Bernie Sanders Defends His Support For Heath Mello, But It Still Doesn't Make Sense

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The ill-fated Democratic unity tour has met with a multitude of problems already, but the latest criticism of the trip is Bernie Sanders' support of an anti-abortion Democratic candidate. Sanders has been campaigning for Nebraska state senator Heath Mello's mayoral bid for Omaha, and despite the disapproval from some leftists, Sanders is defending the decision.

"I want him to win," Sanders told NPR last week. "We have got to appreciate where people come from, and do our best to fight for the pro-choice agenda. But I think you just can't exclude people who disagree with us on one issue."

However, some people are highly critical of Sanders' last claim, particularly when it comes to abortion access. Economic justice was one of the central tenets of Sanders' presidential campaign that he was unwilling to compromise on, and many claim that there can be no economic justice without abortion access.

"Access to abortion — the ability to decide when, and whether, to become a parent — is fundamental to the economic security of women (and other people who can become pregnant)," wrote Sejal Singh for Feministing. "If I found out I were pregnant tomorrow, and I didn’t have the right to choose, unplanned parenthood would derail my career, my educational plans, my entire economic future."

NARAL blasted Sanders and the DNC for supporting Mello, in part for the potential political consequences of Sanders' support. "The actions today by the DNC to embrace and support a candidate for office who will strip women — one of the most critical constituencies for the party — of our basic rights and freedom is not only disappointing, it is politically stupid," the organization said in a statement.

For the most part, NARAL is right — the political repercussions of Sanders' decision could be significant, and likely not in the Democrats' favor. The debate raises some serious concerns about what level of compromise is acceptable in the Trump era. Mello is only a mayoral candidate, and wouldn't have much leverage on state or federal policy, which is where the real fight for abortion access is taking place right now — if anything, getting him out of the state legislature may be the best thing for Nebraskans' reproductive rights. Plus, in terms of all the good he could do for environmental protections and infrastructure repair, two of his main issues, Mello's anti-abortion position doesn't seem like that big of a deal.

Yet at the same time, reproductive rights is one of the cornerstones of the Democratic party right now at a time when the party is lacking identity otherwise. Abortion access has been one of the most significant factors in creating of the partisan division between the left and right. Any sign of weakening on that issue could put the Democrats in trouble at every level — Republicans could start offering concessions on other issues in exchange for abortion restrictions, and voters could abandon the party if they don't stay strong on reproductive access.

Ultimately, Sanders isn't a Democrat, so he's not claiming responsibility for the future of the party. But he's one of the leaders of the Democratic party either way and he knows it. He can set precedent for future candidates and elected officials, so what he says really matters.