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Democrats and the Abortion Issue
Is the Party About to Blow Another Big Opportunity?
The apparent intention of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade has handed the Democrats a big political opportunity. Most voters want to keep Roe v. Wade. Most voters think abortion should generally be legal and an overwhelming majority favor legal abortion in at least some circumstances.
Republicans on the other hand appear ready to take advantage of a Roe v. Wade overturn by pushing for stringent abortion restrictions in many states up to and including an outright ban on the procedure. So Democrats would appear to be on the right side of public opinion on the issue and well-positioned to generate considerable political advantage for themselves in a year when there’s been little of that to go around.
But will they? Unfortunately there are abundant indications that they could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory on this one. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the response of the Democrats so far demonstrates in painful, almost crystalline detail much of what’s wrong with the party today.
Here is a (hardly exhaustive) list:
1. Median Voter? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Median Voter! Public opinion on abortion is quite complicated. It is true that voters oppose banning abortion. But it is also true that voters oppose making abortion legal in all circumstances. By about 2:1 the public favors at least some restrictions on abortion. Looked at by trimesters, the framework used in Roe v. Wade, Gallup found that 60 percent think abortion should be generally legal in the first three months of pregnancy. But that falls to 28 percent for the second three months and just 13 percent for the final trimester.
This and other data strongly indicate that the median voter position is that abortion should be available without restrictions for the first trimester and then available only with restrictions, such as for the health of the mother, thereafter. This approximates the legal situation in most Western countries and would cover close to 90 percent of the abortions that currently take place.
Yet we have the unedifying spectacle of Chuck Schumer insisting on a message vote in the Senate on a bill that would have gone far beyond Roe and the median voter in making abortion available, including in the second and third trimesters. That was in lieu of a more modest bill pro-choice Republican Senators had proposed that would have been much closer to Roe and the center of public opinion. Predictably, the Democratic bill failed to gain majority support thereby transmitting a message that Democrats support an out of the mainstream, unpopular abortion position.
Huh? This is no way to build a broad front to protect basic abortion access and oppose Republican extremism on the issue. Not to mention build momentum to help the Democrats in the midterm.
2. Activist Groups “R” Us. The obstinate refusal to court the median voter on this issue has a lot to with the influence of activist groups who disdain such an approach as a betrayal of the cause. As Matt Yglesias has remarked:
For my whole career, taking that median voter position — abortion should be legal in the first trimester but restricted afterward — would lead pro-choice groups to consider you their enemy. As a result, Democrats running for office routinely take a much more sweeping view. In the wake of the leak of Samuel Alito’s opinion, I’ve seen Democratic Party candidates for governor in Ohio and Texas take the orthodox pro-choice view that late-term abortions should be allowed.
This makes no sense politically. It makes the groups happy and the college-educated liberals to whom they cater. But it will do little to protect abortion rights and buoy the Democrats’ fortunes.
3. Language Policing. The Democrats have developed rather a specialty in coming up with new language that alienates or confuses normie voters who might otherwise be supportive of their cause. This issue is no exception.
The most remarkable example is the instructions circulated by the House Pro-Choice Caucus distinguishing “harmful” from “helpful” language on the abortion issue. Among the supposedly harmful terms was “choice” itself (!) to be replaced by “decision” and “safe, legal and rare” to be replaced by “safe, legal and accessible”. As for the rationale for getting rid of these widely-understood and successful terms…don’t ask, it doesn’t make much sense. But activist groups like Planned Parenthood have pushed this new language and Democrats have responded.
In addition, lurking in the background and also pushed by the activist groups, is the burgeoning reluctance of Democrats to use the word “women” when talking about abortion. The evolving tendency is to talk about “persons” who might need an abortion, as was in the body of the defeated Senate bill. In an earlier version of the bill, reference was made to “transgender men, non-binary individuals, those who identify with a different gender and others”.
Then there is the notorious tweet by the Women’s Law Center, reproduced here in its full glory:
In case you didn't hear it right the first time: People of all genders need abortions. People of all genders need abortions. People of all genders need abortions. People of all genders need abortions. People of all genders need abortions. People of all genders need abortions.
Insisting on this language does not seem like the best way to build the widest possible support for protecting abortion rights.
4. Issue Creep. When building support for your position on an issue, it makes sense to concentrate on, well, that issue. But Democrats have a tendency to tie one issue to every other issue they care about. This is not designed to maximize support, since it seems you need to buy into everything to support the original thing. The ACLU, which has morphed into an all-purpose left activist group, put it this way:
Abortion bans disproportionately harm:
· Black, Indigenous & other people of color
· the LGBTQ community
· young people
· those working to make ends meet
· people with disabilities
Protecting abortion access is an urgent matter of racial and economic justice.
Thought you could just support basic abortion rights? No way!
5. Turn Out the Base! Turn Out the Base! Turn Out the Base! So far, the abortion issue does not seem to have changed the basic dynamic of the 2022 election environment. Biden’s approval rating has actually declined a bit. The generic Congressional ballot still favors the Republicans and has barely budged since the Supreme Court leak.
Democrats appear to be basing their maximalist strategy around the idea that they can juice turnout with this approach to the issue. And it is true that more Democrats are saying the abortion issue is important and report more enthusiasm for voting in 2022.
But this is a slender reed upon which to base one’s strategy and political hopes, especially if pursuing a polarizing approach to an issue. The idea here seems to be that a stark choice presented to the electorate by a maximally progressive policy will produce massive turnout by Democratic-leaning constituencies (liberals, nonwhites, young voters, etc)…..but (somehow) not on the other side. That’s not the way it works. The other side gets to vote too and a very stark choice presented by the left may mobilize the other side just as much—maybe more!—than the left’s side.
This is part and parcel of the Democrats’ ongoing disengagement from the hard task of voter persuasion, which a more moderate position would facilitate. In the 2018 election, where Democrats did very well, Democratic big data firm Catalist found that around 90 percent of Democrats’ favorable margin in that election was due to vote-switching (i.e., persuasion), rather than the election’s high turnout. There’s a lesson there.
6. Electoral Demographics in the Real World. If the electorate was made up entirely of college-educated liberals, perhaps the Democrats’ strategy would make sense. But it isn’t. In reality, even broad demographic categories like nonwhites and white college-educated women that are generally favorable to the Democrats contain vast numbers of moderate to conservative voters whose views on abortion do not match up well with the Democrats’ current strategy.
In a recent poll, voters were asked whether they would favor or oppose a law in their state banning abortion after 15 weeks, except in the case of a medical emergency. The overall split was 54-41 in favor. Hispanics and nonwhites as a whole were in favor by 48-44 and white college women by 51-46.
This does not suggest an electorate thirsting for the most aggressive possible position on abortion availability.
Perhaps it’s time to revive an idea Democrats have lost track of—being a big tent party. James Clyburn, the Democrats’ third-ranked House leader, defended Henry Cuellar, the generally pro-life Democratic Congressman from Texas’ 28th Congressional district (who has now apparently survived a primary challenge from the strenuously progressive Jessica Cisneros).
Clyburn stressed that he does not always agree with Cuellar but believes divergent views are healthy for democracy. In doing so, Clyburn sent a message that the Democratic Party should not shun abortion opponents.
“We have a big-tent party, and if we’re gonna be a big-tent party, we got to be a big-tent party,” Clyburn told reporters after an evening rally at an outdoor barbecue joint. “I don’t believe we ought to have a litmus test in the Democratic Party. I think we have to bring as many people into the party as we possibly can.”
“This whole notion that you’ve got to agree with everybody on everything is pretty sophomoric to me,” Clyburn added….
He joked that he does not always agree with Cuellar just like he did not always agree with his late wife of 58 years. But he said people do not “grow” if they speak only with those they agree with.
“We have to sit down with people with whom we do not agree and try to find common ground so that you do what is necessary to continue moving this country forward,” Clyburn said.
There’s a lot of wisdom there. We shall see if Democrats manage to apply it to the abortion issue going forward. If not, it could be another big opportunity squandered.