August 10, 2005

NARAL vs. Democrats

Alright, I'm overstaying my welcome chez Klein, so I figured I'd string together my various comments on why it makes sense for NARAL to withhold support from some Democrats—or even endorse Republicans like Lincoln Chafee—if the Dems insists on running pro-life candidates in blue states. Really, so long as liberals like Michael Lind are ready to sacrifice choice on the altar in order to win elections, well, then an interest group such as NARAL, dedicated as it is to abortion rights, has every reason to get a bit antsy when Kos starts muttering that we all need to hang together or hang separately. What, one asks, is supposed to happen when "we" all hang together? (As it happens, I think this whole feud is far more bitter than it needs to be—NARAL isn't by any stretch abandoning the Democratic party—but still, interesting debate...)

Call me cynical, but I don't believe for a second that modern-day Democrats would think twice about selling out a constituency or interest group for the sake of electoral gain. Not a warm and fuzzy picture of the home team, but there you go. The moment NARAL gives the party reason to take pro-choice constituents for granted, they'll get shafted. Look at black voters, or unions, over the past decade. Look at how the religious right has been roundly abused by the Republican Party. (When's that gay-marriage amendment coming? Oh right, never. Chumps. Now keep voting for us.) Parties always pander towards groups that are in danger of defecting; they know they can screw over the loyal core somewhat, so long as there are no consequences. Unless NARAL shows that there are consequences, such as endorsing a pro-choice Republican in a blue state, they'll get taken for granted. Maybe that's due to sexism on the part of the Democratic leadership, but mostly it's just the way coalitions work.

Now some have argued that NARAL should line up behind the party simply because any Democratic majority in Congress would best protect abortion rights. Kos: "When Democrats regain power, choice, the environment, worker's rights—the whole gamut—will be protected." I'm sorry, but bullshit. Hark back to 1976, when both houses of Congress, controlled by Democrats, passed the Hyde Amendment restricting federal funding for abortions. Gerald Ford signed it into law, but it was Jimmy Carter who had heartily endorsed the bill, and was ready to make it a campaign issue. A major, major victory for pro-lifers all-around, perhaps one of their biggest to date.

Then in 1993—again, Democratic control of both chambers—98 Democrats crossed the aisle to pass yet another, only slightly-weakened, version of the Hyde Amendment, and Congress also managed to swat down Bill Clinton's Freedom of Choice Act. According to the New Republic, Clinton didn't lobby very hard for choice, all in the name of "safe, legal, and rare." The notion that Democrats will always protect choice if only they can retake the majority is wrong, wrong, wrong. NARAL has every reason to feel jumpy.

Where do things stand today? Sure, Harry Reid's Democrats vote pro-choice on the biggest issue—shooting down Bush's nominees—but the judiciary is nearly lost, and Roberts' nomination will likely render abortion rights vulnerable to federal anti-choice laws. Abortion rights go far beyond Roe v. Wade; many, many pieces of legislation have been passed over the years that have restricted both funding and access for abortion, especially for poor and rural women. Would a Senate led by Harry Reid—flanked by, say, Mary Landrieu and Bob Casey, Jr.—reverse these restrictions? Doubtful. In fact, very unlikely. From NARAL's point of view, the object must be more than merely ensuring that Democrats regain power. Now obviously the current Republican party is infinitely worse, so this is a tricky issue, but that's just it—it's a tricky issue, and not the obvious "us or them" choice Kos makes it out to be. Now maybe NARAL really would be best off letting the Democrats come to power, and only then start blasting away at the pro-lifers. Or, maybe the best time to try to 'mold' the Democratic Party is right now. Lots to consider! But a few warning shots across the bow by NARAL seem entirely sensible—especially since the Democrats simply don't need to tack right on abortion to win elections.

Plus, if the Democrats aren't going to retake Congress anytime soon, it makes sense for NARAL to endorse, say, Lincoln Chaffee—who does have a stellar pro-choice record—and let people know that the organization rewards "good" behavior. Perhaps. I also don't really know what sort of power NARAL has. Sometimes it seems like a lot—from what I know, they gave Ed Rendell a crucial boost in the 2002 gubernatorial race in PA (no wonder they're miffed that the Democrats are backing pro-lifer Bob Casey, Jr., for the state's Senate seat). On the other hand, perhaps NARAL isn't really hurting the Democrats at all and this whole feud is just vastly overblown. I don't know. Nevertheless, I don't think single-issue groups should trust their political patrons come what may, although from a big-d Democratic standpoint it would be nice if NARAL did just that. That said, too much infighting will obviously prove disastrous for everyone, ala Nader 2000, so... it's tricky.
-- Brad Plumer 3:32 AM || ||