Democrats Are Playing With Fire On Abortion Rights

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The Democratic Party is currently embroiled in internal tensions over a longstanding, core issue among its progressive base: a woman's constitutional right to receive an abortion, and whether unity on that issue should be mandatory for Democratic politicians. And if you're a progressive who deeply cares about reproductive freedom, you might be wondering: During a period of exile for the party, with control over precisely zero branches of government, why are Democrats backing away on reproductive rights? Why put the rights of millions of progressive women throughout the country on the back-burner at the precise time you need them most?

For some essential background, this whole fracas began when Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders stumped for Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello, who has a record of personal opposition to abortion — opposition which manifested politically in his support for a 20-week abortion ban, among other things, back in 2010.

The fact that Perez and Sanders were campaigning with him was met with outrage from reproductive rights advocates, inflaming criticism of Sanders' willingness to compromise on abortion rights, despite his very uncompromising attitude on economic justice. This led Perez to publicly declare that all Democrats should back pro-choice policies, which then led to the following rebuke from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, as reported by The Washington Post.

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Suffice it to say, Pelosi doesn't want abortion to be a litmus test for Democrats, citing her experience growing up in a family of traditionally Democratic-voting Catholics:

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. Most of those people — my family, extended family — are not pro-choice. You think I’m kicking them out of the Democratic Party? ... In our caucus, one thing unifies us: our values about working families. Some people are more or less enthusiastic about this issue, or that issue, or that issue. They’ll go along with the program, but their enthusiasm is about America’s working families.

It's no surprise that Pelosi's remarks have drawn criticism, because this is an issue at the searing edge of progressive politics right now. Mere months after Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton lost the presidency to Donald Trump — on one of the most progressive platforms in the party's history, no less — many insiders now have an eye toward moderation to try to win over working-class conservatives and Trump voters. Specifically, white working class voters ― contrary to the conventional wisdom, working class voters of color voted against Trump in overwhelming numbers, and Clinton won a higher share of the working class than Trump did.

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Obviously, it's a tricky position to be in politically, since for Democrats to actually compete in traditionally red areas (like Mello in Omaha), it would likely demand some form of compromise or centrism in some areas. But it's also not at all the direction the party's grassroots is heading toward, and as such, even being perceived as turning their backs on women's reproductive rights carries a tremendous political risk for Democrats. If they start moving away from championing abortion rights, there simply will not be a political party strong enough to protect them from ceaseless Republican-led attacks.

All the same, however, the Democratic leadership seems intent on learning what could very well be the wrong lesson from 2017, doubling-down on the same strategy of trying to appeal to typical centrist, suburban Republican voters that Clinton pursued. Further splintering the party by abandoning progressive women on such a deeply personal and essential issue may carry far more political risk than Pelosi suspects.