Pro-life question creates rift over Democratic direction
Some higher-ups in the Democratic Party are taking a softer tone on abortion in a bid to win back the blue-collar voters who spurned Hillary Clinton at the ballot box, revealing a schism between the economic populists and cultural liberals over the direction of the party.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, said there is an “enormous disconnect” between rank-and-file Democrats — onequarter to one-third of whom identify as pro-life — and party leadership, to whom abortion is sacrosanct.
“As they push their party more and more to the extreme on abortion, the GOP benefits at the polls,” Ms. Dannenfelser said in a statement.
The pro-choice wing of the party made considerable gains during the Obama years, amending the party platform to endorse taxpayer funding for abortion and dropping the last term in the “safe, legal and rare” triumvirate that became the Democratic line on abortion
during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
But that leftward tilt began to show signs of reversing last week.
Asked Sunday whether there is room in the party for people who are pro-life, the staunchly pro-choice House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi responded, “Of course.”
“I have served many years in Congress with members who have not shared my very positive — my family would say ‘aggressive’ — position on promoting a woman’s right to choose,” the California Democrat said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The catalyst for rethinking the party line on abortion came in an unlikely place — the Omaha, Nebraska, mayoral race — and, ironically, during a “Come Together and Fight Back” tour spearheaded by someone who isn’t even a Democrat.
Democrats nominated Heath Mello, a pro-life Catholic, to try to unseat Mayor Jean Stothert, a Republican. Mr. Mello, a former Nebraska lawmaker, co-sponsored the state’s 20-week abortion ban and other pro-life legislation and has come under fire from abortion advocates who say he doesn’t represent the party’s values.
“If Democrats think the path forward following the 2016 election is to support candidates who substitute their own judgment and ideology for that of their female constituents, they have learned all the wrong lessons and are bound to lose,” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement.
Mr. Mello later clarified his stance on the question of abortion, telling The Huffington Post that he is personally pro-life but “would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care” as mayor.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, went to Omaha to campaign for Mr. Mello last week as part of the unity tour and defended his decision to do so.
“We have a Republican president who ran as a candidate as the most unpopular candidate in modern history in this country,” Mr. Sanders said Sunday on CBS’ “This Week.” “Republicans control the House, Senate, two-thirds of governors’ chairs, and in the last eight years, they have picked up 900 legislative seats. Clearly, the Democratic Party has got to change.”
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday supports Mr. Sanders’ conjecture that the party’s message is falling flat.
In the survey, 67 percent of respondents said the Democratic Party is “out of touch with the concerns of most people,” though 62 percent said the same of the Republican Party and 58 percent of President Trump.
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough said it’s the “cultural issues that have disconnected Democrats from a lot of Middle America.”
“I have been asking all Democratic leaders that come on here, ‘Would you be OK with a pro-life person if they were from Alabama or from Kentucky? And if they’re from Alabama and they agree with you on economics, is it OK if they’re pro-life?’ ” Mr. Scarborough said last week on “Morning Joe.”
“And I keep hearing, ‘No. No it’s not. No it’s not. No it’s not,” he said.
Mr. Trump rode a wave of Catholic support on his way to the White House, carrying the demographic by 52 percent to 45 percent.
Jay Richards, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, said the question of abortion is a nonstarter for many Catholics, who might otherwise support Democrats because of their stances on economics, immigration and the environment.
“Abortion for Catholics is not just one of a bunch of issues; it’s considered an intrinsic moral evil,” Mr. Richards said. “It’s not something on which faithful Catholics can legitimately disagree, and that makes it different from every other issue that we have debates between Republicans and Democrats on.”
Despite stumping for a pro-life mayoral candidate, Mr. Sanders endorsed but declined to campaign for Georgia congressional candidate Jon Ossoff, who is pro-choice and publicly questioned the candidate’s progressive bona fides on economic issues.
While Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez initially threw his support behind Mr. Mello, he issued a stern statement after the politician’s pro-life views came to light, even saying that “pro-choice” is now an official party litmus test.
“I fundamentally disagree with Heath Mello’s personal beliefs about women’s reproductive health,” Mr. Perez said in the statement. “It is a promising step that Mello now shares the Democratic Party’s position on women’s fundamental rights.
“Every candidate who runs as a Democrat should do the same because every woman should be able to make her own health choices. Period,” he said.
Other Democrats have also come out against the idea that the party has room for people with pro-life views.
Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said the party is open to people who are personally pro-life but not those who are willing to impose that view on others.
“We need to be understanding of those who take a different position because of personal conscience,” Mr. Durbin said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But as long as they are prepared to back the law, Roe v. Wade, prepared to back women’s rights as we define them under the law, then I think they can be part of the party.”
As a result, Mr. Richards said, he doesn’t foresee “a genuine reconsideration of the actual Democratic Party policy” when it comes to abortion.
“This is a rhetorical game,” he said. “It’s not any kind of intellectual shift. I really don’t think that’s going on.”