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Opinion: The Kamala Harris moment has arrived

One of Kamala Harris’ most memorable moments during the 2020 presidential election cycle was when, during a Democratic primary debate, she sharply criticized Joe Biden for working with segregationists in the Senate in their shared opposition to bus

  • Apr 21 2024
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Opinion: The Kamala Harris moment has arrived
Opinion: The Kamala Harris moment has arrived

One of Kamala Harris’ most memorable moments during the 2020 presidential election cycle was when, during a Democratic primary debate, she sharply criticized Joe Biden for working with segregationists in the Senate in their shared opposition to busing.

She personalized her criticism, saying: “There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”

The power in the attack was not only the point being made but that she — a person affected from a group affected — was making it. Although some of Biden’s defenders saw her remark as a gratuitous broadside, there was an authenticity to the way she confronted the issue.

The verbal jab also aligned with the national zeitgeist at a time when calls for racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement were ascendant.

She ticked up in the polls, and donations poured in. Ultimately, her candidacy didn’t catch fire, but the following summer, Biden, the eventual nominee, made a historic offer to Harris to join his ticket, leading to her becoming the first woman, first Black person and first Asian American to be vice president.

Fast-forward to now, when Vice President Harris has served nearly a full term alongside President Biden, and she is moving into another moment when the political stars are aligned for her as the perfect messenger on a subject that has fixed Americans’ attention and is central in the 2024 presidential campaign: reproductive rights.

This time, her target is Donald Trump. And being in a position to go on the offensive is something of a reversal of fortune for a vice president who has endured withering — often unfair — attacks and who struggled to define herself in the role.

In October, The Atlantic’s Elaina Plott Calabro profiled Harris under the headline “The Kamala Harris Problem,” writing that “Harris’s reputation has never quite recovered” from some early blunders during her term. The article includes a particularly blunt quote from former Obama administration adviser David Axelrod about a perceived risk aversion born of insecurity: “It looked as if she didn’t know where to plant her feet. That she wasn’t sort of grounded, that she didn’t know exactly who she was.”

Criticisms of Harris have been relentless, ranging from legitimate challenges to her policy statements to ridiculous commentary about her laugh. Much of it has seemed tinged with gender bias.

This has all led Harris to struggle in the polls. Her approval rating, like Biden’s, has languished below 50% for most of her term.

And she remains a source of concern, a perceived vulnerability to Biden’s reelection. In March, Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote that Harris should bow out for the sake of the country, absurdly comparing her to Sarah Palin in 2008.

Over and over in her failed run for this year’s Republican nomination, Nikki Haley pointed to the possibility of a future Harris presidency as a scare tactic, saying in an August interview on “Good Morning America”: “There is no way Joe Biden is going to finish his term. I think Kamala Harris is going to be the next president, and that should send a chill up every American’s spine.”

But the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and Republicans’ lust to enact increasingly regressive policies to restrict reproductive rights in states across the country have made Harris’ voice an essential one in the campaign.

In December, Harris announced her nationwide Fight for Reproductive Freedoms tour.

In March, she became what is believed to be the first vice president to pay an official visit to an abortion clinic (no president has done so), when she visited a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Paul, Minnesota.

No matter how sensitive and knowledgeable men try to be on the issue of reproductive rights, there are still things that we cannot fully connect to. Harris transcends that barrier not only because she’s a woman but also because of her background as a prosecutor.

In a February speech in Savannah, Georgia, she said that she decided to specialize in prosecuting crimes of violence against women and children because in high school she learned that one of her best friends was being molested by her stepfather. Harris told that story as a way to underscore the repressive nature of abortion laws that don’t have exceptions for rape or incest.

She told the crowd, “The idea that someone who survives a crime of violence, a violation to their body, would then be told they don’t have the authority to decide what happens to their body next, that’s immoral.”

Harris may never be duly recognized for her contributions to the administration on a broad range of issues, but in the end that may not be her calling.

According to her office, since Roe was overturned, the vice president has held “more than 80 convenings in 20 states.” Being a trusted voice in favor of reproductive rights and against Republicans determined to restrict or eliminate them may be the greater contribution she can make to Biden’s reelection bid and to maintaining national stability.

With this issue, she has hit her stride. With it, the talk of her as a liability has been hushed, for some, by the clear realization of what she brings to the campaign. With it, Harris has a mission, and she’s on it.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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