Here's what the Democratic party platform said about abortion in 2004:
"Because we believe in the privacy and equality of women, we stand proudly for a woman's right to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, and regardless of her ability to pay. We stand firmly against Republican efforts to undermine that right. At the same time, we strongly support family planning and adoption incentives. Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare."
But here's what the Democrats intend to say in their platform this year:
"The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v Wade and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right. The Democratic Party also strongly supports access to affordable family planning services and comprehensive age-appropriate sex education which empower people to make informed choices and live healthy lives. We also recognize that such health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions. The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman's decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre and post natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs."
This marked shift in tone and language reflects the party's newfound desire to woo pro-lifers and other culturally conservative voters, who have long viewed the Democrats as captives of the pro-choice lobby. It's clear, in the '08 passages, that the party has not backpedalled on abortion rights - yet, at the same time, it clearly wants to give equal time to those who have qualms about abortion, to dispel the notion that the party is intolerant of such dissent, to signal that party wants to be more inclusive. By stating that that they welcome specific efforts to "reduce the need for abortions," and by stating that they strongly support "a woman's decision to have a child," Democrats hope to win over those voters who have long been wary of the party's social liberalism.
It's also significant that the Democrats are giving a convention speaking slot to Bob Casey, Jr., the anti-abortion senator from Pennsylvania whose father, the governor of the state back in 1992, was denied a podium gig that year because of his opposition to abortion rights. All told, this change in party attitude has been in the works since 2005, when a lot of Democratic thinkers were looking hard at the '04 election results and concluding (this should have been a no-brainer anyway) that their image as "the party of abortion" had to be eradicated, if only because it was alienating millions of voters who might otherwise vote Democratic on the kitchen-table issues.
As Will Marshall, a centirst Democratic think-tank guy, told me three and a half years ago, "When we take absolutist positions on abortion, we're not showing respect for the moral qualms many voters have. We've got to bond emotionally with middle America, show cultural empathy, and not view these people as retrogrades or latent clinic-bombers." And William Galston, a former Clinton White House domestic advisor, put it to me succinctly: "If the 100 percenters (referring to the abortion rights lobby) keep insisting on total obedience, they will end up dominating a party that will never again win a national election."
The more inclusive Democratic plank is a clear attempt to get in sync with the nuanced national mood on abortion. According to an ABC News-Washington Post survey conducted in mid-June, only 53 percent of Americans generally support legal abortion, while 44 percent generally do not. And the breakdown of the numbers is even more telling: 35 percent favor legal abortion in "most" circumstances, 28 percent favor making it illegal in "most" circumstances, 18 percent believe it should always be legal, and 16 percent say it should it always be illegal.
The Democrats will never get the diehard abortion foes, many of whom are evangelical Protestants, no matter how hard they tweak their platform language; indeed, the newly-released Pew poll shows John McCain with a 44-point lead among those voters. but the Democrats might have a fighting chance with the huge of abortion skeptics, many of whom are moderate Catholics. Indeed, broadly speaking, Catholics are arguably crucial to victory in November; even though Catholics are not politically monolithic, it's a fact that the victorious candidate in eight of the last nine presidential elections also won a majority of Catholic voters nationwide.
In the latest round of national polls, Barack Obama and John McCain are at equal strength among Catholics. Obama's best opportunity, according to the surveys, is to reach out to the large number of Catholics who are turned off to the Republicans because of the Iraq war and the economy, and therefore might be willing to vote Democratic if they feel a greater comfort level with the party's stance on abortion. And that indeed is the intended Obama stategy; the campaign reportedly has an outreach program that has been encouraging Catholic supporters to hold "values" house parties.
It's also noteworthy that Douglas Kmiec, a conservative Catholic and former Reagan Justice Department official, is vocally applauding the new Democratic platform language. Kmiec, who endorsed Obama several months ago, wrote the other day that the plank "moves the ball considerably toward the side that favors life from the moment of conception....(Obama) has successfully persuaded his party to commit to conditions that will make it more, not less, likely that (a pregnant woman's) choice will be in favor of life." Kmiec's basic argument to his religious brethren is that anti-abortion voters should spurn the GOP's predictable (and ineffective) call for a total abortion ban, and instead support the Democrats, who are now offering more pragmatic ways to reduce abortion rates.
Of course, we won't know until November whether the new party stance and the Obama outreach efforts will trigger a harvest of new voters; clearly, Obama himself would need to declare repeatedly that the Democrats are better positioned than the Republicans to reduce the number of abortions. But it's quite possible that Obama could gain some ground - if only because his opponent might provide him with an opening. As Tony Perkins, a religious right leader, told The Washington Times yesterday, Obama's abortion strategy might work on the margins "against a candidate like John McCain who doesn't like to talk about these issues."
And maybe it's even worse than that. McCain, in an interview with a conservative magazine yesterday, not only signaled insufficient fealty to the GOP's anti-abortion platform....he also suggested that Tom Ridge might be a fine pick for vice president, even though the guy supports abortion rights.
The key quote: "I think that the pro-life position is one of the important aspects or fundamentals of the Republican Party. And I also feel that - and I'm not trying to equivocate here - that Americans want us to work together. You know, Tom Ridge is one of the great leaders and he happens to be pro-choice. And I don't think that that would necessarily rule Tom Ridge out."
The "maverick" is back! But seriously, folks, such a pick would be the greatest gift that McCain could bestow on the Democrats. Let me put this as charitably as possible: If McCain picks Ridge, the anti-abortion Republican base would go absolutely berserk. And the Democrats - armed with their inclusive platform language on abortion - would be well positioned to pose this question to swing voters:
Which party is the more tolerant?