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October 26, 2008

Dems play both sides of abortion issue in congressional campaigns

Two contrasting views of the Democratic Party's use of the abortion issue in this year's election have emerged in recent press reports.  When one reads them together, a fascinating picture emerges of how the Dems are deploying and funding anti-choice messages in the conservative House districts that they hope to pick up from Republicans while simultaneously playing up pro-choice messages in districts where that works for them. Pragmatic or just smarmy?

The strategy is pretty clear: say whatever works on the social issues in order to capitalize on the wave of anger and frustration bordering on desperation that is about to sweep Obama into office and possibly change the face of Congress. And hey, I've got no desire to stand in the way of that.

Realistically, this is American politics: each of the two parties has a dominant position on issues related to sexuality, gender and reproduction, but neither is willing to forego inclusion of (a few) candidates who take opposite positions. There's nothing new in this; in fact, what's new historically is how ideologically coherent the two parties have become.  Leftists have been proclaiming, since time began, it seems, that there's no real difference between the two parties.  At some meta level, as in how the two and only two political parties will function in a superpower post-capitalist state, that's correct.  But it's also true that for most of the post-WWII period, the conservative southern Dems had far more in common with conservative midwestern Republicans than with the northern wing of their own party, etc. (And frankly, that's the source of a lot of the "good old days, cross-aisle friendships" that DC blowhards like to reminisce about.) By comparison, today's Dems and Republicans are models of philosophical coherence.  

So it's bemusing but not surprising to see the Dems chase votes with whatever abortion argument plays in the home district, as these two articles, from today's N Y Times and the current American Prospect, so unwittingly illustrate.

The New York Times

[Montgomery, AL Mayor Bobby] Bright is one of a dozen anti-abortion Democratic challengers the party has recruited to run for the House this year and has aggressively supported with millions of dollars and other resources in culturally conservative districts long unfriendly to the party.

That is the highest number of anti-abortion candidates the party has fielded in recent memory to run either for open seats or against Republican challengers, according to party strategists and a leading anti-abortion organization. It is a strategy that that has received little attention in an election year dominated nationally by a grim economic picture and an unpopular president....

...[T]his year, the party has not only gone to great lengths to recruit such candidates, it has also provided them significant financial backing, underscoring a new pragmatism within the party, said Kristen Day, the executive director of Democrats for Life, an anti-abortion group. “This is the year that pro-life Democrats have received the most support from the party in Washington,” said Mrs. Day...

The American Prospect

... this year, Democratic political operatives have been surprised by the success they've had in deploying pro-choice messages. Congressional campaigns from New Jersey to Nevada have picked up on the trend, and outside groups spreading the word are not just usual suspects like NARAL and Planned Parenthood, but also the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

"We didn't use it as much in 2006. Voters then were really focused on Iraq and the economy," says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who is working on several House and Senate races this year. "I was surprised, honestly. You think the economy and nothing else will break through, but this is breaking through."

Lake points to a number of factors that are making the issue key this cycle. It's a presidential year, and the president's choice of Supreme Court justices (the next president could nominate several) are deeply important at a time when court-watchers anticipate several challenges to Roe. This message is aimed squarely at moderate and independent women whose more conservative views on other issues have often trumped their pro-choice beliefs. In previous years, it hasn't seemed possible for one or two judicial appointments to tip the scale in favor of overturning Roe, but that changed during the Bush years....  


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Hi, Nan. I am not sure that being "pragmatic" and "smarmy" are mutually exclusive concepts in politics. Great analysis.

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