Consider four headlines about prominent Democrats that tell us quite a lot about the state of the party leadership today:
- “Joe Biden Said He Did Not View Abortion ‘As a Choice and a Right’ in 2006” — New York Times (2019)
- “By Picking Anti-Abortion Tim Kaine, Hillary Is Testing Feminists’ Loyalty” — Slate (2016)
- “Pelosi: ‘Of Course’ You Can Be a Democrat and Against Abortion” — NBC News (2017) (In fact, Pelosi actually went further and suggested that those focused on abortion access were hurting the party and abortion was “fading” as an issue for Democrats.)
- “Obama says abortion rights law not a top priority” — Reuters (2009)
I recently discussed how one important difference between conservatives and liberals in the United States is that Republicans show an understanding of strategy: how to set a political goal, work out what kinds of powers it would take to reach that goal, and then go about amassing those powers. Those who care about abortion rights need to take this lesson to heart and follow AOC’s advice in thinking about tactics and strategy.
But in characterizing the Democrats’ failure as mainly strategic, I was also giving the party’s leaders a certain amount of credit that they did not deserve. This framing suggests that while Biden, Clinton, Obama, and Pelosi were committed to protecting abortion rights, they were simply foolish and clueless about power. This may be part of the picture, but we actually need to be even more critical, because the evidence suggests that as the right has launched its successful assault on reproductive rights, the leaders of the Democratic Party have not even tried to fight back.
The common excuse for Democratic inaction is that Republicans and Democrats-in-Name-Only like Joe Manchin hold too much power, making it impossible for the party to do what it would do if it wasn’t thwarted. There is some truth in this (Manchin has certainly been a serious obstacle to the implementation of progressive policy) but in many cases, it’s false. In many cases, it’s not just that the Democrats need to gain power, but that there are already powers Democrats have that they simply decline to use. (Luke Savage and I documented some of these in the case of Barack Obama.) The above headlines show us instances in which Democrats made choices, choices in no way dictated by Republicans. Each of these choices represented an abandonment of the fight for abortion rights.
Joe Biden made it plain throughout his career that he did not believe in a woman’s right to choose, from the moment in 1974 when he said he “didn’t think a woman had the sole right to say what happened to her body” to his continued support of the Hyde Amendment in 2019, which the head of the National Organization for Women called a “shocking,” “unacceptable,” and “unsupportable” position. Barack Obama promised federal legislation to protect abortion rights, then decided this wasn’t important. Hillary Clinton presented herself as a champion for women’s rights, but then instead of choosing the pro-choice Bernie Sanders as her vice president (which would almost certainly have won her the election) she chose the anti-abortion Tim Kaine.1 Nobody made her do this. Nancy Pelosi, likewise, could have made supporting women’s fundamental rights a litmus test for Democratic politicians: to get the support of the national party, you must publicly support abortion rights. Instead, she defends anti-abortion Democrats. Why? Would we think that other basic rights are negotiable? Would she say that you can be a Democrat and not support women’s suffrage? No. Pelosi simply failed to take a stand on an important issue, probably because it’s “controversial.” But when fundamental rights are controversial, you do not abandon your commitment to them, you make it clear why they’re nonnegotiable.
Biden, Clinton, Obama, and Pelosi are four of the leading figures in the Democratic Party. They have had, at various points, immense power to set the agenda for the party and the country. They have made a decision to ditch abortion rights.
Even now, Biden is failing to respond to the overturning of Roe. As the New York Times reports today:
President Biden and the Democratic leadership had months to prepare for the fall of Roe v. Wade, and even after a draft ruling was leaked in May, they had weeks to muster concrete plans to counteract a once-unimaginable outcome that suddenly seemed inevitable. Yet as Republicans celebrated the culmination last week of a methodical 50-year campaign to topple the right to an abortion in America, the initial response from the president and his party — exhortations to vote, calls for contributions, micro-websites portraying Republicans as extremists — struck even many fellow Democrats as painfully inadequate to meet a moment of peril… So far, the centerpiece of Mr. Biden’s response has consisted of urging voters to rally behind Democrats in the midterms… Speaking from the White House on Friday as many of his highest-ranking female advisers watched from the wings, Mr. Biden advanced virtually no new abortion-rights proposals.
This should surprise nobody. Before Biden was nominated, leftists warned that his career showed he didn’t care about abortion rights (or anything else that progressives value). Nominate the man who once bragged about how socially conservative he was on “abortion, amnesty, and acid,” and you get a president whose commitment to protecting the right to choose is clearly non-existent.
The GOP is a party of deranged theocrats. I have long believed that it’s a mistake to spend too much of one’s time criticizing Democrats, or to fail to distinguish between the two parties. There are huge differences, and while I would not “vote blue no matter who” (since it is possible in theory that a Democratic candidate could be worse than a Republican), we must avoid the mistake of the German communists who once believed social democrats were nothing more than “social fascists”—only to find out just how different real fascism was. Democratic presidents appoint Supreme Court justices who believe Roe v. Wade should have remained in place. Republicans do not. I believe we should keep most of our focus on the radical right.
But we must be clear-eyed about the party’s failures, and if it’s unwise to fail to see the differences between the two parties, it’s equally erroneous to justify the disastrous Democratic status quo out of party loyalty or a belief that if one party is horrific, the party opposing it must be defensible. We can’t excuse failure merely because Republicans are worse. Besides, there is something uniquely cruel in what Democratic leaders do, and Republicans are like wolves; they do not pretend to want to do anything other than destroy our side. They explain clearly where they stand. Democratic leaders pretend to care about the things progressives care about, but then do not act like a person who cared about those things would act. They betray us. They are not like wolves, but they are like someone who pretends to be on your side, gains your trust, and then turns out not to be on your side at all. This kind of deception hurts more, and we experience a lot more anger toward a seeming friend who cruelly abandons us than toward a wild animal. Barack Obama got elected by giving people hope. Then he dashed their hopes, and turned out not to be the person he led them to believe he was. He campaigned promising to protect abortion rights and labor rights, then ditched these promises upon taking office.
Democrats are happy to raise money off the promise to protect abortion rights. The fundraising emails from Nancy Pelosi began immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision. Some women clearly find this offensive, and as it’s more and more clear that Democrats are failing to fulfill the promise of protecting choice even when they have opportunities, the “GIVE US MONEY SO WE CAN PROTECT YOUR RIGHTS” pitch may seem more and more offensive. There is nothing wrong with a party raising money to push a progressive agenda. There is a lot wrong with a party raising money on a promise to push an agenda, and then failing to deliver on that promise. That is just fraud.
It has never been clearer that the Democratic Party is in desperate need of new leadership. The party leaders have betrayed the base. As progressive Democrats propose specific steps for Joe Biden to protect abortion rights, they are being met with the response that “things are more complicated than they seem.” In the face of a full-scale crisis around basic constitutional rights, that lack of commitment is unconscionable.
PHOTO: AP Images. The fourth member of the group is Rep. James Clyburn, who last month was the subject of the following headline in the Texas Tribune: “Campaigning for Henry Cuellar, a Democratic U.S. House leader [Clyburn] says party shouldn’t shun abortion opponents.”