not in the business of aggregating evidence of her supposed incompetence, would not register as newsworthy. Consider these lines from March: “During Women’s History Month, we celebrate and honor the women who made history, throughout history — who saw what could be, unburdened by what had been.” (In print, uncharitably punctuated, this might raise an eyebrow, but Harris’s pauses make her intentions clear.) In another clip that came in for derision, Harris’s only mistake seems to have been repeating the word “gumbo” more than you’d expect in a conversation about gumbo. Last year she took flak for describing herself, at the start of a meeting, as “a woman sitting at a table wearing a blue suit” — which seems less odd once you learn that she was speaking about the anniversary of the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act and seeking to accommodate visually impaired people.
That partisans pick through their opponents’ public appearances for embarrassing moments is hardly a revelation. What’s fascinating about the particular embarrassment pinned on Harris is how much it feels like the recurring story of the office itself. A vice president makes countless public appearances that will be mostly ignored unless something humiliating happens — something that serves to make him or her look like the hapless lightweight who symbolizes an entire administration’s ineptitude. George H.W. Bush’s young vice president, Dan Quayle, is remembered for misspelling “potato” on camera. Joe Biden’s reputation as a gaffe-prone goofball fully ripened into a persona under Barack Obama. Mike Pence, whom Donald Trump once described as “straight from central casting” for V.P.s, spent much of his term pegged as a self-abasing lackey; Al Gore was called a droning dweeb. The main recent exception to the comic-V.P. arrangement simply reversed the roles: George W. Bush, with his own malapropisms, could be seen as infantile in part because Dick Cheney was imagined as the menacing puppeteer who actually ran things. This is the cartoon of the office: an abject position whose proximity to power only disempowers its occupant, who must defer to the president on all substantive matters while handling a portfolio of intractable issues like, in Harris’s case, the Central American migrant crisis.
If Harris is searching for an inspirational V.P. story, she needn’t look far. Biden’s time in the office actually helped burnish a goofy charm; he was seen not just as folksy or avuncular but, in some corners, paradoxically cool. (The Onion spent those years crafting a satirical version of him as a guy who might be found in a White House driveway, shirtless, in jean shorts, washing a Trans Am.) This image surely made it harder, during his 2020 presidential run, to tar him as a frightening extremist; instead he was called senile or weak, manipulated by radicals. The idea of him as a Machiavellian mastermind would actually thrive on the left, in the internet meme of “Dark Brandon,” a laser-eyed president with underestimated reserves of power.
Harris, infamously described by Biden as a “work in progress,” seems unlikely to follow a similar path — though if you squint and know where to look, you might see glimmers of it. In some niche internet circles, the clownish image of her has given rise to its obverse: a relatably addled figure of half-ironic adoration. This is the woman seen, in some clips, singing “Wheels on the Bus” at a campaign vehicle and then cackling with laughter, or gushing about Venn diagrams. One Twitter user racked up likes by positing that her meandering sentences resemble the dense philosophy of Friedrich Hegel.