America’s Democrats are having a bit of an identity crisis, which isn’t surprising given their loss of both the White House and Congress. But with little going right for the Democratic Party, its leaders and stalwarts really can’t afford to squander an opportunity by looking insincere or uninformed, as a recent internal dustup makes them appear.
Broadly speaking, the divide is over whether to back candidates who don’t share the party’s pledged commitment to reproductive choice. That’s a legitimate area of debate, to which many of us would answer a simple no. At a time when abortion rights are being eroded with new state restrictions, funding cuts to Planned Parenthood and a conservative new Supreme Court justice who has yet to show how far he’d go, Democrats must fight to preserve a woman’s right to decide when or if to become a mother. Especially as the Republican Party shows no room for choice.
But unfortunately, the core question has been subsumed by elements of grandstanding, strategically motivated backtracking and even a bit of fake news instead of what should be a straightforward matter of party principles.
The abortion issue surfaced recently because Heath Mello, a former Nebraska state legislator and the Democratic challenger in Omaha’sMay 9 mayoral election, has a history of voting for abortion restrictions and some Democrats think that should cost him the party’s support. But a closer examination of his voting record shows that though Mello has supported abortion restrictions, his most recent votes indicate he has evolved. He voted with Planned Parenthood on two bills in 2012 and recused himself from voting on a third, writes The Nation’s Joan Walsh. He has since voted fully with Planned Parenthood.
What’s more, Mello has said recently that though he personally opposes abortion (he’s Catholic), he would uphold abortion rights as mayor. An election shouldn’t be about someone’s private religious beliefs but about public policy issues.
The controversy erupted after Mello drew endorsements from such progressives as Bernie Sanders (who isn’t a Democrat) and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Nebraska’sDemocratic Party chairwoman and the deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, at a big rally in Omaha.
DNC Chairman Tom Perez had endorsed Mello, but retreated after discussions with leaders of Planned Parenthood and the abortion-rights organization NARAL. He has said every candidate who runs as a Democrat should support the party’s position that “every woman should be able to make her own health choices.” He since told the New York Times he respected Democrats’ personal beliefs against abortion rights but “if they try to legislate or govern that way, we will take them on.”
The liberal online newsmagazine, Daily Kos, also withdrew its endorsement of Mello a week after making it. It was unaware of his voting history, especially since Mello scored a 100 percent approval rating from Planned Parenthood Voters of Nebraska, the political director wrote.
To add to the confusion, Planned Parenthood of Nebraska says its position was mischaracterized by a nonpartisan voting site, and that Mello has voted both for and against its stances in different votes. But “over the course of Heath Mello’s campaign for Omaha Mayor he has said loud and clear he supports Planned Parenthood and wants to protect the work we do. “
One of Mello’s past votes seems to have been unfairly characterized, too. He co-sponsored a 2009 bill to require a doctor performing an abortion to tell a woman an ultrasound is available. But it didn’t require she get one, as has been reported. In fact, Jane Kleeb, Nebraska’sDemocratic Party chairperson, has said, “It was Heath’s credibility with pro-life legislators that enabled him to take mandatory ultrasounds off the table and substitute a bill that stated that women had a choice to have one and to see the image.”
True, in 2010, Mello co-sponsored one of the nation’s first 20-week abortion bans (Iowa passed one this legislative session), and the following year he voted to prohibit insurance coverage for abortions in Nebraska under the health exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act. He also voted that year to require a doctor be physically present for telemedicine abortions, which would undermine a pill procedure used in Iowa and Nebraska intended to help fill in the gaps in abortion access. Mello also voted to replace Nebraska’s parental-notification requirement with parental consent for young women to get abortions.
The New York Times characterizes the Democrats’ conundrum as: “Should a commitment to economic justice be the party’s central and dominant appeal, or do candidates also have to display fealty to the Democrats’ cultural catechism?” The Huffington Post is conducting an online survey on whether the DNC should back anti-choice Democrats if that’s the only way to beat anti-choice Republicans, or withhold all support from a candidate who doesn’t pledge to uphold choice.
A woman’s right to choose is a central value shared by the Democratic Party and must be upheld. If that value is compromised to win elections, then which party is going to ensure women have choices? But maybe the real question here is whether a politician should be allowed to evolve on an issue if his or her public policy position ends up where one wants it to be. And the answer to that, if the candidate is otherwise trustworthy, should be yes.