Washington Post: As Harris touts abortion rights, backers hope she finally hits her stride

The VP has seized on reproduction rights as a marquee issue–but she is not the only ambitious Democrat to do so.

Two weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Florida’s Fentrice Driskell joined other state legislators at the White House to discuss threats to abortion access with Vice President Harris.

The vice president, Driskell said, stayed 10 minutes past the meeting’s scheduled conclusion, showed a familiarity with the dynamics of statehouses controlled by Republicans, and had her team follow up within the week to solicit more ideas.

“She ran for president previously, and so I’m sure she’s thinking about her future,” Driskell, the incoming Florida House minority leader, said of Harris. “Strategically, it’s a moment for Vice President Harris, because it gives her a platform and certainly presents the opportunity for her to associate her brand with leading on this topic.”

In the month since the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion, Harris has sought to position herself as her party’s leading advocate on the issue. She’s sat for televised interviews and met with legislators, legal experts, faith leaders and medical professionals, all while exhorting Democrats to bring their anger to ballot box.

The political challenge for Harris, however, is that she is hardly the only ambitious Democrat to seize on the abortion issue. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, for example, has attracted attention and loyalty among activists for a pitched battle with her state’s GOP-led legislature over abortion access.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a former and possibly future presidential candidate, continues to trumpet a proposal to put abortion clinics on federal lands, despite administration officials’ doubts. And former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, in a CBS interview, said she plans to stay “active and outspoken” on reproductive rights, while swatting away questions about another potential run for president.

As vice president, Harris has visibly struggled to find an issue that would stamp her as a forceful leader. From immigration to voting rights, she’s had trouble breaking through, and critics have said she can seem overly scripted.

Harris’s supporters say her passion for reproductive freedom is organic. She is the first female vice president, and her Black and Asian identity may be particularly resonant given that abortion restrictions disproportionately affect minority women.

While any vice president must be careful not to overshadow her boss, Harris may have more freedom when it comes to abortion, given Biden’s discomfort with an issue where the politics of his party do not always mesh comfortably with his lifelong Catholic faith.

All this, Harris’s advisers hope, gives her a path to connect with an energized constituency that she lacked in her unsuccessful 2020 bid for the presidency. She faces considerable pressure to show that her political skills have improved since that effort, which collapsed before a single primary vote was cast.

Rep.James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, whose endorsement revived Biden’s candidacy in 2020, said Harris deserves a chance to grow into her role.

“Everybody should be given time to develop,” Clyburn said. “Joe Biden did not always have the experience that he and I have. At one point in his life, he was a Kamala Harris … You don’t become vice president at noon and then by one o’clock become the expert.”

Donna Brazile, who was Vice President Al Gore’s campaign manager when he ran for president, said Harris’s ramped-up schedule speaks to her competing obligations — to the party, the Biden administration and to whatever future she hopes to build — and it is critical her role as a leader of the future does not get lost.

“She has to be the ‘what now’ leader and I think she understands that, and that is how the administration should understand her role,” Brazile said. “The clock is ticking, and she will never get a break. This is work, work, work. There’s always something to do. And it’s always somebody pulling, saying she needs to do more, not less.”

Harris’s recent flurry of activity on abortion rights has taken on an added urgency as some Democrats are asking whether the oldest president in history should run again — and who should be the Democratic standard-bearer if he steps aside.

Biden has said he will seek reelection in 2024, and Harris has said she will be his running mate. But some Democrats have noted that if victorious in another election, Biden would take the oath of office at age 82, and they have spoken privately of the need to turn to a new generation of leaders.

Amplifying those concerns, Biden tested positive for coronavirus on July 21, and spent five socially-distanced days taking Paxlovid anti-viral pills, in part because his advanced age puts him in a vulnerable group. Biden worked while isolated in the White House residence and announced his recovery on Wednesday, saying, “My symptoms were mild, my recovery was quick, and I’m feeling great.”

As Biden remained isolated for nearly a week, Harris had one of the most active periods of her vice presidency. In meetings in Washington and across the country, as well as a series of television interviews, she has told Democrats that the best way to ensure abortion access is to win congressional majorities in this year’s midterm elections, where the party faces strong head winds.

“The court has acted — now Congress needs to act,” Harris told CNN a few days after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the Dobbs case. Citing Senate races in Georgia, North Carolina and Colorado, she added, “We need to change the balance and have pro-choice legislators who have the power to make decisions about whether this constitutional right will be in law.”

For advisers and others close to Harris, her increased time in TV studios and her ballooning travel schedule are a welcome sign after a first year that they say featured too much time in Washington during the coronavirus pandemic, and not enough time in the public eye.

Last December, a group of Black women held a private meeting with Harris to urge her to become more vocal and visible.

“Getting out in the streets is a real thing for her — she actually desires that,” said Shavon Arline-Bradley, president of the nonprofit group D4Women in Action, who attended the meeting. “This is a midterm year and we’re in the thick of it.”

She added, “The people need to see her leadership. … I do think she’s concerned with her definition of who she is and defining what that legacy is for her.”

Harris’s first year was historic but uneven, marked by staff departures and mixed results on the issues that Biden asked her to spearhead. At the same time, she was tied to an administration that struggled to deliver on some of its biggest campaign promises, and endured the usual dependent role that comes with being vice president.

She traveled to Central America as part of her mission to address the root causes of migration, but her visit was characterized by an awkward exchange with NBC’s Lester Holt in which she committed to going to the U.S. southern border, but only after he pressed her.

Less than a year into office, Harris saw a series of staff departures, including the loss of her chief spokeswoman and director of communications, who were charged with helping shape her public image. Her chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, departed a few months later. A few weeks ago, Rohini Kosoglu, one of Harris’s closest and longest-serving aides, also left.

Some of the departures have raised questions about Harris’s management style, concerns that have dogged her through her two decades in public service.

In contrast, Harris supporters have been buoyed by her performance in a series of foreign trips — to the Munich Security Conference in advance of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and to Poland and Romania to shore up NATO allies. She has also added experienced Democratic strategists to her team, including new chief of staff Lorraine Voles, who was Gore’s communications director and an adviser to then-Sen. Hillary Clinton in 2008.

A Harris spokesperson declined to comment on the record for this article, pointing to her statement that she intends to be Biden’s running mate in 2024. Over the past year, her supporters have repeatedly said she is working to advance the aims of the Biden administration, and that criticism of her is outsized and often steeped in sexism and racism.

“I think it’s all about the administration’s goals, and I think that’s how she views it,” said Cedric L. Richmond, a former senior adviser to Biden who resigned in April to become a strategist for the Democratic National Committee. “It’s not about her branding, political ambition, anything like that, in her decision-making process.”

The coming months will determine the 2024 landscape. They will reveal whether Biden announces his reelection campaign, as he has suggested he will, and whether other prominent Democrats — from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to California Gov. Gavin Newsom — jump into the race. On the Republican side, former president Donald Trump’s potential candidacy remains an overriding question mark.

Clyburn said last month that he would back Harris in 2024 if Biden does not run, regardless of moves by other Democrats seeking the presidency.

“Right now, I’m for Biden, and sec­ond I’m for Har­ris,” he said. “So I don’t care who goes to New Hamp­shire or Iowa, I’m for Biden and then I’m for Har­ris — ei­ther to­gether or in that or­der.”

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