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WOMEN+POWER 2023: Kamala Harris

As she started her closing cadence in front of an enthusiastic crowd, it was clear Vice President Kamala Harris was in her element—and remains both a misunderstood and potent force in Democratic politics.

​​”Know this: President Biden and I agree, and we will never back down,” Harris said to applause in Tallahassee, Fla., on the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that once guaranteed the federal right to abortion. “We will not back down. We know this fight will not be won until we secure this right for every American.”

As Harris thundered through her remarks, with American flags behind her and supporters before her, she enjoyed that quality that has become all too rare in politics: credibility. Despite the political headwinds against her on the issue, Harris convinced many in the crowd that her promises were not only plausible, but within reach. “Congress must pass a bill that protects freedom and liberty,” she said.

The scheduled speech on a sleepy Sunday far from Washington—but in the backyard of major Republican personalities—would do little to move the national debate on federal abortion rights. But Harris’ remarks and the reception—including 32 applause interruptions by the White House transcript’s count—served as a reminder that, even with plenty of bumps and detours during her years as a history-making Vice President, she still can bring the heat. And, in that, her fellow Democrats might slow their seemingly endless criticism of the first woman to hold the job, as well as the first person of Black or South Asian descent to earn it.

Harris, by all accounts, didn’t exactly launch her time as President Joe Biden’s understudy with ease. It seemed every quarter brought with it a new Harris Resets story in the political pages. In the administration’s early days, she largely filled her offices with veterans of the campaign—Biden’s, not hers. In fact, most of her high-profile aides from her Senate office and short-lived presidential bid scattered throughout the administration, landing perfectly admirable posts but not in her inner circle.

Then, there was the scheduling challenge. Few Vice Presidents have had to contend with an evenly split Senate. Because of her ability to break tie votes in that chamber, Harris had to often make sure she was a quick motorcade from the Capitol. She has so far cast 26 such tied votes—or roughly nine percent of all tie-breaking votes cast in the Senate since 1789. As such, she spent a ton of time in her office just off the Senate floor, often doubling as a deciding vote and informal congressional liaison to her former colleagues.

But, with Republicans now at 49 votes, Harris’ 101st vote won’t be needed as often. Less encumbered by the Senate vote schedule, Harris got back on the road to sell the Biden team’s record and leading the charge on goals like securing voting and abortion rights—neither of which are likely to advance much under a Republican House—and selling the merits of legislation passed, such as an infrastructure package and a climate change agenda.

Then there are questions of her future ambitions—always a fraught discussion that in D.C. can easily devolve into coded conversations about race and gender, two factors that simply cannot be ignored when it comes to Harris. Her defenders aren’t wrong to point out that the first woman of color in her role faces the double-whammy that separately dogged Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Harris’ original bid for the presidency ended before Iowa’s lead-off caucuses. By all accounts, she serves as a capable and loyal running-mate.

Personally, Biden has great admiration for Harris, who served as state attorney general in California concurrent to the late Beau Biden’s time in the role in Delaware. As a former VP himself, Biden has sought to give Harris a portfolio commensurate with her talents, including the intractable troubles at the U.S.-Mexican border, voting rights, and abortion rights. Harris’ apologists grimly note those are all massive issues, each of them likely impossible for one person to significantly address; yet her boosters say they match Harris’ abilities to untangle knots.

With Biden launching his re-election bid, Harris’ dreams for a promotion were put on ice. After all, no one challenges a sitting President with any meaningful success, especially not from inside the tent. But it does set up the test for Harris: if she is the party’s heir apparent, Harris needs to rack up some successes to point to for 2028.

All of which explains why Harris has made abortion rights a central piece of her political identity. Since Roe fell, she has met with leaders from 38 states, including lawmakers from 18 states. She’s been subtly making herself the voice with a megaphone no one can ignore.

Such outrage over the fall of Roe empowered Democratic candidates to unexpectedly strong showings in the midterm elections. Democrats defied history, holding steady in the Senate and only barely losing the majority in the House. Many point to her campaign travel schedule as proof that Harris played no small role in that accomplishment. By the time votes were being tallied, a full 27 percent of Americans counted abortion as the most important issue for their vote, second only to inflation. It was a surefire winner for Democrats, with those counting abortion as their most important issue breaking by a walloping 53 points. And among the broader public, according to exit polls, 59 percent of voters last year said abortion should remain legal.

If you’re Harris and seeing these numbers while still considering your next move, such data points are reason to lean-in on abortion rights. It has the added bonus of coming from a place of sincerity.

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