Why isn't Harris leading the charge against the Texas abortion law?

Why isn't Harris leading the charge against the Texas abortion law?
© Getty Images

Critics of Vice President Harris have pointed to postponed events and Harris’s reluctance to answer questions from reporters in recent days as evidence of White House efforts to scale back her role. Indeed, the recent dip in the frequency of Harris’s public appearances marks a drop-off from her historically active first 100 days in office. 

But regardless of whether Harris’s schedule adjustments are indicative of White House efforts to minimize her missteps, the relative absence of the vice president’s voice on one agenda item in particular — the administration’s ‘whole of government’ approach to protecting women’s abortion rights — stands out.

My research on the deployment of White House surrogates suggests Harris’s limited comments on the Texas law amount to a missed opportunity for the Biden administration. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The key to successfully mobilizing presidential proxies is matching up speakers with issues where they have the most credibility, and using those opportunities to build support for administration priorities. 

Few Democrats have more credibility on reproductive rights than Harris.

There are several reasons putting Harris at the helm of the fight against Texas Law SB8 is a no-brainer. The most basic ones come from years of social science research that shows female politicians are perceived to be more competent on issues of reproductive rights than their male counterparts, and that voters (especially women voters) are more likely to perceive women politicians’ beliefs on abortion as reflective of their own. As we saw in 2020, female Democratic presidential candidates continually set the agenda on abortion rights, instantly and compellingly condemning a restrictive 2019 Alabama law, for instance, while their male competitors waited to respond. 

Even compared to other Democratic candidates, Harris’s progressive credentials on abortion have tended to set her apart. Harris memorably challenged then-candidate Biden on the Hyde amendment during a Democratic primary debate, asking him whether he regretted withholding reproductive health resources to poor women and women who were victims of rape and incest.

Then there is Harris’s legal background as a prosecutor, which seems to be a natural fit to lead efforts the president has directed, in part through the White House Counsel and Gender Policy Council, to use “every lever” of the federal government to respond to the Texas law. Harris released her own proposal in 2019 to require Department of Justice pre-clearance for states with a history of curbing reproductive rights. 

ADVERTISEMENT

While Harris drew criticism for her inconsistent positions on Medicare For All and mandatory school busing during the 2020 campaign, her statements on abortion rights, by contrast, have been clear and unapologetic. Harris asked Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughGraham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally Senators denounce protest staged outside home of Justice Kavanaugh MORE in a viral moment of his confirmation hearing: “Can you think of any laws that give the government the power to make decisions about the male body?” That’s the Harris the White House needs. 

Yet instead, Harris has been tasked with tackling issues where the administration’s position represents a notable divergence from her own, such as illegal immigration, or making progress on issues like voting rights where there is no legislative path to success in the current Senate. 

Of course, it is difficult to tell whether the thorny issues in Harris’s portfolio, or other well-documented problems, such as reported disorder in her office, unforced errors during high-profile interviews, or the tougher standards to which the public sometimes holds women of color, are to blame for Harris’s sinking approval ratings. Indeed, research has shown that Black women are often considered to be more progressive than they actually are, an unfair obstacle that Harris may have to contend with if she is the party’s nominee in 2024. It is also possible that the White House may be hesitant to attach Harris to an issue that has often been stereotyped as a “women’s issue,” opting instead to delegate duties traditionally closely associated with the presidency, like foreign policy. 

But considering the stability of public opinion on abortion (a majority Americans think abortion should be legal in most cases), widespread legal consensus on the unconstitutionality of the Texas law, and Harris’s personal political history of leadership on reproductive rights, it is hard to understand how this messaging strategy, in a White House that prides itself on leaving little to chance, was overlooked. 

Lauren A. Wright, Ph.D. is an associate research scholar and lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University. She has written two books on presidential politics, including “Star Power: American Democracy in the Age of the Celebrity Candidate” (Routledge, 2020). Follow her on Twitter @drlaurenawright