Political Hay

The Dems’ Pro-Life Gambit

They're serious about being nicer to pro-lifers, if only out of desperation. Should the GOP worry?

By 12.19.04

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Journalists in Washington have been buzzing for days over reports that House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is backing former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer for Democratic National Committee chairman.

Why? Because Roemer is pro-life. Could the staunchly pro-choice San Francisco Democrat really be putting her support behind this guy?

Yes. While Pelosi hasn't officially endorsed Roemer, she did urge him to run. "Brendan Daly, spokesman for Pelosi, said the congresswoman ... would not oppose an antiabortion leader (for) the party," reported the Boston Globe.

That's only the latest is a series of signals suggesting that the Democratic Party is starting to rethink abortion politics. After years of being implacably pro-choice and scornful of anyone who disagreed, Democrats are beginning to realize that their position may have been hurting them more than they realized.

"We're very encouraged," Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, told the Boston Globe. "I think people are starting to wake up and say we can't alienate this whole wing of our party."

For years Democrats simply assumed that a stridently pro-choice stance was a popular, winning issue. As everyone knew, it was the Republicans who lost votes on abortion because of the grip the religious right had on the party.

The 2004 election has blown that theory away. After all, 60 million people voted for President Bush, the largest number in history of the republic.

A survey by Democrat 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%.

Then there's the fact that Bush beat Kerry among Catholics, 52%-47%, according to a CNN exit poll. That's despite the fact that Kerry is Catholic and Bush isn't! Pro-life politics may help explain Bush's 4% uptick among Latinos, another highly religious group.

A mid-summer poll by Pace University and MTV's Rock the Vote found that 54% of first-time voters think abortion should either be illegal or available only in "the most extreme cases."

Liberal pundits have taken notice.

"The zeitgeist (has) shifted: Abortion is no longer seen as central to sexual liberation but rather as much more troubling and problematic," said the Washington Post's Richard Cohen. "Over the years, the so-called right-to-life movement has changed some minds."

Well, there's nothing like to cold slap of an election loss to make somebody rethink their priorities. Since November, Democrats have been trying to find ways to reach out to those pro-life voters, or at least dim their support for the GOP.

They installed Nev. Sen. Harry Reid, who has voted pro-life in the past, as their new Senate leader. (Reid is reportedly also supporting Roemer for DNC chief.)

Democrats are also straining to sound moderate when discussing abortion.

"We have to be open to people who are pro-life," Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, and another man bidding to be DNC chief, told reporters Friday.

Even Howard Dean, yet another DNC chief wannabe, has taken that approach. He told NBC's Tim Russert, "We have to stop demagoguing this issue." As TAS's own George Neumayr has noted, there's ample to reason to doubt that Dean has changed his personal views.

In fact, neither Dean nor any other prominent Democrat has called for the party to actually reopen the debate on abortion -- proof of the enormous clout the pro-choice lobby still has within the party. Rather, Democrats appear think they can win over some pro-life voters by being a little nicer to them.

But simply tolerating pro-lifers within their ranks would represent a significant shift for the party. Until recently pro-life voices have been completely shut out, preventing even the possibility of debate. As a consequence most Democrats have only heard one side of the issue.

So it might only take a few stubborn pro-life Democrats to re-ignite the debate. After all, it wasn't that long ago that the party was actually divided on abortion.

The prospect of a Democratic Party open to pro-lifers has pro-choice forces understandably worried. It should worry Republicans too.

For decades now, the GOP has been able to count on the Democrats driving pro-lifers into their waiting arms. Someday they might actually have to fight for those votes.

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About the Author

Sean Higgins is a writer in Arlington, Virginia.