(CNN)Kamala Harris traveled to Guatemala and Mexico seeking a serious strategy for stemming migration from the Northern Triangle, but her efforts were quickly overshadowed by her flippant response about why she has not visited the US-Mexico border as vice president.
Her defensive response to a question that was certain to come up on her first foreign trip since taking office is raising fresh questions about her political agility as she chafes at the efforts by the right to portray her as the administration’s border czar, which is not the assignment that Biden gave her.
In her few short months as vice president, Harris has become a lightning rod for Republicans — a useful foil for the GOP when their attacks on President Joe Biden haven’t landed. Biden cranked up the heat on Harris by handing her a portfolio of immigration issues that is the political equivalent of dynamite at a time when her critics are parsing her every move, often vilifying her in the same way they made Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez their boogeymen in prior election cycles.
The first foreign trip for any vice president is an acid test, and Harris was under more pressure than most as a potential future leader of the party and the first woman of color to hold the office. Harris spoke at length about the causes of mass migration like crime, corruption and climate change, and announced millions of dollars in aid and investment during her trip. She also issued a stark warning to undocumented migrants not to come to the border.
But her political missteps overshadowed the policy progress on her trip.
The vice president has never been particularly adept when confronted with questions that she doesn’t like or doesn’t want to answer — as she demonstrated during 2020 primaries, when she repeatedly dodged and fumbled questions about her health care plan. In this case, she deflected a straightforward question from NBC’s Lester Holt about why she hasn’t visited the border by laughing it off and stating that she also hasn’t been to Europe, adding that she didn’t understand the point that Holt was making — even though everyone else did.
It was a clumsy answer that came off as tone-deaf given that the situation at the US-Mexico border is one of the most troubling issues facing the administration. Finding a solution for stemming migration from Central America is a problem that has eluded multiple administrations for decades, but even some White House officials — who want her to succeed in this difficult endeavor — were perplexed.
The exchange with Holt reflected the frustration that Harris and her team have felt for weeks as they labor to make it clear that Biden tasked her with handling diplomatic efforts to stem migration from the Northern Triangle, not solving the problem at the US-Mexico border. While it is true that many other government agencies are responsible for handling the border, that stance has been a difficult needle for her to thread, given that anyone with experience in the region will tell you that the two issues are inextricably entwined.
During a news conference in Mexico, Harris clarified her comments by committing to visiting the border, which would have been a simple way to settle the issue the first time she was asked.
Her shaky handling of the politics around the immigration issue drew new questions about her political dexterity both as vice president and as a future aspirant for the White House, because the trip this week was her first test at the highest levels of statecraft.
The right-wing media is trying to portray Harris as hopelessly inept when it comes to matters at the border — and she gave them an opening by appearing to try to distance herself from the problems there. The awkwardness of her answer to Holt came to dominate the storyline about her trip, leading to questions about her preparedness and sexist critiques of her readiness to take on these challenges. It also overshadowed her substantive answers about policy in the Northern Triangle and the intensive, hands-on efforts that she is making to dig deeply into the subject as she tries to shape the strategy for the region.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas
Kamala Harris’ rocky first foreign trip
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