Just eight years ago, there were 256 Democrats in the U.S. House. Today there are just 193. Then, there were only 40 Republican U.S. senators; today the GOP Senate majority numbers 52. During that same span, Democrats have suffered a net loss of 947 state legislative seats, and today in only five states — Rhode Island, Connecticut, Oregon, California and Hawaii — do Democrats control both chambers of the state legislature and the governorship. (Republicans hold such control in 24 states.) In the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, when voters were asked whether they “think the Democratic Party is in touch with the concerns of most people in the United States today,” only 28 percent answered “in touch,” whereas a thumping 67 percent judged the Democratic Party to be “out of touch.”
Those are the numbers of a party in serious trouble. We know from American history that a thriving, expanding political party seeks and welcomes converts to its ranks. A stagnant, shrinking party hunts down and banishes heretics who dare to deviate from some party dogma. Because an American political party is a coalition of people who agree on most issues (in contrast with a religion, which has a fixed doctrine to which one subscribes), the party exists to win elections in order to promote policies. The last thing struggling Democrats need in 2017 is a litmus test fight over who qualifies as a real Democrat. But that’s what they’ve gotten themselves when it comes to the historically divisive issue of abortion.
Here’s the back story. Before a cheering crowd of 6,000 in Omaha, Nebraska — an event that was part of the “Unity Tour” sponsored by the Democratic National Committee — Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont emphatically endorsed Heath Mello, the Democratic nominee for mayor. Mello, who has solid Nebraska party backing, is “pro-life” on abortion but pledges, “I would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care.”
Disregarding Mello’s support from leading pro-choice women in Nebraska, Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, blasted the DNC in a statement for its “embrace and support of a candidate ... who will strip women — one of the most critical constituencies for the party — of our basic rights and freedom is not only disappointing, it is politically stupid.” Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez publicly saluted NARAL and clicked his heels and distanced the party from Mello: “Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health. That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.” The Democratic Party, which is a pro-choice party, would now become the “no choice” party.
The truth is that American voters remain completely ambivalent about abortion. We are simultaneously pro-choice and anti-abortion. While a significant majority opposes overturning Roe v. Wade, according to recent polling by the respected Pew Research Center, 40 percent of American women and 49 percent of Hispanic Americans would prefer that abortion be illegal in all or most cases, and in the same survey, 44 percent of all Americans, 46 percent of black Protestants and 51 percent of Catholics said they believe that abortion is “morally wrong.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi forcefully rebutted the DNC and NARAL litmus test: “This is the Democratic Party. This is not a rubber-stamp party.” Pelosi, who is unequivocally pro-choice, told The Washington Post of the Italian-Catholic family she grew up in: “Most of those people — my family, extended family — are not pro-choice. You think I’m kicking them out of the Democratic Party?” Democrats, eager to regain majorities in Congress, would be wise to heed the only House speaker in U.S. history ever able to lead the chamber to pass — three times — national health care, the former Nancy D’Alesandro of Baltimore. It’s the only logical choice.
Mark Shields is a political analyst and commentator for PBS Newshour.