It has been happening, regular as clockwork, for over 30 years now: Democrats lose an election, the media asks "What's wrong with Democrats?", and there is a rush to reinvent the party. That reinvention always involves moving the party to the right, to fill the void left by the ever-rightward march of Republicans since the days of Reagan. Now, as Democrats prepare for the 2018 mid-terms, they're getting ready to do it again.
The latest controversy over the direction of the Democratic party comes in the form of anti-abortion Democratic candidates. The furor started several days ago, when congressman Ben Ray Luján, the current chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said there would be no "litmus test" for Democratic candidates on abortion. Luján told The Hill,
"As we look at candidates across the country, you need to make sure you have candidates that fit the district, that can win in these districts across America."
Luján is looking back at 2006, when Democrats welcomed a number of congressional candidates who were not fully comfortable with the official party position on abortion rights. He believes that in 2018 it will be necessary to offer up conservative candidates in some districts in order for Democrats to have a chance at taking back the House. And that means welcoming some who once again will be to the right of most Democratic voters on the abortion issue.
Some Democrats are not happy with Luján's position on the issue. New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted this:
And groups such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood also weighed in with their displeasure. NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue attacked Luján's comment in a series of tweets on July 31, saying,
"Ignoring women’s fundamental freedoms and equality to win elections is both an ethically and politically bankrupt strategy."
There's an appropriate Bible verse for this: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" Out of the many groups that form the modern Democratic coalition, women have been among the most steadfast, especially when it comes to presidential elections. Throwing a major women's rights issue under the bus for the sake of attempting to pick up some seats makes the party look like hypocrites. And it will cost the Democratic party the high ground on women's issues.
The conservative "Blue Dog" Democrat has one of the shortest lifespans of any political creature. Luján may think that the 2006 election shows that anti-abortion Democrats can win Republican districts. But Blue Dogs didn't win in 2006 because they were anti-abortion -- they won because they weren't Republicans. It's fair to say that in some of the districts taken by Democrats in that election, a moderate to liberal Democrat would have had just as much of a chance, because the public was sick of war and sick of GOP scandals, including the sex scandal involving Congressman Mark Foley, which broke only weeks before the election.
After 2006 the Blue Dogs looked like the future of Democrats. The 2008 election brought the coalition to over 50 seats in the House. But it lasted only two years. In 2010 voters swept almost half of the "GOP Lite" Blue Dogs out of office and replaced them with real Republicans. The rout was on. In the current Congress the Blue Dog caucus totals only 18 members.
Here's a bit of advice for Ben Ray Luján and other Democratic leaders who appear ready to once again move to the right in order to attempt to achieve a short-term gain. Voters don't want a choice of candidates where the main distinction between them is the "D" or "R" behind their names. President Harry Truman said it some 65 years ago, in a much better way than I can:
"If it's a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time; that is, they will take a Republican before they will a phony Democrat, and I don't want any phony Democratic candidates in this campaign."
If Democrats are going to try to win seats in moderately red districts, they should do it by offering a clear alternative to Republicans on economic issues. That is what Jon Ossoff did in the Georgia special election, and he did better than any Democrat has done in that district in years. They should talk about Trump's broken promises on jobs and improving the lot of American workers. They should talk about the Republican congressional leadership and the obsessive desire of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell to destroy programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Of course there is room in the Democratic party for candidates and officeholders who have personal concerns about abortion. We already have some, such as Tim Kaine -- who recognizes that his personal thoughts on the matter are just that: personal. But there is no room for a slate of candidates recruited to pander to voters in red districts on the abortion issue, in hopes of swaying them away from the GOP.
History has shown that while the strategy of offering a conservative Democrat to conservative voters sometimes works in the short term, over the longer haul Harry Truman was right -- they'll choose the Republican. Bringing in candidates who oppose one of the party's basic beliefs for to try and pick up a few seats is no way to build a strong coalition for the future. Is it really worth alienating female voters by ceding the moral high ground on this issue, just to try and win back the House? Democrats may or may not be successful in that attempt, but it's not going to be opposition to abortion that makes the difference.
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