The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats could destroy the GOP — if only they would welcome antiabortion liberals

A bigger tent would make Democrats unstoppable at the polls.

A potential recruit on the Mall in January in D.C. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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The GOP was in serious trouble well before the great crackup of 2016. The Tea Party insurgency exposed serious fault lines on everything from immigration to military spending. The antiabortion wing continues to demand that the party defy its central emphasis on limited government by passing legislation that overrides the autonomy of the individual. Today, only 26 percent of Americans identify as Republicans, and with their inability to reach Latinos and Millennials, things don’t look good for the GOP’s future. If Democrats are paying attention, they could easily capitalize on the dissolution of longstanding coalitions to fatten their own.

But they’d have to change the way they think about abortion.

The composition of the GOP is ripe for such a shift, as several prominent conservatives have noted. Peggy Noonan, for example, points out the “top and bottom of the party have split.” If Donald Trump doesn’t become the Republican presidential nominee, his supporters — a plurality of Republican voters — will be even more disgruntled than they are now.

But that’s hardly an automatic benefit for Democrats. Only 30 percent of Americans identify with the party. (A record 43 percent identify as independent, and that number is 50 percent among young people.) Both parties are dangerously unstable, with dwindling numbers. Many Democrats are willing to bolt the party for Trump, and the party has been hemorrhaging legislative seats and governorships, which are at their lowest numbers since the Hoover administration. As Steve Schneck points out, the liberal coalition put together by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s is also in its final stages of collapse. Three-quarters of state legislatures are now in GOP hands, as are two-thirds of governorships. The Democratic party, Schneck argues, is now dominated by special interests of big donors of the Northeast and West Coast. The predictable results have been the central focus of Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Yet if Democrats act strategically, they can pick up some of the crumbling pieces of the GOP’s coalition, starting with antiabortion citizens. These voters began joining the Republican coalition after the 1979 formation of the “Moral Majority” group, and as of 2012 made up two-thirds of the Republican base. If Trump does wind up storming the party, his shaky record and flippancy on abortion will leave these longtime GOP voters in a precarious position. (In 1999, Trump was by his own account “very pro-choice”; nowadays he’s antiabortion, on the grounds that one almost-aborted child he knew grew up to be a “total superstar.”)

Many pro-lifers were already frustrated with a party that merely goes through the motions and lacks a coherent plan when it comes to protecting prenatal children from violence. After last year’s conservative-led effort to defund Planned Parenthood failed, Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the pro-life Christian Defense Coalition, charged Republican congressional leadership with the “betrayal” of “the pro-life community that helped elect them”; and when Republicans yet again failed to pass antiabortion legislation last year, conservative commentator Erik Erickson declared that “the pro-life movement must stop being whores of the Republican party.”

Democrats can make a home for these stranded voters. Opening a big tent to pro-lifers would not only offer a hospitable climate for Democrats who value a “whole life” ethic, which weaves together common Democratic concerns like care for the impoverished and elderly with an equal interest in the unborn; it would also put them in a good position to win the next generation. Millennials and Latinos, after all, are trending more antiabortion than any other young generation in recent U.S. history. Only 37 percent of young people think that abortion is morally acceptable — while 54 percent of Latinos think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

Recent historical research on the progressive roots of the pro-life movement in the United States suggests a Democratic coalition with space for pro-lifers wouldn’t be a novel phenomenon. As Kristen Day, president of Democrats for Life, reminds us: In 1976 there were an astonishing 125 antiabortion Democrats in Congress. Today there are three. Jim Oberstar, who was a Minnesota congressman, used to say that pro-lifers didn’t stop sending people to Congress, but rather “they just stopped sending Democrats.”

And, because roughly 20 million Democrats identify as antiabortion, it’s possible that inviting antiabortion Dems back into the fold could also reinforce the party’s numbers by heralding the return of the so-called missing pro-life Democrats, along with current Republican voters who might cross party lines.

It’s difficult to predict just how many disaffected pro-lifers currently attached to the Republican party might cast their votes for Democrats given the opportunity. But there is good reason to believe that, especially among Millennial voters, such a strategy could have meaningful returns for Democrats. In 2010, research conducted by NARAL found that there is a significant “intensity gap” between pro-life and pro-choice Millennial voters: While 51 percent of pro-lifers under 30 considered abortion a “very important” voting issue, only 26 percent of pro-choice Millennials said the same. The fact that such a high percentage of young pro-lifers consider abortion a top priority suggests that, should Democrats shift their stalwart pro-choice stance, the next generation of antiabortion voters may well lend them much-needed support. Judging by the example of 2006, such a groundswell could bring about a real, lasting boost for local and congressional Democrats.

Special interests like NARAL and Planned Parenthood demand absolute loyalty to their abortion-rights orthodoxy, that there ought to be no limits on a woman’s right to choose. Democratic legislators can’t even think about voting even for a modest 20-week limit. To put the extremity of this position into perspective, most of Europe has a legal threshold of 12 to 13 weeks and 73 percent of Americans oppose abortion after 12 weeks.

This orthodoxy also surfaces with regard to presidential candidates. In her 2008 run for the presidency, Democrat Hillary Clinton insisted abortion should be rare. “And by rare, I mean rare,” she said, a nod to the classic Clintonian formulation of “safe, legal and rare.” Yet Clinton now seldom emphasizes the goal of rarity, perhaps due to the decidedly antiabortion connotations of that aim. She has even shifted her position on the Hyde Amendment, and now says antiabortion citizens should pay for publicly-funded abortion on demand with their tax dollars. Even her support for a term-limit ban with exceptions for the “health of the mother” seems primed to bait pro-lifers with a false sense of compromise: After all, every pregnancy affects a mother’s health, and thus every pregnancy could still qualify for late-term abortion under Clinton’s careful wording.

If Democrats break the stranglehold of this orthodoxy and re-welcome antiabortion Democrats back into the party, they stand a much better chance of addressing their very serious electoral problems and avoiding the kind of disintegration facing the GOP. Democratic leadership should look to their 2006 victories, in which the party picked up a significant number of seats by running antiabortion candidates in purple districts. “There’s no way you would have had the success they had if they hadn’t fielded (antiabortion and pro-family) candidates,” John DiIulio, a former director of the Office of Faith-Based Programs, observed in 2007. That year’s pro-life Democratic victors included “Heath Shuler in North Carolina, Charlie Wilson in Ohio, Jason Altmire and Chris Carney in Pennsylvania, and Joe Donnelly, Brad Ellsworth and Baron Hill in Indiana,” in the House, and Bob Casey Jr. in the Senate. These pro-life Democrats, though crucial for passing important programs like Obamacare, are mostly gone now, victims of a litmus test. In 2009, 64 House Democrats voted against taxpayer funding for abortion; by 2015, only three did: In that time, Democrats lost 69 seats, leaving only 188 Dems to the 247 Republican majority.

Several new phenomena are unfolding in U.S. politics, and if Democrats hope to avoid further losses in uncertain times, they must return to Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy and run the best person to fit the district, which in many locales means antiabortion Democrats. Given the crumbling of the GOP coalition, the voters are there for the taking.