On Abortion, Democrats Need to Adjust to Political Reality

Candidates in a Democratic presidential debate, November 20, 2019, Atlanta, Ga. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

The Born-Alive Infants Protection Act passed by unanimous consent in the U.S. Senate in 2002. In 2003, in Illinois, state senator Barack Obama opposed a bill that was essentially identical to it.  Running for president in 2008, he told the Christian Broadcasting Network that he would have voted for the federal bill and that the Illinois bill that he voted against was different. “From what we can tell, Obama misrepresented the facts during [that] interview,” a reporter for the Washington Post wrote in 2012.

Earlier this week John McCormack noted that Obama in 2008, after he had clinched the nomination, told a different Christian media outlet, Relevant magazine, that he had long supported state restrictions and even prohibitions on late-term abortions. Had he really? “A review of news coverage of his position on late-term abortion shows that Obama only began to emphasize his support of a ban this year [2008] and did so in religious media outlets and settings and on Fox News,” Sarah Posner reported at The American Prospect at the time.

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“Maybe Obama’s comments” back in the summer for 2009 “were insincere,” John wrote back in July. In 2003, after all, Obama had “suggested that the government should not restrict late-term abortion at all. But his 2008 remarks were at the very least a concession to political reality, an indication of what he thought a Democratic candidate had to say to get elected.”

On abortion, Democrats at the national level in 2020 have clustered around the same approximate position that Obama held before he began to moderate his rhetoric for the 2008 general election. Democratic presidential candidates find themselves shackled to a minority opinion on this emotional issue, as Maggie Astor documented in her report on Monday in the New York Times. According to Gallup, three fourths of Americans think that abortion should be illegal at least under certain circumstances. Only one fourth think that it be should be illegal under no circumstances. National Democrats have thrown their lot in with that one fourth.

No one expects Democrats to swivel all of 180 degrees and declare for the opposite minority position, that abortion should be illegal without exception. But that so few will swivel a few degrees to align themselves emphatically with the majority who think that abortion should be both legal and restricted is curious. The hard line that most Democratic candidates have taken will hurt the eventual nominee in the general election even if it doesn’t hurt them much in the primaries. Either they fail to appreciate what the polls tell them about the general election or they think they can use their campaigns to influence public opinion on abortion.

It would be in their self-interest to show some flexibility, like tall buildings that are designed to sway a little in heavy wind. Public opinion on abortion is stronger than their ability to change it. In the 1990s, a brief spike in pro-choice sentiment was followed by a brief spike in pro-life sentiment, but otherwise the trend line has been close to flat. The Gallup numbers in 2019 are almost exactly what they were in 1975.

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