After losing the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry had a piece of advice for his fellow Democrats: cool it on abortion.
Kerry told a group of liberals — including the president of Emily’s List and the new head of NARAL Pro-Choice America — that Democrats needed to moderate their tone on the issue. According to Newsweek, Kerry said the party “needed new ways to make people understand they didn’t like abortion.” He even suggested running more pro-life candidates.
The Massachusetts senator had an image of flip-flopping, but he had always been pro-choice. He frequently boasts that his maiden Senate speech was a defense of Roe v. Wade.
So Kerry’s comments understandably shocked some of his liberal comrades. “There was a gasp in the room,” NARAL’s Nancy Keenan told Newsweek.
But many other pro-choice Democrats suspected Kerry was right. “Even I have trouble explaining to my family that we are not about killing babies,” said Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign manager.
In his book “The Party of Death,” published nearly two years later, Ramesh Ponnuru wrote that “Democrats were committing assisted suicide.”
“After years in which Republicans had been warned that they needed to have a ‘big tent’ on abortion,” Ponnuru continued, “suddenly it was the Democrats’ turn to hear that advice.”
The Democrats gathered in Charlotte this week have obviously concluded it’s time to take down the big tent. That doesn’t mean that the circus has left town: people are walking around dressed in vagina costumes and engaging in loose talk about a pro-life “war on women.”
This year’s Democratic platform endorses abortion on demand and, if necessary, at taxpayer expense. As The Weekly Standard’s John McCormack points out, public funding of abortion is as unpopular as Todd Akin’s position that abortion should be banned in cases of rape.
Bill Clinton liked to say that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” The platform declared, “Our goal is to make abortion less necessary and more rare, not more difficult and more dangerous.”
Democrats deleted the word “rare” from the 2008 platform and it has not returned. With it has gone any mention of reducing abortions. The closest this year’s platform comes to a feint in that direction is in a statement suggesting fewer unplanned pregnancies would logically mean fewer abortions.
Abortion has gone from being the right that dare not speak its name to a major theme of this year’s convention. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a promising centrist Democrat, told a Planned Parenthood rally in Charlotte that reaching out to women while being pro-life was like being a bigot who brags about having black friends.
By comparison, the executive director of Democrats for Life could not identify a single major pro-life convention speaker. (Her one example, Jimmy Carter, spoke via video, ran to Ronald Reagan’s left on abortion in 1980, and didn’t say anything pro-life in his Charlotte talk.)
When Kerry was worried about abortion sinking Democrats’ electoral fortunes, 48 percent of the American people told Gallup they were pro-choice while 45 percent identified as pro-life. Now 50 percent of those polled say they are pro-life while only 41 percent report being pro-choice.
Even back when pro-choicers outnumbered pro-lifers by a wider margin, pro-lifers dominated among single-issue abortion voters.
Kerry’s recommendation that Democrats soft-pedal the abortion issue came after he had lost a “culture war” election to an opponent who had used social issues to rally support. George W. Bush won 80 percent of those who named “moral values” as their top issue.
This time, Barack Obama wants to emulate Bush rather than Kerry. He is treating this as a base election, and important parts of the Democratic base want to hear about legal abortion and gay marriage even at a time of 8 percent unemployment.
In fact, mainstream Democrats are talking about abortion and gay marriage at their convention more than any Republican not explicitly associated with the Christian right ever has. The Bush campaign generally used microtargeting and insider lingo like “culture of life” to communicate its social issues positions, not primetime.
Mitt Romney devoted little more than a sentence to social issues, while most other major GOP speakers other than Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee generally ignored them entirely.
Obama is betting he can get his supporters to the polls by portraying the Romney-Ryan ticket as a threat to their way of life. Perhaps his effort to become the Karl Rove of the left will pay off.
But the pro-choice men responsible for building the Democratic congressional majorities in 2006-08 as the chairmen of the party’s House and Senate campaign committees — particularly Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer — heeded Kerry instead. They recruited pro-life candidates whenever it increased the Democrats’ odds.
Pro-life Democrats like Bob Casey Jr., Heath Shuler and Brad Ellsworth helped the Democrats retake Congress.
Will Obama’s walking vaginas be as successful? In culture wars, many swing voters instinctively side against whichever party is seen as the aggressor. This is definitely a strategy that carries some risk.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.