Why the Beltway Loves the Second Gentleman

Kamala Harris may be struggling with Washington insiders, but they’re making her once nerdy husband the most high-profile vice-presidential spouse in history.

Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff attend the lighting ceremony for the National Christmas Tree.

It was the last Friday of January. In Washington, Vice President Kamala Harris was set to host a White House summit about lead-pipe replacement. It’s a key component of the administration’s infrastructure push and would become part of the president’s looming State of the Union Address. And it was also almost guaranteed to get scant buzz in Washington’s attention industry.

Meanwhile, Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, was on a trip to Poland to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day at Auschwitz. He was joined there by Joe Scarborough, the favorite morning host of many of the insiders whose worries about the Vice President’s electoral prospects regularly make news. Scarborough and Emhoff’s much-promoted conversation occupied the better part of an hour on Morning Joe. That’s the sort of exposure a lot of elected officials can only dream about — the political-media equivalent of an invite to the popular kids’ table.

Not long ago, it might have confounded Washington to hear that a middle-aged corporate-lawyer white-guy dad figure would be a breakout media star of the Biden administration even as the Beltway smart set tsk-tsks the barrier-breaking veep’s political chops, the subject of grim stories in the past two weeks in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Plainly, Emhoff shines in some ways Harris doesn’t — which reflects his own innate political touch, the kind of instinctive connection that even some Harris supporters worry she doesn’t show.

“He is just a very approachable, normal guy who, within the span of a decade, went from going on a blind date with the California attorney general, to, literally less than 10 years later, flying out on an Air Force jet representing our country at Auschwitz,” says Brian Brokaw, a longtime California Democratic strategist who knows both of them well. “He’s a trailblazer in his own way, one that I don’t think he necessarily sought out to be. But he also seems to be doing a pretty good job at it.”

“People are just charmed,” says Jamal Simmons, Harris’ former communications director. “He’s genuinely a nice guy.”

But Emhoff’s media success might just say even more about the kinds of traits that earn favor in the capital, which makes it a more complicated and fascinating dynamic to watch.

While many of his other forays into the spotlight involve making public appearances around largely ideology-free political-spouse causes like suicide prevention and school reopenings, he’s also snagged attention on trickier issues: When Texas Gov Greg Abbott sent two buses of migrants to be dropped off in front of the home Emhoff and Harris occupy, the Second Gentleman spoke out, calling it “shameful” in an unscripted media interaction that came as news to the Vice President’s communications team, according to Simmons, who was on staff at the time.

The administration has apparently come to see him as a useful tool on the inside-Washington game, too: On Tuesday, ahead of the State of the Union Address, he was the guest star of a call convened by senior advisor Anita Dunn with Democratic allies designed to spark excitement and convey talking points.

There’s only so much you can attribute to the notion that Emhoff is sprinkled with political pixie dust while his wife may not be. To a large extent, the quality of the respective rides he and Harris have gotten from the chattering class is a function of the wildly different jobs they have.

As the principal and the occupant of the position one predecessor said wasn’t “worth a bucket of warm spit,” Harris was always going to have a much trickier task when it comes to generating positive coverage. It doesn’t help that in the Biden administration she’s been handed thankless portfolios like the border — and, for two years, has been obliged to stay close to home lest she have to cast a tie-breaking vote in the 50-50 Senate. Bottom line: It’s a hard job to ace.

Emhoff, by contrast, holds a position where the historic binary hasn’t been whether a person is loved or hated by the general public, but whether the person is noticed at all. A Second Gentleman, like a First Lady, gets to avoid polarizing issues and focus on warm-hearted public events. Unlike a president’s spouse, the veep’s significant other also doesn’t get blamed for White House social booboos, East Wing staff turmoil, unpopular holiday decor, and other pomp-and-circumstances controversies. Bottom line: It’s a hard job to flub.

“He doesn’t have any formal policy responsibility,” Simmons, who left Harris’ team last year, told me this week. “So if you’re attacking the second gentleman, it’s purely a personality or political play. It can’t possibly be based on anything policy related.” No one is dissecting rambling Doug Emhoff speeches on TV because he doesn’t have to make them.

Yet it’s also clear that Emhoff’s presence in the Washington conversation exceeds that of Karen Pence, Jill Biden, or even Lynne Cheney, who was a genuine public figure well before her husband became Vice President — and also could come across as a better public kibbitzer than her guarded spouse. The prior vice-presidential spouses are a much better comparison. But they’re a comparison that also shows some of Emhoff’s strengths as a public figure as well as some bigger things about the Beltway’s built-in assumptions.

Consider the aspect of Emhoff’s persona that people inside Harris’ camp cite most often: his loyalty. “He’s ride or die,” one former Harris staffer told me. “His number one goal has always been, from the jump, to be extremely supportive of his wife.” Of course, being supportive has always been the core of a political spouse’s persona — it’s just that women spouses didn’t typically get credit for it. To his credit, Emhoff has noted this too. But as welcome a model as it is, it’s hard not to think he benefits in Washington’s estimation from playing against millennia of history involving men who do something other than put their wife first.

Likewise, think about a factor dear to the heart of narrative-definers: Being a trailblazer. Like Harris, Emhoff is a first, the inaugural Second Gentleman of the United States. But where her novelty has drawn detractors even as it galvanized admirers — it’s at the core of mean-spirited, sometimes explicitly racist and sexist suggestions that she’s not up to the job because her pick delighted a politically important constituency — his is all upside. Attend charity teas and you look good for deigning to take on historically feminine roles that men of his generation never expected to play; do something less traditional and you look thoughtful for innovating to build a new role.

Then there’s some only-in-2023 stuff that comes into play. Even by the standards of Beltway celebrity, the Biden administration is one of the least star-studded in recent memory; against that backdrop, any administration-adjacent person who gets regularly spotted around town (let alone one whose daughter is a model) is going to seem downright exciting.

And while it’s not something Emhoff or anyone else this side of Ye’s entourage would want, the news environment has also meant that the Second Gentleman’s supposedly non-controversial personal cause — fighting antisemitism — has suddenly become a live issue.

For all the editorial-page paeans to moral seriousness, though, Washington is a place whose likeability economy rewards people who are able to play the loveable golden retriever type — something that, even beyond the embedded gender coding, is much easier for someone in Emhoff’s apolitical position than Harris’ excruciatingly political one. It’s even easier still if you’re genuinely new to the game: Emhoff only married into politics on the cusp of Harris’ Senatorial win. By this point in the electoral ascent, a lot of political spouses have decades of scar tissue, or at least decades of familiar affect that makes them seem less genuine.

Several people around the Vice President told me this week that loyalists have been seething about the recurring Harris-is-doomed pieces, with old allies swapping texts about the pack-mentality behavior that they think drives the coverage. Particularly against that backdrop, they’re leery of any implicit comparison with the kind of coverage Emhoff gets, given the couple’s vastly different jobs, and the respective jobs’ even more different degrees of difficulty.

There are occasional moments, though, when a comparison of how they are deployed feels apt. Just as Emhoff’s issue was elevated by a year of appalling incidents, Harris has also taken on a role as the administration’s spokeswoman on abortion rights. Like Emhoff’s cause, it’s the sort of issue that has hit the news over and over in the past year. But her own role sometimes gets obscured, eating into opportunities to drive news.

Last summer, when national attention was focused on the horrific story of a 10-year-old abuse victim from Ohio who had to travel to Indiana for an abortion, and GOP politicians threatened to investigate the gynecologist who treated her, Harris reached out to the embattled doctor. It was a smart move for a Democratic pol, standing up against an outrage. And it only reached the media nearly a month after the incident, when the doctor talked about it to CBS news. Simmons says that’s because the office was attentive to privacy and legal concerns and the like, befitting the vice president’s careful, prosecutor background. Still, someone whose job description and personal style enabled a looser disposition might have gotten an earlier publicity pop from it.

Which brings us back to this: Watch Emhoff’s media appearances and it becomes clear that he’s pretty good at this stuff. I don’t mean policy or leadership, which he doesn’t try to do. I mean the work of making audiences like you, which involves some combination of seeming loose and genuine and personable.

Is that easier to do when you’re not being vetted as a possible president and subject to the crosswinds of modern U.S. politics? Yep. Does a man in our society get more permission to play the loveable golden retriever sort that Washington tends to value? No doubt. But he’s still pretty good at it.

“I wouldn’t say he has skills that she doesn’t have,” says Simmons. “I would say he has opportunities she doesn’t, because he doesn’t fly with the same footprint. He doesn’t come with the flashing lights, dozens of Secret Service agents and vans and cars full of aides. He can show up in his SUV with a couple of agents and maybe an aide or two and go grocery shopping or walk into a mall or go to a restaurant. … It’s an ability he has that the other three principals don’t really have.”