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Gambling on Abortion
Remembering the Great Democratic Abortion Freak-Out of 2004.


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Ramesh Ponnuru

The Democrats are reportedly going to highlight their support of legal abortion this week. They seem to think it’s a political winner. It’s a marked change from eight years ago, when many Democrats expressed grave anxiety about the political damage the party’s position on abortion was doing it.

The existence of those doubts could be inferred even before the election. At their convention in Boston, neither the presidential nominee (John Kerry) nor the vice-presidential nominee (John Edwards) mentioned abortion or “the right to choose” — a departure from the practice of the three previous conventions.

On Election Day, President Bush won with the support of 80 percent of the 22 percent of voters who cited “moral values” as the most important reason for their decision. Partly for this reason, many prominent Democrats went public with their concerns.

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I wrote about their reaction to Kerry’s defeat in my book The Party of Death:

Post-election analysis by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg fingered abortion as one reason white Catholics had left the Democrats. . . . 

A few weeks after the election, [Kerry] addressed a gathering of liberals. The president of Emily’s List asked him about the party’s future. Kerry, Newsweek reported, “told the group they needed new ways to make people understand they didn’t like abortion. Democrats also needed to welcome more pro-life candidates into the party, he said. ‘There was a gasp in the room,’ says Nancy Keenan, the new president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.”

Chris Matthews, a former House Democratic aide turned pundit, complained about “fanatically pro-choice women’s groups, who insist that the Democrats say ‘pro-choice’ every five words.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein lamented that Republicans had “been successful at painting the view of the pro-choice movement as abortion on demand — and nothing can be farther from the truth.” Donna Brazile, who had managed the Gore campaign in 2000, added, “All these issues that put us into the extreme and not the mainstream really hurt us with the heartland of the country. Even I have trouble explaining to my family that we are not about killing babies.” . . . 

“We’re not the party of abortion,” [Howard Dean] told Tim Russert a month after the 2004 elections. . . . In a later appearance on Hardball, host Chris Matthews asked Dean six times whether he or his party were “pro-choice” or supported “abortion rights.” Dean refused to associate himself or his party with either phrase, instead saying variants of “the government should stay out of the personal lives of families and women.”

The Democrats of 2012 do not seem to have any such worries about becoming too closely associated with abortion.

Public opinion on most issues related to abortion has been stable. The numbers that have changed the most are those concerning people’s self-description as “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” In 2004, Gallup found a 48–45 percent pro-choice plurality. In 2012, pro-lifers make up 50 percent of the polled population and pro-choicers 41 percent. If Democrats such as Kerry were right to think their position politically perilous in 2004, they ought to be more concerned now.

— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review.



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