Political extremism on the left: Democrats and abortion

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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Party platforms do not matter as once they did. Before CNN, before presidential debates, and before the imperial presidency became an entrenched fact of political life, platforms were a principal means by which political parties communicated with voters. In 1948, the Democratic National Convention fought a battle over the inclusion of a strong civil rights plank in the platform, and delegates from the South walked out of the convention when the platform plank won and they formed a third party.

In recent years, platforms have been to the nominating process what earmarks used to be to the legislative process, a way of conciliating people: Your candidate for the nomination lost? Okay, we will give you this plank in the platform. The platform gift could be symbolic, and usually was.

No delegates will walk out of the convention this year on account of the platform, and Hillary Clinton will be free to walk away from any platform plank she wishes, as a candidate and, if she wins, as president. What the platform does do, however, is register the relative power of interest groups within the party to control the levers of influence. Increasingly, as the executive branch becomes the generator of policy and not only the enforcer of laws, that influence can carry over to the myriad decisions a modern White House must make.

Just so, the decision of this year's platform committee to adopt extreme positions on abortion-related issues is worrisome. The current draft platform language reads:

We will continue to oppose -- and seek to overturn -- federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman's access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment ... we support the repeal of harmful restrictions that obstruct women's access to health care information and services, including the 'global gag rule' and the Helms Amendment that bars U.S. assistance to provide safe, legal abortion throughout the developing world.

The reference to "harmful restrictions" applies to these mostly bogus efforts by some states to shutter abortion clinics by enacting specific rules that make them impossible to operate. Given the recent Supreme Court decision invalidating such restrictions in Texas, the issue is moot and it was never central. But, the platform has never before called on the party to support repeal of the Hyde Amendment, and that is deeply problematic. (The ideological arrogance about the developing world is another issue for another day, but I will note that this is what Pope Francis means when he denounces "ideological colonization.")

First, on the merits, the Hyde Amendment merely states that federal funds cannot be used to pay for elective abortions. Federal money can be used to pay for abortions in the case of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother, exceptions that even many pro-life advocates understand are politically necessary and morally debatable. The use of federal money for elective abortions, however, cuts across one of the central arguments of the pro-choice groups, that abortion is an entirely personal decision, and that the government should stay out of it. If the government is going to stay out of the decision, as a matter of principle, it should not be expected to pay for it.

Second, repealing the Hyde Amendment is stupid politically. "Adopting this extreme position on abortion is not smart politically when we [Democrats] have lost majorities around the country," Kristin Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America (DFLA), told me. "Democrats have lost 912 legislative seats since 2010 and along with it any legislative control in the South. Instead of building up our numbers, we are cutting them down by excluding one-third of democratic voters who would rather see more focus on support for pregnant women rather than raising abortion to a core value." Mrs. Clinton may be able to reach 270 electoral votes by adopting the kind of "war on women" campaign themes that President Obama ran on in 2012, and polls show that most voters do not consider abortion the critical issue in deciding for whom to vote. But in key House districts and key Senate races, being extremely pro-choice is not helpful.

By way of example, the Democratic National Convention is being held in Philadelphia, a state which had a pro-life Democratic governor in the 1990s, has a pro-life Democratic senator today, and has a race that is critical to the party's chances to re-taking the Senate. The candidate, Katie McGinty, is pro-choice, but her chances are not helped by the Democrats lurching to a more extreme position on abortion. Democrats reclaimed the Governorship of Louisiana with a pro-life candidate, Gov. Jon Bel Edwards, who will receive an award from DFLA during the convention. The re-election bids of Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana will not be helped by the party's adopting an extreme pro-abortion plank. A "big tent" approach to the issue would serve the political interest of the party better.

Third, and perhaps most important, Hillary Clinton is running as the candidate of moderation and sanity this year. The Hyde Amendment is a testament to political compromise and moderation. On the issue of abortion, it was the last such compromise. Yet, every year, since 1977, Democratic congresses and Republican congresses have reauthorized it. It is, in a sense, more settled law than Roe itself, which has been modified a couple of times by the Supreme Court. If Clinton really wants to be a president who unites people, adopting an extreme pro-abortion plank in the platform, sticking a finger in the eye of pro-life Democrats, and caving to the special interest groups on the issue, is a strange way to begin. Whatever happened to "safe, legal and rare"?

"It is difficult to imagine a more divisive move than the abortion language found in this platform," says Fordham professor Charles Camosy, author of the book Beyond the Abortion Wars and a board member at DFLA. "Given that Clinton thinks we are 'stronger together,' and that just eight years ago just had a 'and by rare, I mean rare' position, it seems clear that those who are interested in furthering the abortion wars are actually behind this language. Tellingly, many abortion-rights activists have said they were rather see people leave the Democratic party than accept a position that is to the left of most countries in Europe."

In fact, if the Democrats were thinking of winning over pro-life Republicans troubled by Donald Trump, and there are many of them, they should be soliciting the advice of DFLA. St. Thomas University law professor Tom Berg has a great essay on the DFLA website explaining why Republican charges that the Affordable Care Act promoted abortion are weak or just plain wrong. That is the kind of message you want delivered in those parts of the industrial Midwest where Trump is giving Clinton a run for her money and where pro-life Democrats once held seats captured by Republicans. Indeed, Berg holds the James Oberstar chair in public policy, and Oberstar was one of the great pro-life Democratic members of Congress and, like so many others, in 2010 he was defeated in large part because of opposition to the ACA, much of it fueled and funded by pro-life groups that lied about the ACA.

Of course, the platforms of both parties once called for the U.S. embassy in Israel to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Republican platform still does. The embassy is not moving anytime soon. The planks were designed to throw a bone to a special interest but, of course, over time, this willingness to claim to support things one has no intention of enacting builds the sense of distrust many millions of Americans feel towards politicians. This harms Democrats more than Republicans because Democrats believe government achieves good things and the GOP is only too happy to feed cynicism about its machinations.

The underlying tensions and bad judgments I have outlined this morning will be airbrushed out of the Democratic National Convention's proceedings week after next. More important to know which celebrities will be appearing! On the GOP side, on this and all issues, discussions of policy this year seem beside the point. But, the number of Democrats who are opposed to abortion, or who have strong moral reservations about how we as a society should permit abortion, is not insignificant, especially in some of the states where Trump's anti-trade talk is also hitting home. No one expects the party as a whole to stop being pro-choice anytime soon. But, do they have to be jerks about it? 

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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