THE RIGHT-TO-LIFE ISSUE IS THE DEMOCRATS' ALBATROSSBy Dick Goldkamp. Dick Goldkamp was an editorial writer for the now- defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
June 6, 1988 Monday, SPORTS FINAL EDITION, June 6, 1988
As the primary election season grinds on toward the party conventions, it becomes ever clearer that the Democratic Party continues to buck a serious imageproblem in its pursuit of the nation's top office.
The party's candidates this year have all tried gamely to combat the perception that the Democrats on a national level have become the "party of special interests" instead of the "party of compassion."
I say "gamely" because the party's candidates have been working so diligently to distance themselves from any hint of radicalism, the label that has attached itself to the special interest groups which have curried the party's favor since the late 1960s: the feminists, the militant gays and the peace movement isolationists, who believe we should unilaterally disarm, disengage from foreign entanglements and wrap ourselves in a pacifist cocoon.
The Democrats' effort to disengage from the radicals has come up short, however, because of the burning issue that underlies so many others. It's the issue that none of the party's candidates this year has wanted to talk about: the right to life. It's the one thing, more than anything else, that has made the party hostage to special interests.
Simply put, the plague of abortion is the albatross that still hangs around the Democrats' neck.
Democratic leaders probably already know that, and are familiar with all thesophisticated arguments against "single issue" voting; that is, against making one issue the litmus test of a candidate's qualifications. But let's face it: The single issue charge is almost never hurled at civil rights proponents. Or atlabor union leaders worried about jobs. Or at farmers buried in debt. It's a special charge reserved for the prolife movement.
It's also a great way to try to neutralize opponents of abortion, in order to brush aside the nation's worst domestic problem since legalized slavery. America can then pretend the "the issue of the '80s" is gone.
Only it isn't. It remains right there. Abortion continues to be the most dominant moral question lurking behind the politics of Campaign '88. It has darkened the image of every Democrat in this year's race.
Very early, there was Dick Gephardt, for instance. The one factor that caused his presidential campaign to crash-land in Michigan was his change of position on the right to life. The flip-flop factor. It was the prolife movementin his home state of Missouri that put out an information package to the nation's media outlets with a detailed account of how Gephardt abandoned his long-held prolife convictions and flip-flopped on the abortion issue. Voters ceased to trust him on much of anything else.
And indeed, why should any voter place great trust in a candidate's opinionson the economic rights of factory workers in the Carolinas or farmers in Iowa, or about voting rights for South African blacks or human rights in Central America, once he has capitulated to the Democratic Party's shabby, trivializing attitude of recent years on the most fundamental civil right of all: the right of preborn children to live?
Our nation's future is tied up in how we respond to them. Without them, there is no future, in fact.
But the Missouri Democrat was far from unique. There hasn't been an honest prolifer in the whole Democratic camp. Either you favor laws to protect innocenthuman life at every stage of its development, or proclaiming yourself "personally opposed" to abortion isn't worth a shot of powder. And all the leading contenders knew it.
Take Sen. Albert Gore Jr. Much like Gephardt, when Al Gore first came to Washington as a member of the House in the 1970s, he became known as a strong supporter of prolife legislation. No sooner did he move to the Senate and develop presidential ambitions than the Tennessee Democrat suddenly became a proficient switch-hitter. Or take civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. In the '70s and early '80s, Jackson employed his considerable oratorical skills to denounce abortion loudly and often, even linking it to a form of genocide, with the black community as a special target. Very good point. Yet by 1984, candidate Jackson shifted like a reed in the wind, so that he now defends federal funding of the very same form of "genocide" that once seemed to outrage him. On the flip- flop factor, Jesse Jackson is a black Dick Gephardt.
Most of all, take a close look at Michael Dukakis, the party's likely candidate. The Massachusetts Democrat's campaign staff hasn't hesitated to preentheir candidate for photos at those lively Greek folk dances or to use his GreekOrthodox upbringing to arouse warm feelings among the nation's ethnic voters. Why, then, has Gov. Dukakis turned his back on the Orthodox community's unwavering defense of human life? On the abortion issue, he's no "pro-choice moderate." He's been a consistent, hardline supporter of legalized abortion in his home state ever since he became a public official.
No political party can afford to take the prolife vote for granted, for various good reasons. For the moment, however, the nation's top Republican leaders seem to have their heads on straighter on this issue than do their counterparts in the Democratic Party. Based on recent comments, national Democratic leaders seem to have recognized the image problem at hand. It has caused its share of headaches for awide scattering of Democrats, many of them strongly opposed to abortion, in state legislatures and in Congress. Yet this year's presidential nominee is virtually certain to wear the albatross around his neck right into the November election.
The least Democrats can do, therefore, is to eliminate any sign of support for abortion on demand from the '88 party platform. That alone would represent aquantum leap forward in helping the party rejoin the mainstream of American political sentiment.
I'm one of those disaffected Catholic Democrats who willingly backed Ronald Reagan in '80 and '84, precisely because of issues like this. Yet many of us have never come to see ourselves as card-carrying Republicans. Until the late '60s or early '70s, in fact, the Democrats had a long and spirited track record of support for the downtrodden and the defenseless-a record that once appealed to Catholics like me. There are a lot of crossover voters now, I submit, but theparty of Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy needs to back away from its narrow embrace of radical causes if it hopes to win us back. Helping to make America safe for children once again would be a good place to start.