What Kamala Harris might learn from Henry Wallace

Vice President Harris speaks at a signing ceremony for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday, November 15, 2021.
Greg Nash

It’s been a tough first year for Vice President Kamala Harris.

A Los Angeles Times poll indicates Harris’s favorability is slightly lower than that of her predecessor Mike Pence at this point in their respective tenures — and well below the ratings of VPs Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden at this juncture. Fifty-two percent of voters view her unfavorably.

Following a disastrous June performance as the administration’s point person on the border crisis, and an inability to gain traction as an advocate for domestic policy, Harris confronts a growing chorus that she is out of her depth and unsuited to ever occupy the Oval Office. With staff turning over, her office is undergoing a difficult reset.  

Speculation has begun regarding her status on a 2024 Biden ticket, or her chances for the top spot should President Biden choose not to run.

As she scrambles to position herself in a more favorable light, Harris might look back eight decades at the experience of the last VP to be dumped from an incumbent president’s ticket: Iowan Henry A. Wallace, one of the most dynamic and unorthodox characters to occupy the #2 spot in the 20th century. 

Son of Henry C. Wallace, secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, Henry A. Wallace was originally a Progressive Republican who began advocating for government intervention in the grain markets when prices collapsed following World War I. A farmer himself and editor of his family’s journal Wallace’s Farmer, he was fascinated by plant genetics and was  a pioneer in the development of hybrid corn seeds. 

Appointed in 1933 as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first secretary of Agriculture, and an enthusiastic New Dealer, he championed inflationary farm policies, including controlled production, soil conservation and crop subsidies. In 1939 he introduced the first Food Stamps Plan, which provided supplementary nutrition benefits to 20 million people before it wound down in 1943.  

By 1940 FDR had tired of the conservatism and disloyalty of Vice President John Nance Garner, behavior culminating in Garner actually contesting the Democratic presidential nomination that year. As Roosevelt sought an unprecedented third term, he insisted, despite opposition from  party leaders, on a progressive running mate. He believed Wallace fit the bill.

The problem was that Wallace was seen not only as too liberal; in today’s terms, he was considered something of a flake. An introvert who spoke several languages, he was fascinated by the teachings of a Russian emigre mystic named Nicholas Roerich. A teetotaler, he experimented with offbeat diets (like milk and popcorn) and hyperactive athletic pursuits. He inspired no comfort among professional politicians. He was nominated after a tussle at the convention but received less than 60 percent of the delegate vote. 

Following the election and Pearl Harbor, the administration’s focus was waging war. But Wallace’s political naivete and uncompromising progressive vision proved out of step with the priorities of a united home front.

When Roosevelt put him in charge of the Bureau of Economic Warfare, one of several ad hoc mobilization agencies, he got into a messy public turf battle with the secretary of Commerce, and was removed from the post. At the same time, he made it a personal mission to be the nation’s progressive standard bearer.

In a 1942 address, he suggested Henry Luce’s 1940 essay “The American Century” was tainted by imperialism. He countered that the postwar world was destined to be “the century of the common man” and warned against “International cartels that serve American greed.” 

In a 1943 Detroit  speech, made in the wake of serious racial disturbances, he characterized conservatives in the Democratic Party opposed to his progressive vision as “American Fascists.” 

Wallace offered ideas that would eventually become part of the Democrats’ domestic agenda in the postwar years. But with the war far from won, he was preemptively offering a vision for a global New Deal far to the left of where, at that moment, many in his party were prepared to go. 

The vice president was also dogged by rumors of Soviet sympathies (which, after the war, were proven to be accurate) and behind the scenes was characterized by the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover as a security risk. With Roosevelt’s health deteriorating as he sought a fourth term, the party bosses made it clear Wallace was unacceptable for re-nomination in 1944. After much wrangling with FDR, they agreed on a much safer candidate, Missourian Harry Truman.

Going into the July Democratic convention, Wallace’s poll numbers and delegate support were actually pretty good. If not for some last-minute maneuvering by the convention chairman, who delayed by one day the initial polling for vice-president, he might have been renominated. But the machine leaders had their way and built a landslide for Truman on the second ballot.

All may not be lost for Kamala Harris. While there are power brokers and mega donors in today’s Democratic Party, her fate, unlike Wallace’s, will not be in the hands of a circle of big city party barons. Her approval ratings are only marginally below those of President Biden, and she is viewed favorably in the Times poll by 83 percent of Democrats, the constituency key to winning any further nominations. 

Unlike Wallace, Harris understands politics, and seems to obsess over her own positioning and prospects. What she needs to do now, as one commentator notes, is to “get serious” about her current job, and devote every hour of her working day to supporting the initiatives of her president. If she avoids being sidelined, stays close to Biden and ensures her agenda is seen as his agenda, she might eke out a role on a 2024 ticket.  

Job one for any vice president is not to be seen as a negative factor; and in the case of Kamala Harris, serving with a president of advanced years, to project a credibility that the talented but unconventional persona of Henry Wallace ultimately lacked.

Paul C. Atkinson, a former executive at the Wall Street Journal, is a contributing editor of the New York Sun.

Tags Al Gore Democratic Party Franklin D. Roosevelt Henry A. Wallace Joe Biden Kamala Harris Kamala Harris 2020 presidential campaign Mike Pence Vice Presidents of the United States

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