Howard Dean, Meet Jane Roe
A BUZZFLASH READER CONTRIBUTION
There's been a rash of stories lately about Democratic disarray and the party's fruitless search for unity and a message in the run-up to the midterm elections this November. For certain New York Times and Washington Post reporters, it has become something of a cottage industry. This type of media coverage, rife with dubious conventional wisdom, clichés, and quotes from anonymous D.C. insider sources, is as irritating as is it typical. Nonetheless (and perhaps most irritating of all), the reports that Democrats lack clarity and focus are generally true.
What was once a proud party that unabashedly advanced environmentalism, the anti-poverty programs of the New Deal and Great Society, and a woman's right to choose is now stuck cowering in fear of the Karl Rove machine. As Iraq so plainly demonstrates, Democrats are uncomfortable taking a firm stand on just about anything, no matter how much the public agrees with them. But you've all heard this criticism before. If you're reading this, it means that you read blogs, so chances are high that you've read many an exhortation for Democratic spinal fortitude. So why is this relevant now, you ask? Just look at South Dakota, where legalized abortion was declared illegal on Monday.
Poll after poll after poll has shown that vast majorities of Americans support Roe vs. Wade. Less than two months ago, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 66% of Americans want to uphold the landmark 1973 ruling, while just 25% would like to see it overturned. No matter how anti-choice activists spin it, there's a consensus in this country that safe and legal abortion should be defended and preserved. Despite this, Democrats have treated abortion rights as a losing political issue, internalizing the criticism of the radical right-wing lobby.
After the passage of the South Dakota law, Republicans with presidential ambitions, including supposed moderates like John McCain and Mitt Romney, have been falling over themselves to endorse it. Democrats, meanwhile, seem caught off guard and afraid to talk about the issue until James Carville sends them their weekly centrist talking points. While Republicans wear their opposition to abortion on their sleeves, Democrats often seem uncomfortable discussing the issue. Furthermore, when they do discuss it, they stray away from firm language in favor of nuance; much like John Kerry did in 2004. Nuanced views, however, not only leave pro-choice voters unsure and unenthused, but also fail to win over any anti-choicers, who see little grey area when it comes to fetuses.
Sadly, the Democrats feel they have reason to fear, no matter what the polling numbers are. After all, the anti-choice crowd has proven time and time again that they are organized, single-minded, and devoted to criminalizing abortion. Backers of a woman's right to choose, however, have been taking Roe vs. Wade for granted. With a majority of Americans voting for George W. Bush in 2004, one can only conclude that a large number of pro-choicers cast a ballot for a man who would make a coat hanger a gynecological instrument. Anti-choicers, meanwhile, will almost unanimously back anti-abortion politicians even if costs them their Social Security checks.
History provides us with numerous examples in which a radical, zealous minority has been able to achieve its aims. These minorities win not because of public support, but because the opposition is lackadaisical, inattentive, and insufficiently committed to defending its values.
Although I doubt it, such a scenario could play out in America, whereby a motivated and organized quarter of the population forces its warped concept of morality on the masses. For the majority to prevail, it will take a renewed commitment to Roe created by a climate of insecurity that forces voters to take their pro-choice stances more seriously. That's where the Democrats come in.
The conventional wisdom on Bill Clinton's victory in 1992 holds that economic uncertainty and the candidacy of Ross Perot propelled the Arkansas Democrat into the Oval Office. While I do not disagree with this analysis, I think that the role of abortion in the election must be seriously considered. In the backdrop of the election was a Supreme Court in a defining transitional period, grassroots anti-choice activism that climaxed with 1991's "Summer of Mercy," and a Republican base that was itching badly to see serious abortion restrictions after twelve years of Republican control of the executive. All over our culture, abortion seemed at the forefront of the political debate. These factors resulted in a revived pro-choice movement, one that suddenly saw its greatest surge in activism since the 1970's. Entertainers and media figures spoke out on the issue frequently, and an abortion rights rally in 1992 drew nearly one million people to the National Mall in D.C.
Guess what the result at the ballot box was? Women voters and candidates were so mobilized in 1992 that the election was dubbed the "Year of the Woman" in politics. With his huge victory, Bill Clinton was no doubt a beneficiary of this, winning a large majority of women with his pro-choice stance. As Democrats focus on 1994 as a precedent for taking over Congress, perhaps they should also examine the lessons of 1992.
With the mobilization of pro-choice voters in 1992 in mind, Democrats must not hesitate to make support for abortion rights central to their campaigns. The problem in the past has not been that Democrats have been too loud in their support for abortion rights-- it's that they've been too quiet. When abortion is a major issue in a campaign, one that energizes and engages voters, Democrats will benefit. Anti-choice voters are always energized over abortion, so whipping up pro-choice sentiment will not cause any more of them to turnout.
Instead of talking meekly about supporting abortion rights although personally opposing the procedure, instead of talking about wanting to find common ground and reduce the number of abortions, Democrats should be stridently and unapologetically pro-choice. No matter how well-intentioned such language is, it's unnecessary. Democrats should use the rhetoric of coat hangers and back alleys, and talk about not wanting the female genitalia to become the property of state, overseen by Dick Cheney and James Dobson. And they should talk about abortion all the time.
The events that have transpired in the past week in the Great Plains should cause Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Rahm Emmanuel to drop to their knees and thank Gawd. They've been searching for winning issues for months, and the South Dakota legislature and Gov. Mike Rounds just dropped one on their laps. By banning abortion, South Dakotans have created a great political opportunity both for Democrats and for defenders of a woman's right to choose. This is not just an opportunity to build the Democratic Party, but also an opportunity to further the pro-choice movement in general, which will always win when it can mobilize voters. It's a win-win situation for Democrats and women alike. The South Dakota GOP has decided to bring the abortion battle to the forefront of media and society, and now is the time for pro-choice Americans to hunker down in the trenches and fight back-- hard.
A BUZZFLASH READER CONTRIBUTION