Historic Shift

Democrats Push Envelope on Abortion, Drop Insistence That It Be Rare

They pounded the issue in Charlotte. Eleanor Clift on whether the party went too far on a divisive topic.

Robyn Beck, AFP / Getty Images,ROBYN BECK

Democrats voiced their unequivocal support for abortion rights at the party’s convention in Charlotte, a sharp departure from two decades of modulating their views on the issue with the phrase “safe, legal, and rare.”

The word “rare” was sliced out of the party platform as Democrats embraced “safe and legal” abortion as an integral part of women’s health, drawing a bright line separating them from Republicans, who hardened their anti-abortion rights stance at their Tampa convention.

Female commentators who normally identify with the Democrats, like Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson and The Washington Post’s Melinda Henneberger, found the convention’s unrelenting focus on abortion rights off-putting for a party that claims a big tent. Cokie Roberts, appearing on ABC’s This Week, called the convention “over the top in terms of abortion…Every single speaker talked about abortion, and you know, at some point, you start to alienate people. Thirty percent of Democrats are pro-life.”

Asked what he would say to Roberts, Geoff Garin, who polls for the pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA, wondered by what measurement she concluded the Democrats had gone too far. He said he doesn’t think the language was strident but agreed that abortion was mentioned quite frequently. “Part of the media strategy at a convention is to repeat things so people who watch them episodically will get the point,” Garin said, adding that only diehard political junkies and people paid to watch see conventions in their entirety.

The implication is that real people, whom Garin calls civilians, wouldn’t be offended by repeated references to abortion because they would watch only some of the speeches. Even so, Charlotte represented a historic shift from past conventions, when Democrats downplayed social issues and blurred differences with the GOP on the hot-button issue of abortion.

What’s changed in the last four years, Garin said, is that the Republicans have moved so far right that there’s more room in the center for Democrats to highlight their pro-abortion rights policies. “In the politics of 2012, Obama very clearly has the high ground on the whole complex of women’s issues, including abortion and contraception,” he said. “It makes perfect sense to try to consolidate that advantage.”

It’s not only about revving up the Democratic base, Garin insisted, but also reaching out to suburban women and young unmarried women who are inclined to vote for Obama but need to be energized. “If you ask who you trust on issues like abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, Obama has a very large advantage—in part because how far to the right and how far out of date Romney is in his positions,” said Garin.

Matt Bennett of the centrist Democratic group Third Way says talking about abortion in the context of women’s health resonated after recent comments from Republican Todd Akin about “legitimate rape,” and the debate earlier this year in Virginia about requiring women seeking an abortion to undergo vaginal probes. “There was all kinds of stuff in the world of men fumbling around in women’s health issues that made women question whether Republican was the party for them,” said Bennett. On abortion, he said, Democrats “walked up to the line of going too far but I don’t think they crossed it. The Republicans gave them an opening and they took it.”

Democrats left Charlotte with a more energized party, and a gender gap that works in Obama’s favor. But the emphasis on abortion rights won’t win over independent voters, said Frank Luntz. The Republican pollster just finished testing the latest MoveOn.org ad about abortion. It shows a woman, actress Lisa Edelstein, walking toward a closet; inside is a coat hanger. “The left has not only decided to talk about abortion, but do it as graphic as they can,” said Luntz. “It’s great for the base, but it makes undecided voters queasy.”

Garin countered that MoveOn is not the Democratic Party, and that the party’s appeal is much more nuanced. “Planned Parenthood wouldn’t run that ad,” he noted.

Aside from the abortion issue, Luntz credited the Democrats with making gains at their convention and said of the flap over abortion, “It’ll be forgotten by Election Day.”

The Democrats’ heightened focus on abortion at the convention is part of the Obama campaign’s overall strategy of mobilization, “and the belief that a vigorous pro-choice stance contributes to that mobilization,” said William Galston, a political theorist at the Brookings Institution. “They are willing to pay what they regard as a lesser cost among people who might be put off by the unprecedented emphasis on abortion rights at the convention.”

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Galston is a former adviser to Bill Clinton, who was credited with moving the Democrats to the center on social issues, and on crime and welfare, which helped him win independent voters. But when the pool of persuadable voters is smaller than usual, “then ginning up enthusiasm is the name of the game,” said Galston. “As a display of the political arts, I admire the clarity of it.”