Political Hay

Democrats Without Choice

They can't afford to make the fight over O'Connor's successor a showdown on Roe v. Wade.

By 7.20.05

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"Every senator, Republican and Democrat, should understand that women will not stand idle as the right wing attempts to take control of the Supreme Court and impose government interference on our most personal decisions. If that happens, I fully expect to see a political firestorm like the one we saw after the Thomas confirmation."

That's Ellen Malcolm, president of the pro-choice group Emily's List and a major figure in Democratic circles, laying down the law in a press release regarding Sandra Day O'Connor's resignation. What's noteworthy here is that she felt it necessary to direct her "Fire Next Time" warning to "every senator, Republican and Democrat."

Huh? Aren't the Democrats eager to start a knock-down, drag-out slugfest to fight off any Bush nominee who might have a question about Roe v. Wade? Maybe not. While still the pro-choice party, for the first time in years Democrats are actually nervous about the issue and how it plays for them politically. They've spent the last few months quietly but unmistakably downplaying the abortion issue in the hopes of winning over socially conservative "red state" voters.

Thus, turning the John Roberts nomination fight into a referendum on Roe v. Wade could undermine the Democrats' hopes of winning over those voters anytime soon. At the heart of the Democrats' dilemma are the two things all political parties need to survive: money and votes. Unfortunately for them, getting both has lately become a bit tricky.

For years, Democrats were convinced (as was the mainstream media) that being pro-choice was the popular, winning side of the abortion issue. To that end Democrats eagerly formed alliances with pro-choice groups. Today, the pro-choicers hold a commanding position in the party thanks to their fundraising prowess. Ellen Malcolm, for example, co-founded America Coming Together, the pro-Democrat 527 group that spent a staggering $78 million in the last election.

But, as TAS has noted before, the notion -- shaky to begin with -- that being pro-choice is always political winner has taken some serious blows lately. For example, a post-election survey by Democrat pollster Stan Greenberg found that only 17% of voters cited John Kerry's stance on abortion as a reason to vote for him while 19% cited it as a reason to vote against him, for a net loss of 2%. For President Bush, 20% cited his abortion stance as a reason to vote for him, while 12% cited it as a reason to vote against him, for a net gain of 8%. That and other data, such as Bush winning the Catholic vote 52%-47%, set off a sudden scramble by party leaders to demonstrate their inclusiveness toward pro-life voters.

New York's junior senator got headlines for saying, "I, for one, respect those who believe with all their hearts and minds that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be acceptable." DNC chief Howard Dean told NBC's Tim Russert last year, "I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats...We can have a respectful dialogue, and we have to stop demagoguing this issue."

The efforts extended beyond the rhetorical in some cases. Pro-life Democrats like Pennsylvania's Bob Casey Jr. and Rhode Island's Rep. Jim Langevin were actively recruited for key Senate races (Langevin declined). Nevada's Harry Reid, who has cast pro-life votes in the past, became the Democrats' new Senate leader.

Democrats now shy away from mentioning the subject, even when the subject is the Supreme Court. Still, the Democrats have never said they would actually rethink their fundamental stance on abortion. Given the importance of pro-choicers to their fundraising, they probably couldn't even if they wanted to. The Democrats' hope, rather, was that their overtures would defuse the issue enough that they could win over pro-life voters in other ways. Democrats were trying to "reposition" the issue, according to Slate's Will Saletan.

This approach did not sit well with some pro-choicers. Nation columnist Katha Pollitt said Democrats should "speak clearly from a moral center" and not "mince words and change the subject." Outside the view of most media, the pro-choicers have used their clout to prevent any further drift rightward.

When Reid and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi recruited Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, a pro-lifer, to run for Democratic National Committee chairman, the pro-choicers mounted a successful underground campaign to kill his bid.

So Democrats have an interest in not making the fight over O'Connor's replacement an out-and-out battle over Roe v. Wade. To do so would expose their own strategic divisions. At the very least it could damage their efforts to quietly reframe the issue, convincing pro-lifers it was all just rhetoric. Of course, given the fact that pro-choicers are some of the party's staunchest activists and control so much of its fundraising, the Democrats may find that they don't have much of a choice on the matter. Ironic, huh?

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About the Author

Sean Higgins is a writer in Arlington, Virginia.