News stories often point to internal squabbling among Republicans and speculate as to whether the GOP is in the midst of a civil war because of the frequent disagreements. Mainstream outlets may be missing a budding civil war among the Democrats, however. Recent comments by several Democrat leaders indicate that the party may be splitting over one of its core issues.
For years, Democrats have marched in virtual lockstep on abortion. If pro-life Democrats were endangered before Barack Obama’s presidency, they were almost nonexistent after the elections of 2010 when Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and a cadre of pro-life congressional Democrats bowed to pressure to vote for Obamacare and lost their seats as a result.
Fast forward to 2017 when Tom Perez, elected chairman to rebuild the Democratic Party in the wake of the disastrous 2016 election, seemed to draw a line in the sand last month on abortion. “Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health,” Perez said in a statement. “That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”
If support for unrestricted abortion is “not negotiable” as a litmus test for Democrats, then the donks can plan on writing off about half of the American electorate. Polling has shown that Americans are split almost equally between the pro-life and pro-choice viewpoints. When examined more closely, only small factions support either extreme on the issue. Most Americans say that abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances.
Perez’s comments have set off a battle between Democrats who favor a big tent party and those who believe that ideological purity is more important. The debate is similar to the one that Republicans have had in recent years on issues such as spending, immigration and the details of replacing Obamacare.
Some party leaders rejected Perez’s comments. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on NBC that “of course” pro-life Democrats should be accepted and supported by the party.
“I grew up Nancy D’Alesandro, in Baltimore, Maryland; in Little Italy; in a very devout Catholic family; fiercely patriotic; proud of our town and heritage, and staunchly Democratic,” she told the Washington Post. “Most of those people — my family, extended family — are not pro-choice. You think I’m kicking them out of the Democratic Party?”
Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate Minority Leader, agreed on MSNBC. “Look, we’re a big tent party as Nancy Pelosi said, but we are, let’s make no mistake about it, we are a pro-choice party. We’re a strongly pro-choice party,” Schumer said. “We think that’s where the American people are, and in fact, if anything, are moving even more in that direction.”
Some members of the Democrat base disagreed with their leaders’ inclusiveness. “It was great to see Perez discover a spine,” Erin Matson, a pro-abortion activist, told The Atlantic, adding that “Schumer and Pelosi’s recent comments are cowardly.”
“It’s about policy, not feelings or labels, and anything less than a bold stance that makes clear that the Democratic Party must be united in protecting a woman’s right to an abortion is a betrayal of a core constituency of the party,” Matson continued. She stopped short of calling big tent Democrats “DINOs.”
Elyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America noted in the Washington Post that last year’s Democratic platform “went further than the Party has ever gone to stand up for the women’s rights. It didn’t just seek to protect abortion access — it sought to expand it,” while failing to note that Democrats lost that election. “If the Democratic Party is going to gain back power, it can’t go backward, it can’t back down and it can’t trade away these principles,” she added.
“I don’t know why we would want to start walking away from folks, like myself, who have a personal conviction on the pro-life issue,” said Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), a pro-life Democrat congressman. “We ought to be able to include everyone, as opposed to saying ‘no, we don’t want these folks, even though they fight with us on jobs, even though they fight with us for economic rights, even though they fight with us on healthcare.’ It just seems to me to be very, very short-sighted.”
Nevertheless, even Bernie Sanders, the sometimes-Democrat with the cult-like following, is not immune to criticism when he deviates from the party line on abortion. Sanders drew fire from fellow progressives for his support of Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello. Mello had a pro-life voting record and reputation during his time in the Nebraska state legislature.
Pelosi later claimed to the Washington Post that the abortion is “kind of fading as an issue” for Democrats. That may be wishful thinking.
This week failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton jumped into the fray with a speech to abortion provider Planned Parenthood. “Protecting access to the full range of reproductive health care: it is a health issue, of course, it is a core economic issue,” Clinton said, quoted by The Blaze. “Women in every corner of our country understand that intimately. And anyone who wants to lead should also understand that fundamentally, this is an issue of morality.”
By claiming that opposition to abortion is immoral, Clinton has upped the ante and made it clear that pro-lifers will not be welcomed by a large part of the Democratic Party. Framing the issue in moral terms makes it almost impossible to compromise.
“I believe we can and should respect deeply held beliefs of our friends, our neighbors, our fellow citizens, even if they differ from our own,” Clinton continued. “That’s what should make America, America. But it is possible to do that while holding firm to what we know is the only right approach in our diverse democracy. Oh, yes, let’s respect people’s convictions, but never back down from our commitment to defend the ability of every woman to make these deeply personal decisions for herself.”
In other words, Democrats should respect the immoral opinions of pro-life Democrats as long as those opinions have no impact on the party platform or policies.
The decision on whether to welcome (or tolerate) Democrats who differ from the party dogma on an issue like abortion is an important one. It is very difficult for a political party to win if it is actively seeking to expel many of its members. Even if pro-life Democrats are permitted to stay, it is unlikely that the official Democrat position on abortion will change any time soon.