Sen. Bernie Sanders's delayed endorsement of Jon Ossoff in the Georgia special election is exposing rifts in the Democratic Party. And now two top Democratic leaders are giving polar-opposite signals about the party's abortion stance.
Over the weekend, Democratic National Committee Chairman Thomas Perez drew a line against supporting any candidates who oppose abortion rights, only to have House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rebuff him. And the split says plenty about Democrats' struggles to unify behind any cohesive political strategy -- specifically, whether to embrace purity or pragmatism.
It all started last week when Sanders (I-Vt.) conspicuously suggested that Ossoff might not be a progressive. He did so even as he was on a Democratic unity tour and was on his way to campaign for Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello. The reason that's significant? Mello in the past supported a bill requiring doctors to tell women where they can receive ultrasounds before obtaining an abortion -- a total liberal no-no these days.
Sanders eventually endorsed Ossoff, too. But then Perez took the whole thing about four steps further and declared that the party would not support any antiabortion candidates.
"Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health," Perez said in a statement, according to the Huffington Post. "That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state."
Perez added: "At a time when women’s rights are under assault from the White House, the Republican Congress, and in states across the country, we must speak up for this principle as loudly as ever and with one voice."
But apparently Democrats aren't ready to speak with that one voice on this issue -- least of all Pelosi. In a Sunday appearance on "Meet the Press," she said the party should draw no such lines and bristled at having to respond to Perez's comments.
"Why don't you interview Tom Perez?" Pelosi asked Chuck Todd when first confronted with Perez's comments. "You're interviewing me."
Todd then asked her whether Democrats can oppose abortion rights and earn the support of the party. Pelosi said yes: "Of course. I have served many years in Congress with members who have not shared my very positive, my family would say, aggressive position on promoting a woman's right to choose."
If you're a Democrat, this kind of lack of coordination and party ethos should frighten you.
This seems to be mostly a Perez flub. His line in the sand was a highly questionable political strategy from the moment he drew it. Regardless of how you feel about abortion, the fact remains that many Democrats describe themselves as "pro-life." Pew Research Center polling has generally showed about 3 in 10 Democrats say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases (though it ticked down to 18 percent in October). A Fox News poll last September put the figure at 27 percent.
And African Americans and Hispanics are particularly conservative on this issue, with a Pew poll in January showing 35 percent of blacks and 49 percent of Hispanics saying abortion should be mostly illegal. A Public Religion Research Institute poll in 2015 showed 32 percent of black Democrats opposed abortion in most or all cases.
Perez was basically declaring that a position held by 1 in 5 or 1 in 4 Democrats and lots of blacks and Hispanics is not a valid position in his party. "Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health," he said.
Pelosi knows drawing that line is not helpful. She became speaker, after all, in large part thanks to Democrats running candidates who were conservative on social issues like abortion in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and along the Rust Belt. Without winning in those areas, Democrats can't win the House, and she can't be speaker again.
Perez appears to have made a pretty stunning and bold declaration about the party's new platform on abortion rights without talking to the likes of Pelosi. It seems that in an effort to get past a momentary controversy over Sanders, Ossoff and Mello, he overcompensated -- bigly.
Either that or Perez is going to fight his own party's leadership on this issue. (And I can guarantee you Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer is on Pelosi's side given his pragmatic recruiting as head of Senate Democrats' campaign committee.) If that's the case, then they've truly got big problems.
Regardless of which it is, it's something that will be all too familiar to followers of the modern Democratic Party.
Update: Schumer did indeed seem to take Pelosi's position in an interview Monday on "Morning Joe,"
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Nancy Pelosi said forget all the nonsense you're hearing, yes, we want pro-life Catholics in our party, and if they run, we can support them. You certainly showed that in Pennsylvania, that a pro-life Catholic [Sen. Bob Casey] --
SCHUMER: Oh, I got killed. I got criticized.
SCARBOROGUH: You got killed, but he's still the senator in Pennsylvania.
SCHUMER: And a great senator.
SCARBOROUGH: That's still a vote your way.
SCHUMER: You bet. Look, we're a big tent party as Nancy Pelosi said, but we are -- let's make no mistake about it, we're a pro-choice party. We're a strongly pro-choice party. We think that's where the American people are and, in fact, if anything, are moving even more in that direction.
SCARBOROUGH: But you welcome --
SCHUMER: We're big tent party.