To Win Again, Democrats Must Stop Being the Abortion Party
When I came to this country from Ireland some 45 years ago, a cousin, here 15 years before, advised me that Catholics vote Democratic. Having grown up in the Irish Republic, I was well disposed to Republican Party principles like local autonomy and limited government. Yet a commitment to social justice, so central to my faith, seemed better represented by the Democratic Party. I followed my cousin’s good counsel.
But once-solid Catholic support for Democrats has steadily eroded. This was due at least in part to the shift by many American Catholic bishops from emphasizing social issues (peace, the economy) to engaging in the culture wars (abortion, gay marriage). Along the way, many Catholics came to view the Democrats as unconditionally supporting abortion.
Last year’s election was a watershed in this evolution. Hillary Clinton lost the overall Catholic vote by seven points — after President Obama had won it in the previous two elections. She lost the white Catholic vote by 23 points. In heavily Catholic states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, she lost by a hair — the last by less than 1 percent. A handful more of Catholic votes per parish in those states would have won her the election.
Her defeat is all the more remarkable considering that Mrs. Clinton shared many Catholic social values. By contrast, Mr. Trump’s disrespect for women, his racism, sexism and xenophobia should have discouraged conscientious Catholics from voting for him. So why did they? Certainly his promises to rebuild manufacturing and his tough talk on terrorism were factors. But for many traditional Catholic voters, Mrs. Clinton’s unqualified support for abortion rights — and Mr. Trump’s opposition (and promise to nominate anti-abortion Supreme Court justices) — were tipping points.
In its directive, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops make clear that American Catholics do not need to be single-issue voters. The bishops say that while Catholics may not vote for a candidate because that candidate favors abortion, they can vote for a candidate in spite of such a stance, based on the totality of his views. Yet despite that leeway, abortion continues to trigger the deepest moral concern for many traditional Catholics, including me.
Polls indicate that the nation holds mixed views about abortion. About 80 percent of Americans don’t want to criminalize it again. At the same time, at least 60 percent of Americans — and most likely a higher percentage of Catholics — oppose abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Yet despite the clear complexity of those attitudes, political discourse largely ignores the possibility of a middle ground between making all abortions legal or prohibiting them entirely. Mrs. Clinton, like most Democratic politicians, fell into this either/or trap last year.
When asked about abortion in the third presidential debate, Mrs. Clinton focused on the importance of a woman’s right to choose, saying: “I strongly support Roe v. Wade.” But in making it appear as if she was viewing a wrenching moral decision only through a legal lens, she was losing many Catholic and evangelical voters. For them, her uncompromising defense of Roe was comparable to telling a group of Quakers, “I’m in favor of war,” without even mentioning preconditions.
Mr. Trump, in contrast, offered a graphic description of “ripping the baby out of the womb in the ninth month, on the final day,” as if this were standard procedure. (More than 90 percent of American abortions are in the first trimester.)
Amid Mr. Trump’s dysfunction as president, Democrats may have a chance to reclaim their Catholic base in the 2018 midterm elections. By tradition and by our church’s teaching on social justice, many Catholics could readily return to voting reliably Democratic. But for this to happen, their moral concerns regarding abortion must get a hearing within the party, rather than being summarily dismissed. How might that happen?
To begin with, Democratic politicians should publicly acknowledge that abortion is an issue of profound moral and religious concern. As a candidate, Barack Obama did just that in a 2008 interview, saying, “Those who diminish the moral elements of the decision aren’t expressing the full reality of it.”
Democrats should not threaten to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which forbids federal funds to be used for abortion except in extreme circumstances. They could also champion an aggressive program to promote adoption by strengthening the Adoption Assistance Act of 1980 and streamlining adoption procedures. The regulations in many states seem designed to discourage it.
Democratic politicians should also continue to frame their efforts to improve health and social services as a way to decrease abortions. The abortion rate dropped 21 percent from 2009 to 2014. That downward trend would most likely end if Republicans eliminate contraception services provided through the Affordable Care Act.
That Donald Trump, claiming to be anti-abortion, got the majority of Catholic votes to defeat a competent and decent Democrat underscores the continuing influence of abortion in American politics. If Democrats want to regain the Catholic vote, they must treat abortion as a moral issue, work for its continued reduction and articulate a more nuanced message than, “We support Roe v. Wade.”