The most disturbing thing to emerge from this week’s badly bungled Democratic “Unity Tour” staged by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and new DNC head Tom Perez was the fact that the only thing on which the two men seemed to easily agree was that reproductive rights are not necessarily fundamental to progressive politics. This led to uproar and outrage among some precincts of the left, and eventually to mea culpas and “clarifications” from Sanders and Perez. But it is worth closely examining this fight over the importance of reproductive rights in the party because it is an argument that the Democrats seem to rehash over and over and over again.
To recap: On Wednesday, Sanders gave an interview in which he said that he “didn’t know” if Jon Ossoff, the Democrat who the day before had earned more than 48 percent of the primary vote in a longtime Republican House district in Georgia, was a progressive. It was an odd move for a powerful left-wing politician on a tour to rejuvenate Democratic politics to fire a shot of ambivalence at a Democratic candidate in any tight race, but it felt especially egregious given that Ossoff was now facing Karen Handel, a virulently anti-choice Republican who was forced to leave the Susan G. Komen Foundation in 2012 after trying to sever the organization’s ties with Planned Parenthood, and who actively supported voter-suppression efforts as Georgia’s secretary of State.
Sanders’s definition of what constitutes a progressive became even murkier when he suggested that the election of Heath Mello, who’s running for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska — and who as a state senator sponsored a 20-week abortion ban and mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking abortions — would represent a “shot across the board, that in a state like Nebraska a progressive Democrat can win.” Not to be outdone, Perez amplified the message that reproductive rights are negotiable for the Democratic Party. “If you demand fealty on every single issue,” Perez said, “then it’s a challenge. The Democratic Party platform acknowledges that we’re pro-choice, but there are communities, like some in Kansas, where people have a different position.”
Well, sure. There are also communities in Kansas where voters have different positions from Democrats on immigration reform, labor protections, climate change, voting rights, and health care, and it would be vexing — and not at all progressive — for post-2016 Democrats to alter their stances on any of those issues.
This Unity Tour was supposed to be a means for Perez and Sanders to pull together left-leaning voters, still divided after the spirited primary between Sanders — the democratic socialist whose campaign brought in millions of voters excited about a left-leaning populist agenda — and Hillary Clinton, who was pulled to the left by Sanders and beat him by 3 million votes, becoming the ultimately unsuccessful nominee. Sanders, who is an Independent, has been describing this moment as a chance to “radically transform the Democratic Party,” and his aims are by many measures righteous: He wants to get big money out of politics and reduce the enormous power of what he calls the “millionaire and billionaire class;” he advocates for single-payer health care, free college tuition, and a higher minimum wage, and on this tour has insisted that “it has got to be that those ideas are allowed to become the dominant theme of the Democratic Party and that’s the choice Democrats are going to have to make.”
The problem is that Sanders’s vision — and the vision of Perez and the DNC — as they laid it out this week, looked less like a radical transformation of the Democratic Party and more like a return to mistakes the party has made in the past. These mistakes have nothing to do with economic equality, and everything to do with a willingness to sacrifice the rights of much of the party’s base.
For some time now, Sanders — who, it should be noted, has an extremely strong legislative record on reproductive rights — has spoken somewhat carelessly about a populist strategy that exchanges some core Democratic beliefs for the set of issues that are most important to him. “Once you get off the social issues — abortion, gay rights, guns — and into the economic issues, there is a lot more agreement than the pundits understand,” he said in 2015. In January of this year, at a CNN Town Hall, he reiterated, “Yes, of course, there are differences on issues like choice or on gay rights … But on many economic issues, you would be surprised at how many Americans hold the same views.”
Sanders is wrong that reproductive rights (or gay rights, for that matter) are separate from economic issues. The ability to control reproduction is central to women’s social, professional, and economic stability, and the women most likely to require abortion services and to be negatively affected by restrictions on access to reproductive health care are poor and low-income women, disproportionately women of color.
But he and Perez were also wrong to view compromising on abortion as part of a pragmatic political path forward and to hold up an aggressively anti-abortion Democrat as some exemplar of progressivism’s future. Heaps of contemporary polling shows abortion is not the divisive issue it was long assumed to be. In 2015, polls showed that seven in ten voters, including independents — and even in Kansas — not only supported safe and accessible abortion but were willing to vote based on that support. A postelection Pew study found support for Roe to be at 69 percent, an all-time high. Omaha, the city where Heath Mello is running for mayor, was carried by Clinton — who made the most full-throated case for reproductive rights ever offered by a presidential candidate in her final debate against Donald Trump — by eight points. (For the record, Mello released a statement on Thursday claiming that, “While my faith guides my personal views, as Mayor I would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care,” which is a lovely sentiment, except for the fact that as state senator he literally did do lots to restrict access to reproductive health care.)
There is absolutely no need to abandon women’s rights in the name of advancing progressive politics. And yet the party has done it time and again, often after losing presidential elections. It happened after the 2004 defeat of John Kerry, despite the fact that there was little evidence that Kerry’s pro-choice politics had anything to do with his loss. “I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats,” Howard Dean said in December of 2004, as he worked to become the Democratic party chairman. Many Democrats at the time reembraced the Clintonian formulation of “safe, legal and rare” — a phrase long rumored to have been the invention of Hillary Clinton — which cast abortion not as a legal right necessary to women’s autonomy and economic equality, but as a necessary evil. Clinton herself, then senator from New York, was part of the stampede away from reproductive rights, telling a group of family-planning advocates in early 2005 that abortion is “a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women.”
The deprioritization of reproductive rights was part of the strategy that helped Rahm Emanuel, chair of the DCCC, win the House for Democrats in 2006. But Ilyse Hogue, head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, argues that we should evaluate that strategy now with an understanding of its longer-term implications: “It did not result in more progressive legislation or in a durable governing coalition,” she says. “It depressed the base and predicated the rise of the Tea Party.”
Yes, the House majority allowed for a progressive win in the reform of health care, but it also led to a quagmire for progressives when anti-abortion Democrat Bart Stupak proposed an amendment to the ACA preventing federal insurance programs from paying for abortions; thanks in part to other anti-abortion Democrats, the amendment garnered enough support to pass the House, though it stalled in the Senate, and President Obama eventually broke the stalemate by promising an executive order that ensured that no taxpayer money would be used to cover abortion care. During that fight, there was much resentment directed toward the reproductive-rights activists and pro-choice Democrats who objected to passing health-care reform without equal protections and benefits for women: How could you stand in the way of greater progress?
This circular formulation, in which reproductive-rights advocates are told that they must sacrifice their issues in order to make progress on those same issues, was repeated by Sanders in an NPR interview on Thursday, in which he explained that, “If we are going to protect a woman’s right to choose, at the end of the day we are going to need Democratic control over the House and Senate, and state governments all over this nation. And 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 this one issue.”
Women have heard this argument again and again, and we have remained the reliable base of a party that has elected and elevated to positions of greater power anti-choice Democrats including Harry Reid, Joe Biden, Tim Kaine, and Bob Casey. In fact, it’s hard not to feel that it’s because of the dedication of women, and particularly women of color, to the Democratic Party — where else are they going to go? — that party leaders feel freer to take them for granted and trade their fundamental rights in obsessive pursuit of the great white male. This is how Dems always imagine that they can make inroads in red states. It’s third-way centrist bullshit.
But right now, perhaps unlike at any other moment in history, it is also crazily blind to what’s actually happening around the country, as this week’s fierce pushback to Perez and Sanders showed. As Hogue — who went on a Twitter tirade about the proposed compromise on Wednesday night — pointed out, in 2006 Rahm Emanuel could get away with de-emphasizing women’s rights in part because the organized resistance of the moment was anti-war. This time, she says, “the organized resistance is women.” In fact, one recent poll showed that 86 percent of the people making daily calls to Senate and House offices are women, most of them middle aged. And after his better-than-expected showing in Tuesday’s primary, Ossoff said, “This is a story of women in this community,” noting the “thousands of volunteers and organizers … led by women who have been pounding the pavement and knocking on doors for months.”
In the midst of one of the most activated, energized, ground-up movements in modern Democratic political history — where the energy is coming from women who remain underrepresented in state and federal legislatures — the Unity Tour, with its two men making pronouncements about what the party should do next, felt exceedingly out of touch. And the dynamic — the women doing the labor of organizing and protesting and campaigning, knocking on doors and making calls and sending postcards, while guys speak from the microphones about the need to compromise on their rights — is depressingly retro.
“Open your eyes to where the resistance is really coming from,” Hogue urged on Thursday. “There are literally millions of women who have been pouring calls into Senate offices, House offices, going to town halls, filing to run for office; we are literally three months out from the largest protest in U.S. history that was overwhelmingly women, in the name of women; that’s where the resistance is. This is the Democratic party base. So why is the place to start negotiating the place that pulls the heart out of the resistance?”
In a sign that the political pressure of a female grassroots is more powerful than ever, both Perez and Sanders responded to criticism with course corrections on Friday afternoon. Perez released a statement reading in part: “Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health. That is not negotiable.” Perez also said he fundamentally disagrees with Heath Mello’s personal beliefs about reproductive rights and that he’ll be meeting with women leaders from around the country next week to discuss “how we can make sure our Democratic candidates and elected leaders are living up to these fundamental values.” This is good news, though it prompts the question: Why weren’t women leaders central to the planning of the Unity Tour in the first place?
Sanders, meanwhile, didn’t give much ground on opening up the progressive tent to anti-choicers, but he did offer an unequivocal endorsement of Ossoff: “His victory would be an important step forward in fighting back against Trump’s reactionary agenda.”
It’s unlikely that this will be the last we see of Democrats trying to shore up populist support by sidelining women’s rights, but at least we know that this time around activists and advocates are energized and engaged and pushing back. Maybe the party won’t be doomed to repeat some of its worst history after all.
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