Here we go again. I do not want to revisit this topic so soon, but I have no other choice. Reporters this year are still missing a big story: the marginal status of pro-lifers in the Democratic Party. Journalists should be asking hard questions. How is it possible that Sen. Ted Kennedy feels, as Jim Wallis told Amy Sullivan, "kind of trapped by the liberal side" on abortion? Why haven't Democratic presidential candidates accommodated pro-life voters, such as by favoring some restrictions on abortion or some legal protections for unborn infants? Is there evidence that pro-life Democrats will vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama based on their promise to reduce unwanted pregnancies?
These questions are germane. After all, numerous Democratic leaders have urged that (the presidential wing of) the party find a place for the pro-lifers in their ranks. John Kerry did after he lost the 2004 election, as did Stanley Greenberg and Matt Hogan in 2005. All three urged that the party do more than talk about contraception, but also the need to reduce the number of abortions.
Instead of posing tough questions, journalists have avoided the topic. The result is a ghost -- a big ghost that haunts three recent stories about the two parties, social issues and religious voters. It's the ghost that will not go away. Check out this transcript of a recent Pew Forum event on Democrats and the "God gap."
Meanwhile, Kenneth P. Vogel of The Politico unearthed a mini-scoop: Barack Obama's position on abortion was once more libertarian. In his first run for elective office, in 1996, Obama filled out a questionnaire from an interest group this way:
Consider the question of whether minors should be required to get parental consent -- or at least notify their parents -- before having abortion.
The first version of Obama's questionnaire responds with a simple "No."
The amended version, though, answers less stridently: "Depends on how young -- possibly for extremely young teens, i.e., 12- or 13-year-olds."
By 2004, when his campaign filled out a similar questionnaire for the IVI-IPO during his campaign for U.S. Senate, the answer to a similar question contained still more nuance, but also more precision. "I would oppose any legislation that does not include a bypass provision for minors who have been victims of, or have reason to fear, physical or sexual abuse," he wrote.
The evolution continued at least through late last year, when his campaign filled out a questionnaire for a nonpartisan reproductive health group that answered a similar question with even more nuance.
"As a parent, Obama believes that young women, if they become pregnant, should talk to their parents before considering an abortion. But he realizes not all girls can turn to their mother or father in times of trouble, and in those instances, we should want these girls to seek the advice of trusted adults -- an aunt, a grandmother, a pastor," his campaign wrote to RH Reality Check.
"Unfortunately, instead of encouraging pregnant teens to seek the advice of adults, most parental consent bills that come before Congress or state legislatures criminalize adults who attempt to help a young woman in need and lack judicial bypass and other provisions that would permit exceptions in compelling cases."
Vogel's information, while revealing, lacks context. Readers are not told which voters might be offended, or enthused for that matter, by Obama's answers. Certainly, pro-life Democrats will conclude that, like John McCain on Roe v. Wade, his true views may be more liberal than his publicly stated positions.
Dan Gilgoff of Beliefnet also had a scoop-lette: both the Clinton and Obama campaigns have hired outreach coordinators for Catholic voters. For anyone who has read Amy Sullivan's informative The Party Faithful or this article, this will come as news. What Gilgoff failed to mention was whether these coordinators, as well as pro-life House members, might reach out to Catholic pro-life Democrats. Instead, his story referred to fairly old news -- the exclusion of Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey 16 years ago:
The Obama campaign has been buoyed by a string of recent endorsements from high profile Catholics, including Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, Jr.-- whose father was famously denied a speaking slot at the 1992 Democratic convention because of his pro-life views -- and Douglas Kmiec, a conservative legal scholar and legal counsel to Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News wrote about presumptive GOP nominee John McCain's "quiet" outreach to Reagan Democrats and Catholics:
Mr. McCain's plan to win the White House includes an appeal to Christian conservatives, long a crucial GOP voting bloc, as well as to more moderate independent voters and so-called "Reagan Democrats," many of them Catholic. ...
One in four voters is Catholic. Once overwhelmingly Democratic, they more recently have moved toward the GOP, drawn by the party's opposition to abortion and the appeal of Ronald Reagan.
Slater's summary of Catholic political behavior is misleading. Long before pro-life Catholics were drawn to Reagan, they were driven out of the Democratic Party (see here, here, and here) in the late 1960s and early '70s by university-based liberals, who allied with the feminist and youth movements rather than Catholics and working-class whites. No wonder that Richard Nixon in 1972 became the first Republican to win the Catholic vote since Calvin Coolidge.
The pro-life Democrat ghost that haunts these three stories is troubling. It reminds me of David Broder's acknowledgment after the 1980 election that reporters were ignorant of and unwilling to write about the Christian evangelicals who flocked to Reagan. Reporters should not be surprised if history repeats itself this fall.