The Democratic party underwent an ideological evolution in Charlotte last week. They are no longer a pro-choice party. They’re the party of abortion.
In the first prime-time speech of the first night of the convention, the Democrats featured “former Republican” Maria Ciano (she’s been a registered Democrat since at least 2006). “[Republicans] want to deny me the power to make the most personal decisions about my life,” Ciano said. “The America I love respects the dignity of women. The America I love is a place where, when we say ‘freedom,’ we mean my freedom to make decisions about my life, not someone else’s freedom to make them for me.”
Ciano was followed by NARAL president Nancy Keenan, who opened by insisting that “the Democratic party believes that women have the right to choose a safe, legal abortion with dignity and privacy.” Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick agreed a short while later in his remarks from the stage, saying, “We believe that freedom means keeping government out of our most private affairs, including out of a woman’s decision whether to keep an unwanted pregnancy.”
On the second night of the convention, the Democrats continued to make appeals based on abortion rights. The head of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, opened the 8 o’clock hour on the convention stage by claiming that Mitt Romney is campaigning “to overturn Roe v. Wade,” and “we won’t let him.” Later, liberal icon Sandra Fluke promised that if President Obama is reelected, women will retain “the right to choose.” The message was unmistakable: The Democrats believe abortion rights should be a central facet of their appeal to voters.
That in itself is different. As Ramesh Ponnuru reported in his book The Party of Death, in 2004 the Democrats kept abortion talk at their convention to a bare minimum. At the time, this move was not seen as a mistake—rather the opposite. Democrats believed that it helped them keep the -election close. As John Kerry told a group of Democratic strategists in an after-action strategy session, “they needed new ways to make people understand they didn’t like -abortion. Democrats also needed to welcome more pro-life candidates into the party.” Nancy Keenan was appalled, but Democrats such as Dianne Feinstein and Donna Brazile agreed. As Brazile said, “Even I have trouble explaining to my family that we are not about killing babies.” “We’re not the party of abortion,” said Howard Dean.
That was then. Today’s Democrats didn’t just make abortion rights a key theme of their convention. They also changed the way they talk about abortion. They used to present it as a tragedy, but something they were prepared to abide for various reasons. They argued that abortion represented a failure of the social system—somewhere along the line the women seeking one had been let down, by inadequate education, or by their families, or by men, or by a health care system that denied them access to contraception. The choice to abort should be protected, but it should also be regretted.
That’s why, for a dozen years, Democrats—beginning with Bill Clinton—claimed that they wanted abortions to be “safe, legal, and rare.” In Charlotte, the word “rare” was dropped from the party’s platform and never appeared in any of the speeches.
The practical cause for this evolution is Obamacare, which paved the way for federal funding of abortion. The passage of the unpopular bill required the Democrats’ handful of remaining antiabortion congressmen to cave and follow the party. Many of them—Kathy Dahlkemper, Lincoln Davis, Jim Oberstar, Steve Driehaus, Travis Childers, and Bobby Bright, among others—were defeated as a result of their Obamacare votes. With pro-life Democrats now nearly extinct as a caucus, the abortion-rights wing of the party was free to talk about abortion the way they really think about it.
What’s strange is that the Democrats have moved one way on abortion as the country has moved the other. In surveys since 2009, Americans have been increasingly identifying themselves as “pro-life,” as opposed to “pro-choice.” In Gallup’s last poll on the subject, the gap between the two was 9 points in the pro-life direction, the widest it’s ever been.
The Democrats’ new position on abortion is probably good for the Republican party. Doubly so because Republicans didn’t even have to draw the contrast—there was barely a word said on the subject in Tampa—the Democrats eagerly drew the contrast for them.
But what’s good for the GOP will not be good for the fight against abortion in the long term. Moving away from America as a land of abortion-on-demand requires national consensus, which can only be built through moral persuasion. Moral persuasion is possible in an ideological contest. Yet once the debate over abortion passes from the ideological to the partisan, persuasion becomes more difficult. Still, the only alternative now is for the pro-life party to win, and then successfully to advance a pro-life agenda. Otherwise the Democrats will remain, it appears, a party of pro-abortion extremism.