This is getting to be really interesting. Armando of DailyKos has done a second post responding to my latest optimistic epistle on the future of Southern Democrats, and poses a few more questions and challenges that I’m happy to try to answer. Maybe I should apply for a Sympathy for the Devil diary on the Kos site, as a combined party unity/missionary effort.The main question Armando poses is why, exactly, Dems cratered between ’96 and ’04 among Southern self-identified moderates. He answers his own question by suggesting that 9/11 made all the difference, elevating the national security issue.Certainly that answer has something to do with it. Maybe it’s all those military bases; maybe it’s the disproportionate number of black, white and brown southerners who sign up to fight for their country; maybe it’s even that fightin’ frontier Jacksonian Scotch-Irish heritage that Walter Russell Mead writes about–but there’s no question national security matters more in the South than in, say, Iowa.But the problem with attributing the Dem decline between ’96 and ’04 to national security is the intervening election: ’00, when the Democratic presidential vote among white southerners collapsed, even though the candidate was, technically, a Southern White Guy (and, technically, a Baptist to boot) named Al Gore.In another section of his post, Armando suggests that Clinton’s personal qualities as a candidate, not his message or his positioning on issues, explains his relative success in the South. As I have argued at some length elsewhere, I don’t think you can separate the message and the messenger so cleanly, especially in the South, where Clinton’s communications gifts were considered natural, not supernatural.Personalities aside, the biggest difference between Clinton ’96 and Gore ’00 had to do with how each candidate dealt with two sets of issues: culture, and role-of-government–both big “trust” issues in the South. Clinton was thoroughly progressive, but went well out of his way to make it clear that he wanted abortion to be “safe, legal and rare,” that he supported a modest gay rights agenda because everyone who “worked hard and played by the rules” should be treated the same; and that he fought to maintain and even expand the social safety net on condition that it truly represented a “hand up, not a handout.” Everyone in Washington laughed at Clinton’s “micro-initiatives” on supporting the family–V-chips, school uniforms, youth curfews, etc,–but they sent big messages in the culturally-sensitive South. And in general, Clinton’s whole ’96 message was that he was willing to reign in government’s excesses, while fighting to defend its essentials–the famous M2E2 (Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment).Compare that message to Gore’s, and you go a long way towards understanding why the guy lost nearly half of Clinton’s southern white support. Gore was forever bellowing about partial-birth abortion legislation (supported by about three-fourths of southerners) representing a dire threat to the basic right to choose. While Clinton called for “mending, not ending” affirmative action, Gore pledged to defend every aspect of affirmative action with his life. Clinton talked about balancing gun ownership rights with responsibilities. Gore talked about national licensing of gun owners. Clinton talked about making government “smarter, not bigger.” Gore never mentioned his own role in the “reinventing government” initiative, and boasted an enormous policy agenda that added up to a message that he wanted to expand government as an end in itself.Moving forward four years, Kerry tried to avoid Gore’s mistakes on specific cultural and role-of-government issues, but never talked about these themes more than occasionally, and never came across with any kind of authenticity in his efforts to project himself as a man of faith, a hunter, a government-reformer, or a family guy. While Gore got killed by his positioning and the lack of a compelling message, Kerry got killed by the lack of a compelling message and by those personal characteristics–distorted and exaggerated by GOP propaganda–that made him seem alien to southern voters. And without any question, the polarization of the entire election pushed southern moderates, like moderates elsewhere, to pick sides instinctively rather than think it all through.(At the risk of gnawing this question to death, I might add that Clinton in ’96 was advancing an increasingly successful national policy agenda; Gore in ’00 perversely ran a campaign that avoided references to that success; and Kerry, of course, had to campaign as a critic, not as an achiever).The downward trajectory of the southern Dem vote between ’96 and ’04 also reflected demographic trends which I discussed in my earlier answer to Armando–trends that may not help Republicans that much in the immediate future, as the aging pains of new suburbs and bad GOP governance create a natural backlash that Democrats can exploit if they are smart enough.Armando seizes on my commentary about southern suburban moderates as a Dem target to suggest that maybe the belief that “values voters” are the key to the South is wrong.Well, that depends on your definition of “values voters.” If it means people who want to criminalize abortions, demonize gays and lesbians, or institutionalize evangelical Christianity, then no, suburban southerners don’t generally fit that category, and I’d personally write them off as targets even if that were the case, on both practical and moral grounds.My own (and generally, the DLC’s) definition of “values voters” is quite different. They are people who: (a) don’t must trust politicians, and want to know they care about something larger than themselves, their party, and the interest groups that support them; (b) don’t much trust government, and instinctively gravitate towards candidates who seem to care about the role that civic and religious institutions can play in public life; (c) don’t much trust elites, whom they suspect do not and cannot commit themselves to any particular set of moral absolutes; (d) don’t much like the general direction of contemporary culture (even if they are attracted to it as consumers), and want to know public officials treat that concern with respect and a limited agenda to do something about it; (e) are exquisitely sensitive about respect for particular values like patriotism, parenting and work; and (f) have a communitarian bent when it comes to cultural issues, and dislike those who view them strictly through the prism of the irresistable march towards absolute and universal individual rights without regard to social implications.By that definition, I think southern suburban moderates, and especially women in that demographic, are definitely “values voters.” In answer to Armando’s particular question about how suburban southerners would react to that wingnut in Kansas who wants to explore the sexual histories of women seeking abortions, I think the simple answer is that they would say: “Mind your own business, boy! Aren’t there some criminals out there you ought to be chasing?”Somebody at Vanderbilt once wrote a book entitled “The South’s Compulsive Need to Explain.” In that spirit, I hope the debate over the region and its political future continues. Clearly, Earle and Merle Black need some real competition.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
Amidst all the talk about the impact of a likely reversal of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, I thought a history lesson was in order, so I wrote one at New York:
Last week, the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would have codified abortion rights, died in in the Senate by a vote of 51 to 49. All 210 House Republicans and all 50 Senate Republicans voted against the legislation. This surprised no one, but it’s actually odd in several ways. While Republican elected officials are almost monolithically opposed to abortion rights, pro-choice Republican voters didn’t entirely cease to exist, and this could become a problem for the party if, as expected, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the right to abortion at the end of this term.
Though polling on the issue is notoriously slippery, our best guess is that a little over a third of Republicans disagree with their party on whether to outlaw abortion (while about one-quarter of Democrats disagree with their party on the topic). These Americans have virtually no representation in Congress with the limited exceptions of Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski (both GOP senators support some abortion rights, but they are still opposed the WHPA and are against dropping the filibuster to preserve abortion rights).Ironically, abortion rights as we know them are, to a considerable extent, the product of Republican lawmaking at every level of government. The most obvious examples are the two Supreme Court decisions that established and reaffirmed a constitutional right to abortion. Of the seven justices who supported Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that struck down pre-viability-abortion bans, five were appointed by Republican presidents, including the author of the majority opinion, Harry Blackmun, and then–Chief Justice Warren Burger. All five justices who voted to confirm the constitutional right to pre-viability abortions in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey were appointed by Republican presidents as well.
These pro-choice Republicans weren’t just rogue jurists (though their alleged perfidy has become a deep grievance in the anti-abortion movement). Today’s lock-step opposition to abortion rights among GOP elected officials took a long time to develop. Indeed, before Roe, Republicans were more likely to favor legal abortion than Democrats. In New York and Washington, two of the four states that fully legalized pre-viability abortions in 1970, Republican governors Nelson Rockefeller and Daniel Evans were at the forefront of abortion-rights efforts. They weren’t fringe figures; Rockefeller went on to become vice-president of the United States under Gerald Ford. Pre-Roe, various other Republican officials supported more modest efforts to ease abortion bans; among them was then–California governor Ronald Reagan, who signed a bill significantly liberalizing exceptions to an abortion ban in 1967.
The anti-abortion movement’s strength in the Republican Party grew steadily after Roe in part because of a more general ideological sorting out of the two major parties as liberals drifted into the Democratic Party and conservatives were drawn into the GOP. To put it another way, there has always been ideological polarization in American politics, but only in recent decades has it been reflected in parallel party polarization. But that doesn’t fully explain the GOP’s shift on abortion policy.
Beginning in 1972 with Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign, Republicans began actively trying to recruit historically Democratic Roman Catholic voters. Soon thereafter, they started working to mobilize conservative Evangelical voters. This effort coincided with the Evangelicals’ conversion into strident abortion opponents, though they were generally in favor of the modest liberalization of abortion laws until the late 1970s. All these trends culminated in the adoption of a militantly anti-abortion platform plank in the 1980 Republican National Convention that nominated Reagan for president. The Gipper said he regretted his earlier openness to relaxed abortion laws. Reagan’s strongest intraparty rival was George H.W. Bush, the scion of a family with a powerful multigenerational connection to Planned Parenthood. He found it expedient to renounce any support for abortion rights before launching his campaign.
Still, there remained a significant pro-choice faction among Republican elected officials until quite recently. In 1992, the year Republican Supreme Court appointees saved abortion rights in Casey, there was a healthy number of pro-choice Republicans serving in the Senate: Ted Stevens of Alaska, John Seymour of California, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, William Cohen of Maine, Bob Packwood of Oregon, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, John Chafee of Rhode Island, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, John Warner of Virginia, and Alan Simpson and Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming. Another, John Heinz of Pennsylvania, had recently died.
Partisan polarization on abortion (which, of course, was taking place among Democrats as well) has been slow but steady, as Aaron Blake of the Washington Post recently observed:
“In a 1997 study, Carnegie Mellon University professor Greg D. Adams sought to track abortion votes in Congress over time. His finding: In the Senate, there was almost no daylight between the two parties in 1973, with both parties voting for ‘pro-choice’ positions about 40 percent of the time.
“But that quickly changed.
“There was more of a difference in the House in 1973, with Republicans significantly more opposed to abortion rights than both House Democrats and senators of both parties. But there, too, the gap soon widened.
“Including votes in both chambers, Adams found that a 22 percentage- point gap between the two parties’ votes in 1973 expanded to nearly 65 points two decades later, after Casey was decided.”
By 2018, every pro-choice House Republican had been defeated or had retired. The rigidity of the party line on abortion was perhaps best reflected in late 2019, when a House Democrat with a record of strong support for abortion rights, Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, switched parties. Almost instantly, Van Drew switched sides on reproductive rights and was hailed by the hard-core anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List for voting “consistently to defend the lives of the unborn and infants.”
With the 2020 primary loss by Illinois Democratic representative Dan Lipinski, a staunch opponent of abortion rights, there’s now just one House member whose abortion stance is out of step with his party: Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, who is very vulnerable to defeat in a May 24 runoff.
If the Supreme Court does fully reverse Roe in the coming weeks, making abortion a more highly salient 2022 campaign issue, the one-third of pro-choice Republican voters may take issue with their lack of congressional representation. Will the first big threat to abortion rights in nearly a half-century make them change their priorities? Or will they still care more about party loyalty and issues like inflation? Perhaps nothing will change for most of these voters. But in close races, the abandoned tradition of pro-choice Republicanism could make a comeback to the detriment of the GOP’s ambitious plans for major midterm gains.