Politics & Policy

Michigan’s Cheap Date

Bart Stupak surrenders his power and writes the obituary of the "pro-life Democrat."

‘Don’t wait for Bart Stupak to save the day.”

I said that three weeks ago, over and over again. I did it in part to encourage listeners to the radio show I was co-hosting to keep communicating with their congressmen. I said it too, of course, because I believed it. Because it’s unwise to put one’s trust in princes. Because men are men. We’re sometimes weak. We’re sometimes not who we say we are.

I said it, though, while being impressed with Bart Stupak. He stood against his party, and by doing so got life-protective language added into the House health-care legislation in November. He challenged supposed pro-lifers Ben Nelson and Bob Casey to a higher standard than they were willing to fight for in the Senate. He pressed on even while the president and the speaker of the House pretended that abortion funding wasn’t an issue — they claimed it wasn’t in their legislation and called those who said otherwise liars. Well, it was an issue. And it’s in the bill that passed last night. If it hadn’t been, the Democratic leadership and the White House wouldn’t have been forced to go through the motions of negotiating with Stupak.

Unfortunately, if Bart Stupak truly wanted to ensure that human dignity was respected in this legislation, he wouldn’t have surrendered. But surrender he did — and then some, declaring the Democratic party the protectors of the unborn on the House floor last night.

The Democratic party is nothing of the sort — which is another reason no one who wanted to defeat the taxpayer funding of abortion in Obamacare should have expected a Stupak-led victory in this Washington environment. It’s the party that will never offend the abortion industry. It’s the party that owns partial-birth abortion.

I have no idea what Bart Stupak was thinking. Perhaps he couldn’t endure the pressure on him, on his staff, and, most intimately, on his family. Perhaps he lacked an appreciation of the power he had to hold up the president’s signature legislation for the sake of the unborn and then got entranced by the pats on the back he got from leadership for saving their day, which he very likely did. A Democrat who wanted to vote for universal health care, in the end, Stupak proved himself the cheapest of dates. He traded all this power — power that had Nancy Pelosi screaming at a pro-life Democrat on the House floor Sunday — for a mess of pottage: for a farce of an executive order that holds no power over the codified statute of Obamacare.

Throughout the whole ordeal — both while Stupak was fighting and after he caved — I couldn’t get the late Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey out of my mind. He was pro-life, and he was a Democrat. And he didn’t actually have a home in the Democratic party. If you’re pro-life and you’re a Democrat, for decades now, you’ve found yourself empty-handed, duped, angry, or humiliated.

In 1992, Casey won reelection with over a million votes. That and being the governor of Pennsylvania, a key swing state right next door to New York, would normally get you a slot at a Madison Square Garden Democratic convention. But not for Casey. In a move reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s refusal even to talk to his own ambassador to the Vatican, who stood outside the president’s office for hours trying to deliver a letter from the pope on the president’s decision to veto a ban on partial-birth abortion, the White House refused even to respond to Casey’s requests for a place on stage during the 1996 national convention. The Democratic party, which claims to be a beacon of tolerance, doesn’t have a lot of it when it comes to those who defend the most innocent among us.

Instead, the Democratic party had six pro-choice Republican women speak to the assembled Democrats. But Casey, a confident man of moral conscience, knew what he believed. At the same school where President Obama spoke last year — the University of Notre Dame, which in bestowing an honorary degree on the president struck at the heart of its integrity as a Catholic school — Casey called his party out in 1995. “It was sold to America, this idea [of legal abortion], as a kind of social cure, a resolution,” he said. “Instead, it has left us wounded and divided. We were promised it would broaden the circle of freedom. Instead, it has narrowed the circle of humanity. We were told the whole matter was settled and would soon pass from our minds. Twenty years later, it tears at our souls. And so, it is for me the bitterest of ironies that abortion on demand found refuge, found a home — and it pains me to say this — found a home in the national Democratic party. My party, the party of the weak, the party of the powerless.”

Casey called abortion “inconsistent with our national character, with our national purpose, with all that we’ve done, and with everything we hope to be.”

Of course, our current president, who claims to be all about hope, went to that same school and tried to wash the conscience of Casey from our political memories. But he can’t. And for a while, it looked as if Bart Stupak wouldn’t let him.

So much for that.

Not much has changed in the decade since Casey died. “We’re members without a party,” Stupak told the New York Times recently. “Democrats are mad at you, and Republicans don’t trust you.” For good reason, it turns out. But Democrats have no use for them. When Stupak was a freshman in the House, he requested a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee. He told the Times that “I had one or two members tell me I’d never get on because I’m right-to-life.” Pro-life Democrats who weren’t fooled by or willing to compromise for the executive-order fig leaf Sunday will be quickly forgotten, defeated, or otherwise deemed useless by their party leadership — except as a vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker again if the Republicans don’t win big in November.

The stories of Casey and Stupak, stories that span decades, prompt an important question: Is there such a thing as a pro-life Democrat? Yes, clearly: Illinois’s Dan Lipinski, who did vote no last night and tried to keep the Stupak crowd strong, is one. But what does that mean in a party whose platform is inimical to his principle on such a key calling of our humanity?

What we saw in the health-care debate is that the Democratic party — as defined by its national leaders — is a party that, when given a choice between abortion and universal health care, as it was on Friday night before Stupak gave in, chooses abortion.

Mark Stricherz explained the situation well in his 2007 book Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party. As he said to me: “National party leaders have suspect motives and competence. No matter the cost, they fight hardest to prevent unborn infants from having legal protection. After the 2000 election, Stanley Greenberg wrote a post-election analysis in which he partly attributed Al Gore’s defeat to his unlimited support for abortion rights. So what was the first major event for the party’s candidates in 2004? It was a dinner celebrated by NARAL honoring the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. After the 2004 election, Greenberg wrote another post-election analysis in which he largely attributed John Kerry’s defeat to his unlimited support for abortion rights and backing of civil unions. So have the party’s top nominees run away from gay-rights groups and the abortion industry? No, they attended events hosted by Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign.”

Does it have to be this way? I suspect this state of affairs can’t go on indefinitely. Take Stricherz’s points. Consider the fact that Barack Obama won despite his abortion extremism in 2008 (he lied about abortion then, just as he did about this bill). Realize that the truth of this bill can’t be hidden forever: Soon, the farce that is the executive order Bart Stupak agreed to will undergo the analysis of more observers than just the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Politics may well wake up the party leadership. If it doesn’t, politicians of conscience are going to have to walk. “Pro-life” is just talk if you’re a vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker and a vote for the most radical embrace of abortion by a branch of the federal government since Roe v. Wade.

In other words, for the moment, “pro-life Democrat” is a category that doesn’t really exist. As for the pro-life Democrat “no” votes left standing alone and useless last night, God bless them.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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