For Democrats, the issue of abortion is a hardy perennial. They turn to it in hope of persuading voters that Republicans, in their opposition to abortion, are extremists and antiwoman.
At this week’s Democratic National Convention, this effort is a centerpiece of the strategy to discredit Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, his running mate Paul Ryan, and GOP candidates in general. But there’s a problem: This line of attack has never worked. And the likelihood it might in 2012 is more remote than ever.
Democrats call themselves progressives. But on abortion, they are reactionaries. They hark back to a moment two decades ago when it seemed they might defeat their pro-life, antiabortion antagonists once and for all. Republicans were on the defensive, but only briefly. The pro-abortion moment was fleeting, a false spring.
Since the early 1990s, the trend has been against an unrestricted right to abortion—better known as abortion on demand—which is the goal of leading Democrats, including President Obama, and pro-abortion organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America that have become pampered interest groups of the Democratic party.
Grassroots Democrats, in contrast, have much in common with Republicans on abortion. As Kristen Day of Democrats for Life of America points out, one-third of Democrats are pro-life. “That means almost 21 million Democrats share this label,” she says. And support among all Democrats for limitations on abortion is strong.
Evidence of this comes from a Gallup poll in 2011. Among self-identified Democrats, 61 percent favor parental consent for underage females seeking an abortion, 60 percent back a 24-hour waiting period, 84 percent back informed consent prior to an abortion about the risks involved, and 49 percent support an ultrasound requirement.
Given these numbers, one might conclude that Democrats for Life of America would play a prominent role at the convention. It won’t. Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards and NARAL president Nancy Keenan have been invited to address the convention in Charlotte. Democrats for Life is relegated to holding a “town hall meeting” outside the convention hall at a nearby Crowne Plaza hotel.
The decision of Democratic officials to highlight abortion is revealing. In a recent Gallup poll, less than 1 percent of Americans listed abortion as a top concern. Yet it’s the focus of attacks on Republicans and the link to the “war on women” that the GOP is supposedly waging.
What’s striking is the lack of anxiety among Republicans about this onslaught. On the contrary, Republicans should be thrilled that Democrats are raising social issues, says GOP consultant Jeffrey Bell. For decades now, polls have indicated that Republican candidates, at the presidential level and below, are the beneficiaries.
The emphasis on abortion is a reflection of Democratic weakness in the 2012 campaign. It’s a distraction—an intentional one—from the overriding economic issues Democrats would rather not discuss. And it underscores the need to arouse the enthusiasm of their base by invoking an issue that is part of the ideological DNA of many Democratic activists—but is otherwise marginal in the politics of 2012.
Most women aren’t Democratic militants. Female voters believe the election “is about a different type of women’s issue—providing for their families in an ongoing stagnant economy,” a Romney adviser told me. “Democrats risk looking oddly out of kilter with their messaging if the voters are laser focused on one issue while they’re talking about something else.”
But give Democrats credit for ingenuity. They’ve come up with a variety of specious grounds for labeling Republicans extremists on abortion. One is that the pro-life position of Republicans causes women more than men to vote for Democrats, thus creating the gender gap. This is untrue. That gap is based on other issues—Social Security, the role of government, domestic spending, financial security. The proof: It occurs in races where the Republican candidates are pro-choice, not just where they’re pro-life.
Another reason is that the Republican platform is allegedly more extreme in opposing abortion than ever. True, the language was altered a bit this year, though not in substantive ways. For instance, the platform notes for the first time that “abortion endangers the health and well-being of women and we stand firmly against it.” And the boilerplate about acknowledging “differing views on this question,” as the 1980 platform put it, was dropped.
On abortion, as on other social issues, Democrats have a reliable ally. Whenever they attack Republicans on the issue, the media reflexively rise in horror at the GOP’s audacity and intolerance. When Brian Williams, the anchor of NBC Nightly News, interviewed Ryan the day after his speech accepting the vice presidential nomination, the exchange went like this:
Williams: A lot of your speech was devoted to leadership. But that could be construed as ownership. Are you prepared to leave this gathering and own the fact that the platform of this party allows a woman who’s been raped no exception but to carry that child to term?
Ryan: Well, I think the platform is silent on that particular issue. . . . Mitt Romney’s position is that there are exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother.
The media have their own abortion exception. They usually treat party platforms as irrelevant documents of no news value—except when Democrats accuse Republicans of going off the tracks on abortion (or other social issues). Suddenly we have a big story. But when Republicans flay Democrats for refusing to condemn sex-selection or partial-birth abortion, you guessed it. No news there.
The alliance between the media and Democrats went into high gear when Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri talked about “legitimate rape.” This was national news that every Republican candidate in the country had to answer for. Sadly for Democrats, Republicans instantly repudiated Akin and urged him to drop out of the race. The Akin flap now lives only as a staple of Democrats’ speeches.
However much Democrats zing Republicans at their convention on abortion, two facts prevent them from making political headway. The pro-life movement is on the march, the pro-choice side is losing altitude. It shows in the biggest poll number of all. In May, Gallup found that 50 percent of Americans consider themselves pro-life, only 41 percent pro-abortion. That’s a new high for one side, a new low for the other.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.