Political reporters were quick to dismiss the position on abortion Kerry expressed during the St. Louis debate as "muddled." Many Democrats cringe when Kerry violates the pro-choice orthodoxy and shares his personal belief that life begins at conception. But what they miss—argues Sullivan—is that Kerry's nuanced view of abortion gives room for reasonable people to disagree at the same time that it commits him to defending reproductive rights. And in the space that Kerry creates, many swing voters could feel welcome.
Amy Sullivan is an editor at The Washington Monthly .
If you spend much time talking to political moderates —particularly if they're Catholic or evangelical—you know it's only a matter of time before someone inevitably raises the legend of Governor Casey as proof of the Democratic Party's intolerance. The story—as recounted by many a miffed pro-life voter—is that in 1992, the party originally scheduled then-Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania to speak at the Democratic National Convention and then kicked him off the program because of his pro-life views. Through consistent retellings over the past 12 years, the tale has become emblematic of the Democratic Party's unrelenting hardline stance on abortion and its failure to tolerate dissenting opinions.
As it happens, the story isn't true. Casey was denied a speaking spot at the Convention because he refused to endorse the Clinton/Gore ticket. A political party is certainly under no obligation to provide a platform for a speaker who does not support its presidential candidate.
But the fact that the legend persists and has such emotional resonance for many Americans suggests that it reflects an aspect of the modern Democratic Party that is real. And it's an obstacle to winning the support of swing voters who don't base their decision on abortion but who want to see some respect for their views.
The irony is that the rate and number of abortions dropped for the first time since Roe v. Wade during the presidency of Bill Clinton. And Clinton's oft-repeated formulation that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare"—a phrase contained in the 2004 Democratic Party Platform—reflects the sensible sentiments of the majority of Americans. But most voters associate Democrats and abortion with images of Barbara Boxer railing against abortion restrictions on C-SPAN or of signs at the March for Women's Lives that read "Abortion Makes Women Free."
Those images are reinforced by rhetoric that goes beyond passionate arguments supporting the right to choose and implies that anyone who supports restrictions on abortion is either an extremist or an ignorant, heartless right-winger who might as well belong to the Flat-Earth Society. The party not only refuses to respect the belief that there can be ambiguity on this issue, but insists that there is none. In the past, when I have talked to Democratic strategists about why the party doesn't do more to acknowledge that people of good faith can disagree about the legality of abortion, I've been told simply, "Those aren't our voters" or even worse, "Why would we reach out to pro-lifers? They blow up abortion clinics."
"They," of course, do nothing of the sort. It's important to condemn the hateful abortion extremists who do engage in awful acts of violence to advance their cause, but conflating them with all individuals who oppose abortion is dishonest and divisive.
Let's be clear. The voters we're talking about here aren't one-issue abortion voters. They don't expect the Democratic Party to change its platform, to suddenly oppose abortion rights, or to toss the choice groups to the curb. These are people who are willing to support Democratic candidates despite differing views on abortion. All they're looking for is some recognition that it's possible to be a good person and a good Democrat and have questions about abortion.
Newly minted Kerry adviser Mike McCurry acknowledged this reality recently when he told a group of campaign reporters that his candidate should talk about abortion in a way that acknowledges the genuine moral concerns and qualms of anti-abortion voters. John Kerry did just that in St. Louis last Friday night in his response to a rigged question about government funding for abortions—an issue that hasn't been the focus of abortion politics for 15 years now. Despite the setup, Kerry went out of his way to express his respect for those who oppose abortion. And then he correctly moved into a discussion of various ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
It's a conversation that those of us who are pro-choice should have an interest in supporting. Because the real solution to reducing unnecessary abortions in this country doesn't lie in banning specific abortion procedures or sending doctors to jail. It also won't be helped by marshalling all of our political resources to fight parental notification laws that strike most American voters as sensible (Bush highlighted them for a reason in his answer to the same question). Instead, abortion rates drop when unwanted pregnancies decrease, whether through better sex education (that includes, but goes beyond, abstinence promotion) or insurance coverage for contraceptives.
Bush immediately mocked Kerry's nuanced answer—"I'm trying to decipher that"—and it has been roundly criticized in the press for sounding tortured. But the reality is that the feelings of most Americans regarding abortion are tortured. It's easy to stake out a post as a pro-choice or anti-abortion extremist; it's much harder to articulate a desire to respect unborn life and protect women. I suspect, however, that Kerry's answer—particularly the reference to the influence of his Catholic faith—plays better with swing voters than with political reporters precisely because it reflects a genuine attempt to grapple with a difficult issue.
It may take a Catholic Democrat to lead the party out of an era in which politicians have lived in fear of sounding insufficiently supportive of abortion rights and of suffering the consequences of withdrawn endorsements or campaign funds from choice groups as a result. If that happens, we might actually see the day in which—upon hearing the legend of Bob Casey—listeners say, "Nah, that doesn't sound like the Democratic Party to me."