The Democratic Party should not impose support for abortion rights as a litmus test on its candidates, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Tuesday, because it needs a broad and inclusive agenda to win back the socially conservative voters who helped elect President Trump.
“This is the Democratic Party. This is not a rubber-stamp party,” Pelosi said in an interview with Washington Post reporters.
“I grew up Nancy D’Alesandro, in Baltimore, Maryland; in Little Italy; in a very devout Catholic family; fiercely patriotic; proud of our town and heritage, and staunchly Democratic,” she added, referring to the fact that she is the daughter and sister of former mayors of that city. “Most of those people — my family, extended family — are not pro-choice. You think I’m kicking them out of the Democratic Party?”
Those comments from one of the Democrats’ most powerful and high-profile women come at a moment of opportunity and struggle within the party. It has been shut out of power in Washington, controlling neither house of Congress nor the White House, and its ranks have been decimated at the state and local level.
Given Trump’s unpopularity and the recent stumbles that Republicans have made in Congress, Democrats have great hopes of making significant gains in the 2018 midterm elections. But the opposition party is also gripped by an internecine battle for its own identity, moving leftward with calls for ideological purity by portions of its activist liberal base while also trying to reach out to the rural, working-class Americans who turned against Democrats last year.
Abortion has become a flash point.
Newly installed Democratic National Committee Chairman Thomas Perez and former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) came under criticism by abortion rights advocates during their “unity tour” last month, when they appeared together at a rally for an Omaha mayoral candidate who has sponsored legislature bills to restrict abortion.
Perez responded with a statement declaring that support for abortion rights is “nonnegotiable” for Democrats, and that they should speak with “one voice” on it.
At the time, Pelosi bristled at the party chairman’s comments, saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on April 23 that “of course” it is possible for an abortion opponent to be a member of the Democratic Party. She added that she has served for many years in Congress with colleagues of her party who do not share her own liberal views on the subject.
On Tuesday, she went further, arguing that the Democrats cannot afford to enforce an ideological test on the abortion issue.
“In our caucus, one thing unifies us: our values about working families,” Pelosi said. “Some people are more or less enthusiastic about this issue or that issue or that issue. They’ll go along with the program, but their enthusiasm is about America’s working families.”
She also suggested that the party’s presumed rigidity on social issues is one reason that Democrats were unable to appeal to segments of the electorate that might otherwise have been in tune with their broader agenda.
“You know what? That’s why Donald Trump is president of the United States — the evangelicals and the Catholics, anti-marriage equality, anti-choice. That’s how he got to be president,” she said. “Everything was trumped, literally and figuratively by that.”
Pelosi’s comments drew a guarded rebuke from Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a leading abortion rights advocacy organization.
“Encouraging and supporting anti-choice candidates leads to bad policy outcomes that violate women’s rights and endanger our economic security,” Hogue said via email.
The platform approved by Democrats at their national convention in Philadelphia last year “went further than the Party has ever gone to stand up for the women’s rights. It didn’t just seek to protect abortion access — it sought to expand it,” Hogue said. “If the Democratic Party is going to gain back power, it can’t go backward, it can’t back down and it can’t trade away these principles.”
Polling indicates that a significant portion of people who consider themselves Democrats do indeed have misgivings about abortion, which has been legal nationally since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Surveys by the Pew Research Center have generally found that about 3 in 10 Democrats say that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
Pelosi expressed doubt whether any hard-line antiabortion candidate could win a Democratic presidential primary. She also noted that the debate over abortion no longer boils down to whether a candidate is for or against the basic right to the procedure, but rather over whether and what types of limits should be imposed.
As a result, “within the Democrats, I don’t think that you’ll see too many candidates going out there and saying, ‘I’m running as a pro-life candidate,’ ” she said. “It’s how far are you willing to go on the issue — but let’s not spend too much time” on the subject.
“It’s kind of fading as an issue,” she said. “It really is.”
Pelosi pointed to Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) as a case study in how the Democrats tolerate diverse views. Casey describes himself as personally opposed to abortion, but he has also fought alongside other Democrats against efforts to withdraw federal funds from Planned Parenthood.
“Bob Casey — you know Bob Casey — would you like him not to be in our party?” Pelosi said.
That name has particular resonance within the party. Casey’s late father, Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, was denied a speaking spot at the 1992 Democratic National Convention when he asked to present a minority report opposing the party’s platform plank on abortion, which declared “reproductive choice” as a “fundamental right” that should receive government financing.
In the wide-ranging interview, Pelosi expressed satisfaction at the fact that Republicans in Congress have thus far failed to overturn the health-care law that was the signature domestic legacy of the Obama administration — and one of her own greatest legislative accomplishments when she was House speaker.
Pelosi was able to win passage only after adding assurances that the new law would not use government funds for abortion. She also recalled: “Look, we worked with the nuns. The nuns helped us pass the Affordable Care Act. The nuns. The Catholic nuns — thank God for the Catholic nuns. The Catholic hospitals are speaking out against” the current GOP legislation to overturn the law.
“Do we subject them to a test and say, ‘Before you speak out on this bill, we want to know where you are on this, that and the other thing?’ ” Pelosi said. “No. No.”
David Weigel contributed to this report.