Below the fold is a detailed account, adapted from my Wall Street Journal Online column, of the behind-the-scenes struggle over the abortion plank of the Democratic Party.
The executive summary:
The Obama forces engineered an interesting and potentially important compromise. It moved the platform in the pro-choice direction on a few things in order to get pro-choice forces to agree to a key request from pro-life liberals: language affirming and supporting women who choose to carry the baby to term instead of having an abortion.
The Democrats had always talked about “freedom of choice” but usually spoke only of one choice, having an abortion. Pro-life liberals are convinced that many women have abortions for economic reasons, so providing them with support could actually reduce the number of abortions more than the Republican approach of emphasizing legal restrictions. (That argument summarized here.) The platform provides the outlines of a potential Democratic argument for reducing abortion number while preserving abortion rights.
The compromise tells you a great deal about Obama’s possible governing style. He did not put forth specific language ahead of time. His team worked quietly behind the scenes with different constituencies – pointedly declining to ever have the factions in the room at the same time. The resulting compromise got support from both the pro-life liberals and pro-choicers. Like most such compromises, it can and will be criticized for not gong far enough in either direction
In fact, a few days ago, I was one of the people who accused them of “squandering” an opportunity. Now that I understand how this came down, I’m a bit more impressed with what the Obama campaign did. Once it became clear that the pro-choice forces would not agree to strong language demanding a reduction in the number of abortions — a stand that could cost the Democrats dearly in the fall — the Obama camp was faced with a choice. They could try to roll the pro-choice groups. That would have made a big splash and appealed evangelicals and Catholics, but would have alienated pro-choice groups and splintered the party. Or it could have worked toward a compromise that would gain some modest ground for pro-life forces while getting support from both sides. They chose the latter.
It’s classic Obama, really. Ultra-pragmatic, consensus-buidling, favoring incremental steps in the right direction over broad culture war battles. Stated in negative terms, the left-wing attack on Obama (he’s a compulsive compriser) is far closer to the truth than the right-wing caricature (he’s ideological radical). More positively (?), he’s not a cross between JFK and MLK. He’s a cross between JFK and LBJ.
But the plank will end up as meaningless if Obama doesn’t push the Third Way approach aggressively. He spoke a bit about it at Saddleback but it was overshadowed by his lousy answer on whether determining the beginning of life was above his pay grade. Dropping a sentence or two into Q&As is not going to do the trick, especially given the attacks against him as a pro-abortion extremist.
The abortion issue is stuck in a particular groove. Both pro life and pro choice forces have something in common: they like to focus on questions about legal restrictions. Most Americans take a different view, wanting abortion to be legal despite thinking that it’s wrong. The Democratic Party plank opened the door to a new abortion politics, but it’s far from clear that Obama is going to plunge through the door and attempt to rally the country behind a Third Way approach.
UDPATE: A conservative argument that the platform actually became more pro-choice.
Adapted from The Wall Street Journal Online
Barack Obama has cast himself as someone who wants to forge common-ground solutions. Reporters have looked for examples from his time in the Senate and the Illinois legislature.
But one need not look that far back. His latest test was over the abortion plank of the Democratic Party platform, and it’s hard to think of a more challenging political balancing act.
On the one hand, he has become convinced that he has an opportunity to win large numbers of evangelicals. On the other, the abortion-rights groups are important constituencies to the party, and winning independent women will be crucial.
And then there was the Hillary Clinton factor. “There was a sensitivity in the campaign with how the language would play with Hillary supporters,” says Rachel Laser of the Third Way, a progressive group that has helped forge a platform compromise.
The Obama campaign made a crucial decision – not to have the abortion rights and antiabortion forces meet. “It was a cordial harmonious process in which neither side talked directly to each other,” said Michael Yaki, the platform director who worked on crafting the abortion plank. During July he held about a dozen face-to-face meetings with groups in a conference room at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington but always made sure that pro-life and pro-choice sides were not scheduled back-to-back lest they bump into each other.
A Trio of Progressive Evangelicals
On the evangelical side, the key players were the Rev. Joel Hunter of Northland Church, the Rev. Tony Campolo, a progressive evangelical who was on the Democrats’ platform committee, and the Rev. Jim Wallis, leader of Sojourners. Each was politically progressive in other ways but firmly anti-abortion.
Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good were the leading Catholic advocacy groups for the pro-life position.
On the pro-choice side, the key players represented the National Abortion Rights Action League, Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List and the National Organization for Women.
At no point did the pro-lifers push hard for legal restrictions on abortions, including partial birth abortions. But they did push for clear language casting the Democratic Party as supporting a reduction in the number of abortions and not merely a reduction in the “need” for abortion. As Dr. Hunter explained, emphasizing a reduction in the need was backwards – making it sound like the real goal was stopping unintended pregnancies and abortions were a side effect.
Politically, the Obama campaign’s faith outreach coordinators, Joshua Dubois and Mark Linton argued that having some sort of abortion reduction agenda would help win religious voters – especially moderate evangelicals and Catholics – in swing battleground states.
But the pro-choice forces adamantly insisted that the word “need” remain. “Reducing the need is the only terminology that the pro-choice community is comfortable with – for good reason,” says Ms. Laser, who conveyed those views to the Obama campaign.
The pro-choice forces had two concerns. First, they feared that calling for reducing the number of abortions could lead to more legal restrictions on abortion. The pro-life progressives, Ms. Laser and the Obama campaign had to convince the pro-choice leaders that they could embrace abortion reduction without it eroding legal rights. “There’s been this fear factor that somehow looking for common ground will mean the demise of abortion rights. There was an intense fear of the slippery slope,” Ms. Laser says.
Their second fear was that the language would somehow stigmatize women who had abortions – “that it’s a morally wrong decision,” Ms. Laser says.
Avoiding Moralistic Language
Mr. Yaki viewed this as the landmine that could blow up the discussions. He decided to avoid moralistic language, including any direct statement that the party wanted to reduce the number of abortions. “We deliberately steered the language from having any morality put into it because it would have been difficult to agree on the definition of morality – Biblical, societal, individual. Once you go down that path, the ability to reach a compromise would have been limited.”
Instead, he tried to craft the plank so “either side could put their own moral gloss on the language.”
In the end, the pro-life people capitulated on that point – accepting language saying the party wanted to reduce the need for abortion not the number of abortions — and worked with Mr. Yaki to achieve a different goal: getting in language that encourages and supports women who choose to have the baby.
This was a big shift. In the past, pro-life and pro-choice groups had been able to find common ground over prevention – birth control and family planning – as a key way of avoiding unintended pregnancies. But this was different. Pro-life advocates wanted a parallel structure in which the party supported both choices that a woman might make when pregnant, having an abortion or carrying to term. Indeed, they believe that many women have abortions because they can’t afford to raise a child.
The pro-choice advocates feared ulterior motives. If we make it seem like having the baby is preferable, won’t that lead to legal restrictions?
Installing a Pro-Choice Lock Box
Mr. Yaki assuaged their concerns by beefing up previous platforms’ language on a woman’s right to choose. “We put a woman’s right to choose in a lock box and strengthened the language significantly,” he says. “We needed it to assure that we were not backtracking.”
Once the women’s groups became comfortable with that, they were willing to go along with allowing the “other choice” to get prominence.
The language was dramatic: While the 2004 platform said Democrats “stand proudly” as supporters of Roe v. Wade, the 2008 platform became even more emphatic: “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”
In exchange for that strengthening, the pro-choice forces then went along with language that champions and supports the choice of a woman to carry the baby to term: “The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre- and post-natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs.”
Some have complained that the platform lacks a conscience clause.” The 2000 platform had said “we respect the individual conscience of each American on this issue.” The 2004 platform dropped it. Some pro-lifers had wanted that back in – but they didn’t make it a top priority and the clause was not restored. Yaki also thought the conscience clause didn’t add much coming off as “a weak apology” instead of real respect.
What about the language that had been in the platform in the 2 previous campaigns that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” I had assumed that it was the pro life people who wanted to keep that in and the pro choice folks who wanted out. Not so, say Yakki and Lasar. Yakki said the term had become meaningless since it had not been backed up with specifics. Lasar agreed: “We’ve felt that the time for the party to make clear tha the rare goal is not an afterthought. It’s equal priority.”
The final language was vetted with senior Obama campaign officials, including Karen Korbluh, Anita Dunn, Heather Higginbottom and Dana Singiser.
The Obama campaign’s style was revealing. Through most of the process, the campaign did not dictate the language or even signal what it wanted the outcome to be. However, they included the pro-life progressives as in the conversation, which by definition changed the terms of debate. “There was a genuine concern how, not just the pro-choice communities whose opinion they dearly valued, but how a broad constituency of others felt about the language, including Catholics and evangelicals and leading pro-life Democrats,” says Ms. Laser. “The concern was genuine.”
Mr. Yaki described the result as “progress–small, but significant.” It gives pro-life Democrats a platform off which they can advocate abortion reduction in even stronger terms. “All the ingredients are there for those who want to see an abortion reduction agenda but still within the context of a woman’s right to choose,” he says. “For the first time, the Democratic Party is using ‘reduce’ and ‘abortion’ in the same sentence, and for the first time it talks about the decision to have a child and supporting that decision. The breakthrough was affirming that from the choice position, there are two paths and heretofore the Democratic Party had only talked about one path” – abortion, not carrying the child to term.
After the platform was announced both NARAL and the pro-life forces praised the platform. NARAL President Nancy Keenan emphasized the stronger language protecting abortion rights. “The language in this platform reaffirms, in the strongest of terms, the Democratic Party’s solid commitment to a woman’s right to choose as defined by Roe v. Wade,” she says. “We are pleased that the party adopted language that is consistent with NARAL Pro-Choice America’s work to ensure that women have access to a full range of reproductive-health options, including preventing unintended pregnancy, bearing healthy children, and choosing safe, legal abortion.”
Pro-life liberals hailed it, too, emphasizing different points, of course. “The platform takes a significant step forward in affirming those whose moral convictions lead them to make a different decision than abortion,” declared Jim Wallis.
Dr. Hunter argued that this approach will actually reduce the number of abortions more than the Republican approach, which focuses on legal rights and judicial appointments. “Every indication is that with financial support and different forms of supporting pregnant mother and then some post birth help also we could come close to 50% reduction in abortions. That’s huge. That’s huge,” he said. “If we insist on keeping this an ideological war we’re literally not saving the babies they could save.” He even feels that Democrats could “steal the thunder from those who are seen as traditionally pro-life.”
Dr. Campolo said it was a real step in the right direction and urged Sen. Obama to go even further in his personal language.
Obama Touts Plank at Saddleback
And at the candidates forum at Saddleback Church on Saturday, Sen. Obama did just that. “I’ve now inserted this into the Democratic Party platform, is how do we reduce the number of abortions?” Sen. Obama said. “The fact is that although we have had a president who is opposed to abortion over the last eight years, abortions have not gone down and that is something we have to address.”
After the Rev. Rick Warren pushed him to talk more about legal restrictions, Sen. Obama returned to this theme: “What I can do is say, are there ways that we can work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, so that we actually are reducing the sense that women are seeking out abortions? And as an example of that, one of the things that I’ve talked about is how do we provide the resources that allow women to make the choice to keep a child. You know: Have we given them the health care that they need? Have we given them the support services that they need? Have we given them the options of adoption that are necessary? That can make a genuine difference.”
So if abortion is a test case of Sen. Obama’s ability to find common ground, how did he do?
His team and allies did succeed in crafting a plank that opposing camps could agree on. They showed skill at mediation and bridge building. They made pro-choicers feel comfortable taking a new step but reassuring them on their basic concerns. They made pro-lifers give in on several small points to get one big victory.
But they did all that in part by stripping the language of fire. Once you know the history and negotations, it’s sort of an impressive accomplishment. But to the naked eye, it’s hardly a rallying cry for a third way.
The public is accustomed to viewing the abortion debates about being about legal rights. Sen. Obama’s approach – to be pro-choice but reduce the number of abortions by making it easier to choose birth instead of abortion – is new, and likely to be viewed with suspicion by both sides. Given Sen. Obama’s consistent pro-choice voting record, it will be tough to get this third way approach to break through.
So far Sen. Obama has not given a major policy address on abortion or included it in advertising. He usually only discusses abortion when asked, often during interviews about his faith. Sen. Obama now has an innovative policy approach on abortion. The question is whether he will have the political courage to really sell it. And if he doesn’t, what does that say about his commitment to change?