Private Eyes

by Noam Scheiber | April 11, 2005

Much of the press coverage of the Schiavo case focused on a now-familiar split within the Republican Party between social conservatives—who insisted nothing mattered more than prolonging Terri Schiavo's life—and anti-government libertarians, who tut-tutted about the Republican leadership's encroachment on local autonomy. Some in the media, citing apocalyptic predictions from activists on both sides, went so far as to call Schiavo the beginning of a GOP schism.

In truth, the GOP has been finessing the uneasy alliance between libertarians and social conservatives for at least as long as pundits have been pointing it out. I suspect the party will pull through this time, too. Far more interesting—and politically more consequential—is an emerging Democratic split between social libertarians, who emphasize privacy, and what I'll call communitarians, for lack of a better word. Like social conservatives, the communitarians believe the government has a role to play in Schiavo-like dilemmas. If they prevail, it could help the Democratic Party reclaim its popular majority.

Today, Democrats assume their positions on social issues like abortion and the right to die have long appealed to a majority of voters. In fact, the Nixon campaign's characterization of George McGovern's platform as "acid, amnesty, abortion" was devastating to the party. It wasn't until the mid-'80s that liberals figured out how to turn their stance on social issues into a political advantage.

The impetus, as William Saletan describes in his excellent book, Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, was a series of state-level ballot measures intended to restrict abortion rights. In 1986, a coalition of pro-choice groups hired pollster Harrison Hickman to help them craft a message capable of defeating one such campaign in Arkansas. Hickman's polls showed that, even though less than 40 percent of Arkansas voters supported an affirmative right to an abortion, 65 percent believed the decision should be left to a woman, her family, and her doctor. On Hickman's advice, the coalition of pro-choice groups framed the proposed restrictions as a blow to privacy, and the referendum failed by a narrow margin. Hickman successfully reprised the strategy in opposition to Robert Bork's 1987 Supreme Court nomination.

The problem, according to Saletan, was that this tactic only worked as long as moderates and conservatives could read their own worldviews into the notion of privacy. Conservatives, after all, didn't favor abortion. They just didn't want the federal government making the decision for them. But, once national Democrats—as opposed to more anonymous interest groups or local candidates—embraced the cause of privacy, conservatives and moderates filtered this rhetoric through their prejudices about the Democratic Party. For these voters, appeals to privacy raised all the McGovern-era suspicions of liberals as moral relativists who actually favored abortion and drugs and promiscuity.

The case in point was Michael Dukakis, whose abortion position during the 1988 campaign was heavily informed by Hickman's polling. During a debate against then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, Dukakis explained that "the question [on abortion] is, who gets to make the decision. And I think it has to be the woman in the exercise of her own conscience and religious beliefs." Exit polls showed Dukakis performing particularly badly among voters on social issues like abortion and the death penalty.

Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992 corrected many of Dukakis's missteps. Clinton viewed the abortion issue as a chance to make an affirmative statement of values—that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare"—rather than simply a statement about what the government shouldn't do.

But, by the end of the Clinton administration, Democrats were again making the same mistakes Dukakis had. They unwittingly helped the conservatives' cause by taking seemingly popular short-term positions that nonetheless reinforced the broader perception they were morally suspect. In 1998, for example, Democrats accused the GOP of overreaching in its efforts to impeach Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. The strategy netted them gains in the House, but it raised questions in the minds of moderate voters. George W. Bush exploited these questions with his pledge to restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office in 2000 and his attacks on Al Gore's character. Gore lost voters who rated honesty and trustworthiness as the most important presidential qualities by an 80-15 margin.

When the Schiavo case began garnering national attention, Democrats' first reaction was to press their social libertarian line. "Congressional leaders have no business substituting their judgment for that of multiple state courts that have extensively considered the issues in this intensely personal family matter," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi complained. Liberals became increasingly confident as polls showed the public overwhelmingly concerned about federal intrusion into a private family matter. Once again, Democrats risked reinforcing the perception they lacked core values.

Something interesting, however, was beginning to happen: Voices within the Democratic Party were genuinely agonizing over whether congressional intervention in the Schiavo case was truly so egregious. Almost 50 House Democrats voted in favor of the legislation authorizing the additional judicial review—many of them Southern moderates, but several of them liberal members of the Congressional Black Caucus. It was dawning on the party that there was an affirmative statement of values to be made, not simply a libertarian attack on government intervention.

The case of Terri Schiavo is incredibly complex. But the question of a government obligation to the weak, the sick, and the disabled is not—at least for Democrats. So it was reassuring to learn this week that congressional Democrats like Tom Harkin and Barney Frank are closing ranks behind legislation that would allow federal courts to review cases in which end-of-life choices are murky and the family is divided. Considered alongside Hillary Clinton's efforts to reframe the pro-choice position as a communitarian belief that every child should be born into a loving, caring family, it looks as though we're seeing the beginning of a new Democratic Party. It's a party that appeals to core values, not one that allows itself to be caricatured by their absence. Let's hope that party is here to stay.

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