As Democrats celebrated an abortion rights victory last week, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke confidently from the center of an ornate room on the White House grounds, surrounded by cabinet secretaries and other senior officials, while President Biden chimed in from afar while he was sidelined by the coronavirus.
It was the kind of prominent role many expected of Harris when she took the oath of office 19 months ago — one that has eluded her so far.
Harris’ chance in the spotlight – albeit on a sleepy summer afternoon – came from voters in staunchly conservative Kansas, who hours earlier in a statewide referendum voted overwhelmingly to protect the state’s constitutional right to abortion.
“The people of Kansas spoke up and said this was a matter of defending the basic principles of freedom and liberty in America,” Harris said of the surprise win.
The moment offered a glimpse of the potential for Harris, who has attempted to turn a crisis for Democrats — the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that ended constitutional abortion rights — into a political one opportunity to transform.
Taking command of the fight for the future of abortion, now largely being fought in the States and as an issue in the November election, fits well with Harris’ political resume and touches on her experience as the first woman to be elected to the second-highest post in the United States USA was chosen nation
and as a former California Attorney General and US Senator with a longstanding interest in maternal health.
But success is anything but certain: in almost all red states in the country, the Democrats are on the defensive; little the White House can do to change the rights of millions of women; and the vice president, who still sometimes struggles to produce punchy soundbites, has chosen to do most of her work on the subject at quiet round tables, largely avoiding the kind of grand speeches that require inspirational rhetoric and national enable attention.
“We need a leader for that. No one knows who the head of Planned Parenthood is,” said Montana State Sen. Diane Sands, an abortion rights activist since the 1960s and one of many Democratic lawmakers and advocates who have met with Harris in recent weeks. “In her body, as a woman and a woman of color, she intimately knows these issues.”
Sands’ condition illustrates the complexity of the problem after Roe’s fall. Like Kansas, it is a conservative state where a woman’s decision to have an abortion is protected by the right to privacy and autonomy enshrined in its constitution. A referendum in November could set limits on abortion, and a Republican-led legislature is seeking to build a supermajority that could push for a state constitutional change.
Meeting with Harris, Sands asked for help with practical issues faced by many abortion-law states, including protecting physicians from liability for performing abortions on out-of-state patients.
“There’s no simple fix that fixes everything,” Sands said. “That will not happen.”
Harris has seen that as she has stormed red, blue and purple states in recent weeks, bringing scores of attorneys, attorney generals and others with political and political roles to the White House to discuss abortion. For example, a recent panel on disability rights highlighted the additional challenges women with disabilities face when leaving their home state to seek an abortion.
Harris’ trip to Indianapolis late last month showed the apparent futility of these efforts in some states. She arrived at the start of a special legislative session in which lawmakers approved one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country late Friday.
The handful of Democrats who met with Harris were pleased with the attention she brought to their cause. But they are heavily outnumbered in the legislature and could only hope that some moderate Republicans would side with them to expand measures to allow limited exceptions to abortions for rape and incest and to protect a woman’s life and health .
State Senator Jean D. Breaux said she walked out of a meeting with Harris because she believed the vice president had real conviction. The senator also sees Harris taking advantage of an opportunity.
“It’s great to know that we have the support of the vice president on this matter,” Breaux said. But “she needs to do a little more than just be passionate about it.”
Unless Harris can convince Congress to pass a federal law protecting abortion or find some other way to change the course of states like hers, “it’s all going to seem a little ineffective,” Breaux said.
Harris faced similar hurdles when she took over voting rights last year, trying to roll back Republican-led efforts to limit ballot access following former President Trump’s false claims of substantial voter fraud.
As with the abortion, Harris traveled the country holding meetings with attorneys. But she and the rest of the Biden administration, fighting with narrow majorities in Congress, failed to pass a federal voting rights bill or block state legislation, fueling frustration among many of the activists she met.
Political parallels aside, Harris philosophically linked the two issues, noting in her speeches that many of the same states that passed voting restrictions have also attempted to limit or stop access to abortion. She argues that both problems represent longstanding attempts to deprive groups such as women and people of color of their rights.
The abortion rights fight, however, could generate a broader political coalition than the suffrage fight, which captured the passion of Democratic activists but did not garner as much support from less committed Democrats, Republicans, and independents. The vote to uphold abortion rights in Kansas, a state Trump won by about 15 percentage points in 2020, underscored the potential to win over a larger constituency.
Although Harris has met with several key states in the abortion debate in recent weeks, he did not visit Kansas ahead of the election. During a panel in Massachusetts on Thursday, she commended leaders of Kansas’ abortion rights campaign for reaching beyond a core Democratic base with a message that emphasizes personal liberty and a rejection of government hyperbole, values that resonate with libertarian voters .
“They spoke out loud and said it didn’t matter who [a woman] voted in the last election or who she intends to vote for in the next election,” Harris said. “Don’t take away her rights and allow the government to replace her priorities with her priorities.”
Republicans and proponents of restricting abortion access have so far said they are unconcerned about Harris’ activism, choosing instead to highlight verbal gaffes, real or imagined, that she makes during her roundtable meetings.
“She meets with small groups of people. That makes the headlines of the daily news. It’s not that mainstream for Joe Lunch Bucket and soccer moms,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative group that advocates for social issues.
Stemberger said the discussions could help Harris strengthen her political base, but he doesn’t think they will affect politics in states like his, which Harris has visited twice in recent weeks.
After a draft of the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturning Roe vs. Wade was leaked in May, Harris took her message to a larger audience.
“How dare you!” she said at an event in Washington, DC, for Emily’s List, a political group focused on voting for women who support abortion rights. “How dare you tell a woman what she can and can’t do with her own body.”
It remains her most impassioned speech on the subject to date, one that captures the raw anger and disbelief many women have felt since the spring. Though Harris hasn’t delivered that kind of rhetoric since, it could return as November’s midterm elections draw closer.
Harris’ advisers say she takes all of the above approaches in her work on abortion — making broad political arguments for access, pushing for administrative action to protect abortion drug rights and intergovernmental processes, and mobilizing advocates to defend their rights Time to volunteer in the States. Her team notes that in some states, helping elect a few more lawmakers or keeping a Democratic governor in office could negate abortion restrictions.
But for Congress to act nationally, the Democrats will almost certainly need to win the November election, a feat political handicappers find unlikely.
Laphonza Butler, the president of Emily’s List and a longtime Harris political ally who encouraged her to address the issue of abortion, said there is “an urgency of the moment” that leaves the vice president little choice.
“Can she do anything? Can one of us doing the work make a difference?” she asked. “We won’t know unless we try.”
https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2022-08-08/abortion-rights-activists-want-a-national-leader-is-vp-harris-up-to-the-job Abortion rights fight gives Kamala Harris chance in spotlight