Once again, the big issue is abortion. And while the happy-days-are-here-again headlines will be playing big in the mainstream media in the wake of the House health care vote, the cold reality is that once again, Democrats have chosen a politically risky course, which will likely further alienate them from the center-right majority in the country. Indeed, the tricky tactics used by the Democratic majority in Congress to enact Obamacare in 2010 will be remembered alongside the Supreme Court’s divisive decision on Roe v. Wade back in 1973. In both instances, conservatives did not start these political-cultural battles, but in both instances, conservatives are destined to win them.
The dam broke loose in favor of Obamacare on Sunday afternoon, when Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) announced that he was supporting the legislation, after all. Stupak had been arguing for months with his fellow Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, over pro-life protections in the bill--specifically, the absence of a blanket prohibition against federal funds being used to finance abortions. For months, Stupak had insisted that he and as many as 11 fellow Democrats could not vote for the bill as written and passed by the Senate in December, because of those missing abortion provisions. And for a while, it seemed that Obamacare might founder on that issue. Indeed, as recently as Saturday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a letter: “With deep regret, but clear in our moral judgment, we are compelled to continue to urge House members to oppose the Senate bill unless these fundamental flaws are remedied.”
The “fundamental flaws” that the bishops identified were not remedied because pro-choice Democrats were just as firm the other way--and pro-choicers are far more numerous and powerful inside the Democratic Party. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said on Saturday that 50 Democrats would walk away from the deal if the Democratic leadership made any concessions to Stupak on abortion.
But on Sunday, Stupak blinked. Of course, he would prefer to say that he squeezed a vital concession out of the White House; President Obama announced that he would issue an Executive Order codifying the funding prohibition. Immediately thereafter, as part of an obvious arrangement, Stupak and many of his Democratic allies went to the microphones to announce their support for Obamacare. “I've always supported health care reform,” said Stupak. But he added, “There was a principal that meant more to us than anything, and that was the sanctity of life.”
But many close observers don’t believe that Stupak’s deal with Obama protects that sanctity. That’s the opinion of most Right to Life leaders, including William Saunders, senior vice president of legal affairs for Americans United for Life Action, who dismissed the efficacy of Obama’s Executive Order in Sunday’s edition of The Washington Examiner; Saunders noted that it could be overturned by the courts at any time, or simply rescinded by the president. Saunders concluded: “Congress failed to deliver a statutory prohibition on abortion funding in health care reform, and an executive order cannot do the job.”
We will find out soon enough, of course, but if history is a guide, it won’t be long before pro-choice activists find some legal or regulatory way to poke holes in Obama’s figleaf of an Executive Order. And then, of course, will come the political backlash from the broad middle of the country. Most Americans don’t like to think about the abortion issue, but when the issue heats up, the majority gravitates to the conservative side of the issue.
That’s been the story of the past four decades, although liberals never saw it coming. To get a glimpse of their thinking, we might go back to The New York Times editorial in the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision, published on January 24, 1973. Needless to say, The Times supported the decision, calling it “a major contribution to the preservation of individual liberties,” but what’s interesting is how wrong the Times was about the future direction of abortion politics. The “verdict on abortion provides a sound foundation for final and reasonable resolution of a debate that has divided America too long,” The Times wrote, even as Catholics and evangelicals--once pillars of the Democratic Party--were starting to mobilize against the Court decision. And that was a major reason why the old New Deal coalition broke up.
The enduring power of that conservative backlash was noted, and lamented on the 30th anniversary of Roe by journalist William Saletan, a writer for the liberal Slate.com, in a book entitled "Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War." As Saletan observed, “The people who hold the balance of power in the abortion debate are those who favor tradition, family, property . . . Liberals haven’t won the struggle for abortion rights. Conservatives have.”
The next year, of course, pro-life George W. Bush went on to win re-election to the presidency, and Republicans made substantial gains in Congress. The Republican hegemony cracked up over Iraq and the economic meltdown in 2006 and 2008, but, as we have seen since then, the natural conservative majority--newly energized by the Tea Parties of 2009--is quickly reconstituting itself.
That’s why so many analysts expect to see huge Republican gains in the coming midterm elections this November. As House Minority Leader John Boehner reminded his forces on Sunday, “A 'yes' vote for this government takeover of health care is a 'yes' vote for sending hard-earned tax dollars to pay for abortions.” That will hurt, out in the Heartland.
But of course, the fight will go on much longer than that. The abortion issue, like life itself, refuses to go away.
James P. Pinkerton is a writer and Fox News contributor. He is the editor/founder of the Serious Medicine Strategy blog.
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