BOSTON — As delegates gathered at Boston’s Fleet Center on Monday, a smaller group of loyal Democrats met a few blocks away at the state capitol to mull over the party’s future — and their role in it.
Democrats for Life of America, Inc., a pro-life group, had hoped to have one of their own speak at the convention this year. Instead, they were given the brush-off.
They were clearly disappointed. But they’ve come to expect that kind of treatment ever since the late Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey was blocked from giving a pro-life speech in 1992. For all its rhetoric about inclusiveness, the party shuns its own pro-life wing.
And yet these pro-life Democrats say they’re not going anywhere. Former Boston mayor and ambassador to the Vatican Raymond Flynn said they would save the party’s soul — and perhaps it’s life as well.
“The people here in the Fleet Center are not bad people. They just want to win elections,” he told the group, which included Eunice Shriver and Bob Casey Jr.
“We just need to prove to them that Democrats can win as pro-lifers.”
A long time ago, Democrats did.
In the 95th Congress (1977-8), the Democrats had a 292-seat majority that included 125 pro-life Democrats. To many Democrats, the pro-life stance it seemed a natural fit with the party’s self-image as defender of the little guy.
That changed in the 1980s when the party became pro-choice. “Reagan Democrats” now had one more reason to join the other side. They did and soon the party’s pro-life wing began to shrink.
Today, in the 108th, the Democrats have 206 seats and about 30 pro-life Democrats. To pro-life Democrats it is not a coincidence that the party’s loss of its majority status coincided with the disappearance of their fellow pro-lifers.
The remaining pro-lifers have tried to make this point to party leadership, with little apparent success. They argue that if the party would only compete for pro-life votes rather than giving them up to the Republicans it could make inroads into “Red” Bush states.
Democrats could even make inroads to the youth vote that way.
MTV’s Rock the Vote released a poll Monday that found that 41% of first-time voters, an overwhelming plurality, think abortion should be legal only “in the most extreme cases.”
Another 13% want it outlawed entirely. Overall 54% of first-time voters lean pro-life.
“It’s more bad news for the pro-choice movement,” said Hans Riemer, Rock the Vote’s political director.
But winning those voters would require the Democratic Party to cross its dominant, and well-funded, pro-choice wing — something party leaders are not willing to do.
For example, earlier this year, Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) asked DNC head Terry McAuliffe to simply put a link on the DNC web site to DFL’s website. Even a token gesture like that was rejected.
So it’s hardly surprising that a speaking role was out of the question.
“It would have been a nice refutation of the GOP’s characterization of the Democratic Party” as too liberal, said Massachusetts Speaker of the House Tom Finneran.
One pro-life Democrat, Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, is getting a prime-time convention slot, only it’s at the Republican convention.
At their private event Monday, the pro-life tried to ignore their party’s snub and remain upbeat.
“Science is on our side,” Finneran said. Ultrasound technology, with its ability to look inside the womb, is changing public opinion he said.
There are other reasons for pro-life Democrats to think they might yet emerge from the shadows. The decision of some Catholic bishops to refuse communion to pro-choice lawmakers has raised alarm bells in the party.
And then there’s Kerry’s recent claim that despite voting pro-choice, he is personally opposed to abortion.
“A lot of people say that,” said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life. “But he’s never said that before.”
UPDATE: During his pro-stem cell research speech Tuesday evening Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) appears to have snuck in an oblique pro-life reference.
He said: “I am fully committed to protecting life at every stage.” According to Ms. Day, he’s a pro-life Democrat.