Abortion: A challenging year (continued)

800px Prolife DC 01What's faith got to do with it? Yes, it is news that the Democrats are fielding a significant number of candidates next Tuesday who are overtly opposed to abortion -- and that at least a few have a decent chance of winning.

That's the gist of Raymond Hernandez's birds-eye overview in the New York Times of a few races across the country in which anti-abortion Democrats are posing a "strong challenge" to incumbent Republicans.

But is it a ploy, part of a more comprehensive "big tent" strategy, or a real sea-change in the party -- a recognition that many principled Democratic voters oppose abortion?

How does faith inform, if it does inform, the candidate's positions?

It is easy to come away with the sense from this article that elections are about cultural signals and "codes," not principles and values.

The lede is a bit perplexing.

The political advertisement that aired in Montgomery, Ala., spoke plainly to conservative voters' values. As an image of three toddlers in diapers flashed across the screen, a narrator intoned that Mayor Bobby Bright, who is running for Congress, "supports their right to life."

The anti-abortion pitch is standard fare in Alabama's Second Congressional District, a deeply conservative area that President Bush carried twice and that has been represented in Washington by a Republican for four decades.

What makes the spot unusual is that Mr. Bright is a Democrat. And that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has been pushing hard for Mr. Bright's election, paid for it.

Errr? And the Republicans are in favor of killing toddlers?

This election season has the "highest number of anti-abortion candidates the party has fielded in recent memory...according to party strategists and a leading anti-abortion organization," writes Hernandez.

But Democratic Party strategists contend that in Congressional races, in which local sensibilities and attitudes often play as a big a role as national trends, candidates like Mr. Bright could potentially deprive Republicans of the one realm where they have enjoyed a significant advantage: social issues.

Well, according to strategists, this move is about strategy -- that's no surprise. My guess is that the candidates would (and one does, later in the story) give you a different answer.

Then the Hernandez ventures into the murky territory of what it is Americans actually do believe about abortion.

Kelli Conlin, the president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, called the recruitment strategy misguided, saying that surveys conducted by her organization showed that even some Republicans express support for abortion rights when her group described the consequences of outlawing the procedure.

"The movement to recruit anti-choice candidates ignores the larger reality that this is a pro-choice nation," she said. "It misses the larger point." (Polls show a divided nation on the issue: A 2008 CNN-Opinion Research poll found that 53 percent of Americans characterized themselves as "pro-choice," versus 44 as "pro-life;" a 2007 poll by the same organization showed the numbers reversed, 45-50.)

A reader might assume that the National Institute for Reproductive Health is a research organization, or a medical body. In fact, it is an advocacy organization whose mission includes work "on a full range of reproductive health care issues - among them access to abortion, contraception and healthy pregnancies."

An identifier would have been helpful.

But there's a larger issue here. As pollsters like Gallup, who have been analyzing trends in this race tell us, the majority of people polled, while they support keeping abortion legal, oppose late-term abortions and "partial-birth" abortions.

In other words, we may be a conflicted nation -- at war with ourselves. Why writers don't pick up on this ambivalence more often baffles me.

What does it mean to be an "anti-abortion activist" in the Democratic Party, whose "platform explicitly embraces abortion rights?" Does that indeed mean the desire to overturn Roe V. Wade?

I really wish Hernandez had tacked that issue.

But the story does make a fascinating point -- that in districts where many voters oppose abortion, taking it off the table may allow them to unify around the Democrat's bread and butter issues, like the economy.

By 2006, the party had moved aggressively, recruiting Bob Casey, a candidate opposed to abortion, to run for a Senate seat in Pennsylvania that he ultimately captured, and putting together a slate of eight House challengers who also opposed abortion. Six of those candidates won. But this year, the party has not only gone to great lengths to recruit such candidates, it has also provided them significant financial backing, underscoring a new pragmatism within the party, said Kristen Day, the executive director of Democrats for Life, an anti-abortion group.

"This is the year that pro-life Democrats have received the most support from the party in Washington," said Mrs. Day, whose group has argued for years that the party was limiting its reach by failing to cultivate candidates opposed to abortion.

Representative Christopher Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the strategy may neutralize the advantage Republicans have enjoyed on social issues like abortion while allowing Democrats to emphasize areas of Democratic strength, primarily jobs and health care.

"You help take the wedge issues off the table in these districts and allow the Democrats to focus on kitchen-table economic issues that unite Democrats and have the support of independents and even some Republicans," he said.

Independent analysts say the strategy has given Democrats a strong opportunity for victories in Congressional districts that once seemed out of reach.

Hernandez has a some enlightening paragraphs about Kathleen Dahlkemper, a Democrat and an abortion opponent running in Pennsylvania's Third Congressional District with the aid of "more than $1 million in spending by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee."

Mrs. Dahlkemper has spoken openly on the campaign trail about her opposition to abortion and even shared a deeply personal story to drive home her message: how she decided to have a child 29 years ago when she was a single woman and a college student. "It was tough," she recalled recently. "I was on food stamps."

But her position has become an issue among some Democrats who view abortion rights as a bedrock Democratic principle. In the primary, for example, her opponents repeatedly criticized her opposition to abortion. "They were trying to say that I wasn't a real Democrat because I am pro-life," Mrs. Dahlkemper recalled. "I believe they have a narrow view of what a Democrat is."

These paragraphs humanize a story that otherwise would have been filled with quotes from strategists and advocates. Would that Hernandez could have spoken to more of the Democratic candidates.

Widening the lens to include the component of personal narrative, and asking about how a candidate's faith informs their positions, would give a broader, deeper picture.

There's a lot of shouting going on right now. Maybe reporters will have time to ask these questions once the smoke of next Tuesday clears.

But our predilection to go for the vivid, bold print instead of the nuance and context underneath, I'm a little skeptical.

Picture: Pro-Life demonstration in front of Supreme Court 2005 from Wikimedia Commons

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