In the tense months leading to the midterm elections, no member of the Biden administration spent more time talking about the erosion of reproductive rights than Vice President Kamala Harris.
Pundits implored Democrats to shift focus from what a writer for Vox called “the fizzling issue of protecting abortion rights” to inflation and the economy. Even after the conservative-led Supreme Court overturned nearly 50 years of settled law in June, many polls did not rate abortion as a pressing issue for voters.
Harris never wavered. In a late October speech at Bryn Mawr, the women’s college in Pennsylvania, she said: “There was a movement that was started by people generations ago that culminated in Roe v. Wade. It is now incumbent on us, who are under this roof together right now, to pick that movement up and to carry it forward.”
On Election Day, voters did exactly that. Inflation remained their top concern. But in CNN exit polling, abortion ranked a close second as the “most important” issue. More than 70 percent of women voters between ages 18 and 29 chose Democrats on Election Day. It was probably the difference between Democrats retaining Senate control and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.
But absent in post-election discussions about the Democrats’ better-than-expected showing are mentions of how Harris centered reproductive rights as crucial to millions of voters, especially women. Then again, Harris as vice president rarely gets the credit and respect she deserves.
Malcolm X famously said, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”
That often feels as if it applies to Harris, this nation’s first woman and person of color to be vice president. There’s an expected weight that comes with being first — great expectations, of course, but also derision from those who cling to racist and sexist notions that achievement especially at the highest levels belongs to white men. Yet Harris has spent her political life smashing glass ceilings.
In 2010, Harris, who is of Jamaican and South Asian descent, became the first woman of color elected attorney general — not just in California but in this nation’s history. Six years later, she became only the second Black woman to be elected to the US Senate. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2018, Harris grilled then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh about reproductive rights, and her relentless questioning caught the attention of late-night hosts and the man who nominated Kavanaugh — Donald Trump.
Becoming President Biden’s number two both raised Harris’s profile and dimmed her star power. The main point of being vice president is claiming the pole position as the party’s next standard bearer. But that’s a long game. Beyond that, it seems a thankless job, since the primary duty is staying in lockstep with the president. A vice president is behind the boss, never a step ahead.
Biden assigned Harris tough issues ranging from the southern border crisis to voting rights. And when, as expected, Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona joined Republicans in blocking attempts to protect voting rights, it was Harris who was partly and unfairly blamed for the failure of the bills.
But Harris sparkled on the path to the midterms. She led more than 35 public events on reproductive rights, including several at college campuses like Howard University, her beloved alma mater. She called Republicans “extremist so-called leaders” for their dangerous views on abortion, threats to democracy, and attacks on American rights. She emphasized the cogent point that reproductive rights are inseparable from economic issues.
Here, at last, was the woman who left Kavanaugh sputtering when she asked him “Can you think of any laws that give government the power to make decisions about the male body?”
With the midterms done, political chatter about 2024 is inescapable. Biden turns 80 on Sunday, heating up ageist conversations about whether he will seek reelection or step aside for a new Democratic torchbearer. Among those most often mentioned as potential presidential candidates are Governor Gavin Newsom of California, Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
Harris’s name should be at the top of that list. The vice president made her case as the administration’s forceful voice on the future of abortion rights. She indicted the dark forces consuming American democracy and called extremism by its name. She helped save Democrats — and this nation — from what could have been a political apocalypse. Harris has earned her flowers. Now give the woman who’s first in line to the presidency some respect.