Political Hay

Blue Dog Backfire

The Democratic Party got more than it bargained for when it empowered its pro-lifers.

By 11.13.09

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The more liberal pundits write off the pro-life movement, the more pro-lifers prove them wrong. A prime example: the health care overhaul bill passed by the U.S. House Saturday.

The furor over the Stupak amendment -- which bans federal funds for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother's life is endangered -- shows that sanctity of life remains a prime-time issue. The economic slide, and voters' almost exclusive attention to it, makes the degree of clout the pro-life issue garners doubly significant.

Even some pro-choicers get it. Writing in Kaiser Health News, Julie Appleby says, "The abortion debate rivals the controversy over the public option, the proposal to offer consumers in the new insurance exchanges a government-run insurance plan."

That might be over-stated. Without a doubt, though, abortion coverage is one of the top three concerns for lawmakers on both sides of the isle. And, increasingly, it's becoming the No.1 concern.

But more noteworthy than a Republican-Democrat divide on abortion funding is that the issue is bifurcating the various wings of the controlling party itself.

Democrats have comfortable majorities in the House and Senate. To boot, they have a pro-abortion ally in the White House and thus have no fear of a veto. If they kept their party united, they could pass health care reform that included abortion funding without a single Republican vote.

They're finding it difficult. Similar to the scuffle over the public option, much of the threat to federal abortion funding is thanks to squabbles inside the Democratic Party -- namely, between the Blue Dog wing and Nancy Pelosi's liberal coalition.

Lawmakers from conservative districts envision campaign ads from their opponents next year trumpeting a yes-vote for taxpayer-funded abortions. Not a pretty scenario, particularly with political tides already shifting against the ruling political party.

The ironic part is that Democrats have no one to blame but themselves for the present crisis. By running conservative-leaning candidates in swing districts in 2006 and 2008, the party leadership achieved a majority by the numbers but not always by the ideology.

In North Carolina, for example, three Democrats defied Pelosi by voting against the latest health care proposal. Two of those lawmakers -- Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre -- are pro-life and represent generally conservative districts. The third, Larry Kissell, enjoyed the strong backing of liberals in 2008. But he also hails from a conservative district, and the 2010 re-election campaign doubtless weighed heavily on his mind.

Another irony is that liberal elites were quick to announce the demise of values voters after the Republican's 2006 electoral bloodbath, yet many of the candidates they elected that year are now the main cause of the health care reform holdup precisely because of abortion.

Regardless of the final legislative outcome, it's a testament to the enduring importance of the pro-life cause that 64 Democrats would jump ship by signing on to the anti-abortion language. Some did so for political reasons, others out of principle. The important part is that the issue has enough power to impact votes.

It's also a lesson for the GOP: take advantage of the issue in the 2010 elections, and don't even think about nominating a pro-abortion candidate, or a wishy-washy one, for president in 2012.

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.