ObamaCare, Abortion and the Reagan Democrats

Mar 19, 2010

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How will the national drama over President Barack Obama’s health care reform conclude? The views of a number of Midwest House Democrats on the issue of abortion may be the deciding factor.

Led by Michigan’s Bart Stupak (D), this cadre of roughly a dozen members of Congress has insisted that it won’t vote for any measure that provides public subsidies for abortion beyond those allowed by the Hyde Amendment. This isn’t surprising. For decades Midwestern Democrats in Congress have generally been economic liberals and social conservatives.

There are historical roots for this phenomenon. In the 1970s, when the industrial Midwest was the wheelhouse of the national economy, pro-labor Democrats generally embraced traditional values. They were pro-growth, anti-communist, supportive of government intervention to protect the poor and disabled, morally and religiously conservative, unabashedly patriotic. In the 1980s many became, for a time, the “Reagan Democrats,” delivering the ECBC (ethnic Catholic, blue-collar) vote to the former California governor, who was born in Illinois and earned his stripes broadcasting Chicago Cubs baseball on WHO Radio from Des Moines.

Members of Congress from these precincts have generally been tenacious on abortion funding issues. It reflects both the views of their constituents and an attitude that abortion is a supra-political question. As the late Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, put it in a 1995 address at the University of Notre Dame, “Nothing could be more foreign to the American experience than legalized abortion. It is inconsistent with our national character, with our national purpose, with all that we've done, and with everything we hope to be.”

Thirty years ago when I arrived in Washington to work as a lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee, there were nearly 100 Democrats in Congress who thought as Casey did. Today there are far fewer. But because the House GOP – which is nearly uniformly in favor of the Hyde Amendment -- can muster fewer than 180 votes for its position, The fate of the abortion funding amendment, and even the fate of the entire health reform measure, may hinge on what those Democrats who support Stupak’s stance do now.

One member of the dozen, Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., says he’s satisfied with the abortion funding limits in the Senate-passed health bill. But it seems clear that Stupak hasn’t been moved by those who argue that the Senate abortion language is the functional equivalent of the Hyde Amendment. He has stood by his own amendment’s language that requires anyone seeking coverage of abortion to purchase a separate rider for that purpose, using her own initiative and funds.

When Democratic leaders gave up on efforts to convince Stupak on this point (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi answered “no” over the weekend when asked if she was willing to negotiate further with the Democratic holdouts), supporters of the bill ratcheted up their political efforts to secure its passage by attempting to undermine Stupak’s base, primarily within the Catholic community. The last-minute efforts included Wednesday’s release of a letter signed by 60 leaders of Catholic religious orders for women. The letter asserts that the “REAL pro-life stance” is adoption of the latest health overhaul legislation, because the bill, among other things, provides $250 million in support for pregnant women.

The women religious join a number of groups, including the Catholic Health Association, NETWORK, Catholics United, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Catholics for Choice, and Catholic Democrats, that have “blessed” passage of the Senate bill. Nonetheless, the battle over the health bill largely remains a classic confrontation between organizations with nameplates in Washington, D.C., and organizations that can draw hundreds of people to town hall meetings in members’ districts. The women religious groups’ claim that they represent 59,000 nuns nationwide on this specific issue may not withstand scrutiny.

The Stupak 12--and the congressman insists they are holding firm, despite what he calls a “living hell” of vituperation aimed in his direction--are more likely to hew to their convictions than be swayed by the political cover afforded by the new Catholic advocates for the Senate bill. Most of Stupak’s allies have seen this division among Catholics before, most recently during President Barack Obama’s visit to Notre Dame last spring when the nation’s Catholic bishops sharply criticized the university for inviting the president to speak. Call it “division as usual,” but for nearly 35 years pro-life Democrats have faced--and endured--taunts that their insistence on tight abortion funding limitations was impeding some larger social goal.

Today there are fewer such Democrats. Are they therefore more vulnerable? Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have apparently decided to “go it alone” without the Stupak 12, a high-risk maneuver in light of history and the public majority opposed to the reform package on other grounds. Clearly, the leadership hopes that these members will, at this late hour, put aside their longstanding pro-life convictions and trust that, someday, Congress will restore the abortion funding limits that will sag once the Senate health care bill is passed and Obama signs it into law.

One thing is certain. Some illusions are about to be shattered. It may be those of the pro-life Democrats who had been assured their party leadership respected their views when it welcomed new pro-life candidates onto the ballot in 2006 and 2008. Or it may be the illusions of Obama, Pelosi and Reid, who are betting they can steamroll Stupak and his allies on an issue that involves a matter of bedrock conscience. We’re about to find out.

Chuck Donovan is Senior Research Fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society. Heritage.org.