Kamala Harris finally finds her moment and her message

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the Emily’s List National Conference and Gala, Tuesday in Washington.

Vice President Kamala Harris has not had an easy go of it. From thankless, unsolvable issues (e.g., Central America’s corruption and violence) to poor staff picks to snippy and misogynistic coverage, she has gotten off to what can charitably be called a rocky start. But in the wake of the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion reversing Roe v. Wade, she seemed to find her voice and gravitas.

Harris began with a statement Tuesday that struck a balance between abortion specifically – “opponents of Roe want to punish women and take away their rights to make decisions about their own bodies” – and the general danger to Americans – “if the right to privacy is weakened, every person could face a future in which the government can potentially interfere in the personal decisions you make about your life.”

Fortuitously, Tuesday night was the annual gathering for Emily’s List, an organization dedicated to electing pro-choice women. Though Harris used the word “abortion” just four times, she spoke with righteous anger and steely determination:

“Those Republican leaders who are trying to weaponize the use of the law against women – well, we say, ‘How dare they?’ How dare they tell a woman what she can do and cannot do with her own body? How dare they? How dare they try to stop her from determining her own future? How dare they try to deny women their rights and their freedoms? …

“They want to ban abortion in every state. They want to bully anyone who seeks or provides reproductive health care. And they want to criminalize and punish women for making these decisions.”

Though she was speaking to a group focused on abortion, Harris restated her broader message, too: “When the right to privacy is attacked, anyone in our country may face a future where the government can interfere with their personal decisions – not just women; anyone,” she said. “And it has never been more clear which party wants to expand our rights and which party wants to restrict them.”

She then used a term too few Democrats employ: “freedom.” “We must link arms in this fight. I invite all people to join us,” she said. “If you stand for freedom, for self-determination, for the right to privacy – if you stand for these principles, stand with us.” She added that “women’s issues are America’s issues. And democracies – democracies cannot be strong if the rights of women are under attack.”

Several points are noteworthy. To begin with, Harris is ideally suited to speak to the issue, not only because of her prosecutorial background but also because of her focus on the disparities in maternal health care for White women and Black women. She can authoritatively make the case that the draft opinion’s impact would be devastating to women of color who might have to choose between an illegal abortion and a life-imperiling pregnancy. Her obvious passion (and authentic emotion) regarding the issue will be critical in the legislative fights ahead, the midterm elections and beyond.

Second, Harris is absolutely right to frame this as an issue of freedom. In a recent poll, 70% of Americans said that women, advised by their doctors, should be entrusted with determining whether to terminate a pregnancy; Roe’s opponents are a small minority out of step with the country’s values who seek to impose their will on every American’s right to self-determination.

Conservatives, of all people, should appreciate a call to restrict government power and to carve out a realm of intimate decisions that no government should have the power to dictate. Are we to become China, which adopted a one-child policy that required invasive surveillance and informants to control women?

Third, Harris might be well suited to take the issue to a critical audience that should not sit on the sidelines. Companies including Citigroup, Match, Yelp, Uber, Salesforce, Lyft, Levi’s, Apple, GoDaddy and Amazon (whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post) have issued statements condemning the possible reversal of Roe and in some cases set up funds to provide women with abortion services.

Harris can highlight these companies’ work, hold them up as responsible corporate citizens and cajole all employers to do the same. She can tell them that if they want to attract the best and brightest workforce, they are going to need to locate or relocate in states where their employees’ privacy and right to control their bodies will not be abrogated. She can also encourage labor unions to negotiate abortion access as part of benefit packages. Rather than threaten businesses as Republicans do these days, she can inspire and praise corporate actors who recognize women’s right to self-determination.

The court leak rocked millions of Americans, especially women, in what felt like the closest thing to election night 2016. As I’ve researched and written, the sense of desperation, vulnerability, anger and fear then did not drive women to hide under their beds. Donald Trump’s election spurred a period of remarkable civic engagement, organizing, fundraising and network-building (across the aisle in some cases). The result was seen in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

That same emotional energy must once more be deployed in defense of freedom and democracy. Harris strikes me as exactly the right person to lead that fight.