Monday, December 20, 2004

More Nuance, Redux
We take a short break from the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth over Terrell Owens' injury to note that the debate within the Democratic Party over the politics of abortion is moving in an interesting direction, as this Boston Globe story points out:

Leading Democrats, stung by election losses, are signaling they want the party to embrace antiabortion voters and candidates, softening the image of the party from one fiercely defensive of abortion rights to one that acknowledges the moral and religious qualms some Americans have about the issue.
No prominent Democrat has suggested that the party change its long-held stance that a woman should have the right to an abortion if she chooses. But as Democrats assess what went wrong for them in November, some are urging a "big tent" approach that is more welcoming to those who oppose abortion. Democrats say that attitude might be especially useful with Hispanics, a critical constituency that tends to be Roman Catholic and whose majority support for Democrats has slipped in recent elections.
Offering a warmer welcome for antiabortion voices would give Democrats a chance at bringing back voters who might agree with the party on economic and foreign policy issues, but balk at what they perceive is an uncompromising stance on abortion, Democrats said. Republicans, they note, finessed the matter so that the party retained its staunch antiabortion platform, but paraded Republican supporters of abortion rights such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani at the GOP convention this summer.

Both camps on the abortion issue claim to hold majority support for their positions; national polls tend to differ based on how the question is phrased. Representative Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat who strongly supports abortion rights, noted that more than a million people thronged the streets of the Capitol earlier this year to demand that abortion be kept legal. But a Zogby poll conducted last year also indicated a red state-blue state divide; 57 percent of voters in states that voted for President Bush in 2000 favored restrictions on abortion or a ban on abortion, while 46 percent of voters in states that favored Democrat Al Gore would approve restrictions or a ban on abortion.

Several of the prominent contenders for the party's national chairmanship are already speaking out in favor of a "big tent" approach, including Howard Dean and Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network in addition to Roemer. It's smart politics and would move the party much closer to the "uncomfortably pro-choice" position that majorities seem to hold (and that I hold). Here's Amy Sullivan at the Washington Monthly blog on the same issue:'s long past time for the Democratic Party to realize that they continue to lose voters who aren't one-issue abortion voters but who feel unwelcome in the party because of their beliefs. Rhetoric that verges on being pro-abortion rankles even pro-choice Democrats like me. (For a nice summary of my thoughts, read this excellent piece by Sarah Blustain.) Parents who are uneasy about parental notification laws don't have rocks in their heads--they have to sign permission slips so the school nurse can give their kids Tylenol and they're not wild about the idea of that same kid getting an abortion without their knowledge. I'm not saying Democrats should back down from protecting girls in extraordinary circumstances who need to get abortions on their own. But they don't need to frame the argument in a way that implies that those who disagree with them are stone-age misogynists.

If Democrats can change the perception that they are pro-abortion, they will finally be free to go on the offensive. A majority of Americans believes that abortion shouldn't be illegal, but also shouldn't be completely unrestricted. These are people who just want to see fewer abortions taking place. Guess what? So do most Democrats--that's just not how they talk about it. A Democratic candidate should never find him- or herself arguing about who believes in a phrase like "the culture of life"; they should debate who actually does more to reduce abortion rates.

Of course, abortion rates have gotten higher under George W. Bush after years of decline during Clinton's two terms. But how often was this fact aired during the campaign? I think never. notes darkly that the party "could be asking for a internal civil war on the abortion front," which strikes me as overblown in the extreme: I don't think there are that many abortion-on-demand absolutists, and nobody is talking about even changing the party platform and established position of "safe, legal and rare" abortions; those of us who favor this change just want to see the Democrats acknowledge that people opposed to abortion rights might have some reason for their belief aside from wanting to order women around.

There's much to gain here politically, and little to lose: given the choice between a party that supports abortion rights but doesn't blanket-condemn all those who disagree; a party that opposes abortion rights but doesn't blanket-condemn all those who disagree; and an independent, 100 percent pro-abortion rights party that could never hold any policymaking authority, I would guess that most voters for whom pro-choice is the top priority will stay with the Democrats.

But please, can we get a spokesperson on this issue who isn't named "Slaughter"?

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