The odd thing about yesterday’s House hearing at which Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards was grilled about the group’s practices and expenses is that both Republicans and Democrats seemed to be happy about the confrontation. For the GOP, the hearing was a chance to highlight Planned Parenthood’s controversial sale of fetal body parts highlighted in videos taken by an anti-abortion group and to show that it doesn’t deserve the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars it gets from the government. But though Richards struggled to explain the discrepancies between Planned Parenthood’s claims and the facts about its income and expenses, Democrats seemed just as eager to use the issue as a political football since they believe it backs up their claim that Republicans are waging a “war on women.” As with past debates about abortion, this dustup — in which neither side seemed particularly interested in the other’s case — might be considered just another tool for both parties to rile up their base without having much impact on the centrist voters who will determine the outcome of the next election. But as we move closer to 2016, the question is whether the particular facts of the Planned Parenthood give either conservatives or liberals reason to believe they have a winning issue.
Though the war on women meme seemed to fall flat in the 2014 midterms as Republicans swept to victory, there is little doubt that the line helped Democrats in 2012. The absurd comments of Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin about pregnancy and rape lost them that race, but it also bolstered Democratic efforts around the nation to convince voters that the GOP had fallen into the hands of extremists. President Obama won a majority of female voters in all the key swing states that handed him a re-election victory, and the impact of their “war” campaign on that result can’t be dismissed.
But historically there is little reason to believe that a candidate’s view about abortion — the crux of the war on women approach for Democrats — has ever been decisive. Support for abortion rights is a litmus test for liberals just as pro-life principles are for many conservatives. But moderates and independent voters have shown a willingness to vote for someone who might disagree with them about abortion.
Though the battle has always been depicted in the media as being between those who wish to overturn Roe v. Wade and make all abortions illegal and those who support the right to abort up until a woman goes into labor, most Americans find themselves in the mushy middle about this issue. Polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans support legal abortion in the first trimester. But similarly large majorities have also always backed the kind of restrictions on the practice that are anathema to liberals, such as a parental consent requirement for minors and opposition to late-term abortions. The backing for the latter has been further buttressed by advances in medical science that have — as even the New York Times and the New England Journal of Medicine have reported — made it possible for infants at more than 20 weeks of development to be viable outside the womb.
That means the question about the politics of abortion has never been so much about general views about the issue so much as on what ground it is being fought. So when Republicans are unwittingly maneuvered into defending or being associated with the views of those who think even rape victims should be denied a legal abortion, they lose. But by the same token, Democrats need to be careful about painting themselves into a corner where they are forced to defend the kind of gruesome late-term abortions of infants who might be able to live on their own.
That’s why, despite the glee with which Democrats are taking up the cudgels for Planned Parenthood, they are mistaken as to the strength of the position they are defending. As evidenced by the avalanche of abuse that is being hurled at Carly Fiorina from the left over her attack on Planned Parenthood in the last GOP presidential debate, most liberals seem to assume that any deviation from the party line that holds the group and all it does sacrosanct.
But the problem for them is that in doing so they are linking themselves to the most extreme positions on abortion that have little support outside of the Democratic base. Attempting to change the subject from the actual content of the undercover videos taken of Planned Parenthood officials to one of the credibility of its accusers may work well to mobilize those voters already sympathetic to their point of view. That is also true of arguments that attempt to make the words Planned Parenthood synonymous with that of women’s health.
Yet whether they like it or not, defending this powerful group that has become a key contributor and support of Democratic candidates also links them inextricably to stands that have little resonance outside of the precincts of the left. Americans who have been exposed to the videos can hear Planned Parenthood officials not only engaging in tasteless bargaining over the sale of body parts of the defenseless creatures who have been aborted. They also can hear about how they have sought to maximize their profit by engaging in horrifying late term abortions that few but left-wing extremists can defend. That was not the result of editing or superimposing stock footage of abortions. It is exactly what the group that has grown wealthy and arrogant, as it has flexed its political muscle in Washington, does.
Republicans learned how devastating it could be when they were put in the position of being associated with indifference or ignorance about rape. Are Democrats really willing to endanger their 2016 chances by charging into a debate where they can be tagged as endorsing a practice that is the moral equivalent of infanticide?
That’s why Carly Fiorina’s challenge about watching the videos is so dangerous to Democrats and why they feel they must try to discredit them by any means, fair or foul. The attention that they draw to those videos, even when attacking them, the more damage they are doing to their cause because viewing them is so devastating to Planned Parenthood and its apologists. Far from replicating a 2012 scenario in which the war on women works to elect Democrats, what Cecile Richards has done by calling in markers among her political allies is to set them up for a political battle that they can’t win.