PRO-LIFE DEMOCRATSby Fred Barnes Chicago
The Weekly Standard, September 9, 1996
NATIONAL CHAIRMAN DONALD FOWLER says Democrats "respect the right of people who disagree with us" on abortion. They can still be "good Democrats." That's the official position of the party, anyway. But here's what really happens:
* Rep. Glenn Poshard of Illinois insists pro-life Democrats like himself are routinely punished by House leaders because of anti-abortion votes. On bills with abortion-related amendments, they often vote against the party position. As a result, their party loyalty scores are lower, and they're denied committee assignments and other privileges. "There's no group in Congress that suffers more than pro-life Democrats," Poshard says.
* Pro- lifers -- roughly one-fifth of House Democrats -- contacted Leon Panetta, President Clinton's chief of staff, and other White House aides in hopes of talking about Clinton's opposition to the ban on partial-birth abortion. Clinton aides didn't call back. The president vetoed the ban.
* Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan says anti-abortion Democrats are subjected to slurs and snide remarks by pro-choice colleagues. This occurred, for example, after they voted to bar taxpayer-funded abortion and to block partial-birth abortions, according to Stupak.
* Former Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey, the party's leading pro-lifer, was contacted by the White House through an intermediary about possibly addressing the Chicago convention. (He was famously barred from the podium in New York in 1992.) He was interested. On August 16, he wrote to the president asking to speak and "give integrity to the tolerance pledge in the Democratic platform." Neither Clinton nor any aide responded.
That didn't stop Casey from coming to Chicago, where he addressed a rally and gave TV and radio interviews. Despite the party's putative tolerance, Casey called the convention "a very hostile environment." Even so, he said: "I'd rather be in the convention hall than outside."
The environment was so unfriendly that, while pro-choice Democrats defended their position inside the United Center, pro-life Democrats had to meet miles away at the Field Museum. There, several of the speakers talked more about civility and party unity than abortion. Only Stupak addressed the issue frontally. "The enormity of 1.5 million lives being destroyed every year cannot be overlooked, cannot be forgotten," he said.
Unlike Casey, anti- abortion House members got inside the hall. Some were delegates. And one, Rep. Tony Hall of Ohio, was permitted to utter several prolife sentences in a brief speech on the second night of the convention.
He and other pro-life Democrats "have felt left out by our party's position on abortion for many years," Hall said. "But this year is different." Now, with a conscience clause on abortion newly added to the platform, "the Democratic party is indeed the party of true inclusion."
But the new platform language doesn't mention that many Democrats are opposed to abortion. It doesn't mention abortion at all. And it certainly doesn't include the phrase "partial-birth abortion," the third-trimester abortion procedure opposed by three-quarters of Americans. It says only that the party "respects the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue."
To get this small, nebulous concession, Hall, Poshard, Stupak, and others had to lobby both the White House and the Democratic National Committee. They drafted three separate statements, hoping one would be acceptable. Fowler took the three to the platform committee. The result was "a middle ground of the things we gave them," says Poshard.
What's clear from this episode is that pro-life House Democrats are a timid lot. Yet they act as if they've forced a major change in direction for the party. "It's an acknowledgement we exist," says Stupak. " It's an acknowledgement we're an integral part of the party." Poshard says it is "a step in the right direction."
Casey sees the new language differently. "It's a joke," he says. Pro-life voters "won't be fooled by the tolerance language." And it won't help Clinton mollify pro-life Democratic voters, many of them ethnic Catholics, in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois.
If Bob Dole and Jack Kemp stress Clinton's partial- birth abortion veto, the president may lose 2 or 3 percent of the vote on that issue alone, says Casey. "That could be very important, if not determinative. Those are the battleground states and that's the battleground constituency."
Might some of these Democrats quit the party over abortion? Perish the thought. "Oh, gosh, no," answers Poshard. How about fighting to make the platform abortion-neutral? "We didn't want to get into a big fight," says Stupak. "We'd come up on the short end of the vote." Even Casey is leery of joining the GOP: "There are just a lot of things on the Republican side I just don't like."
Well, how about prodding Democratic officials to let Casey address the convention? Couldn't do that, say the Democratic pro-lifers. Casey had a "problem," says Poshard. He wanted to speak on abortion, not simply to refer to the subject in passing as Hall did.
In other words, he wanted to do what Kate Michelman of the National Abortion Rights Action League did. She addressed the convention solely on abortion -- from the pro- choice side. She described an abortion -- her own. "For me, it was a difficult choice," Michelman said. "But it was mine alone to make! Mine!"
Michelman didn't have to lobby, fight, or raise a ruckus to be invited to the podium, either.
Copyright 1996 The Weekly Standard