Reactions to my Ethics Notebook column on leaving the Democratic Party to become an Independent reminded me how volatile discussions can become when they meld the world of politics with the moral life. I’ve received some strong comments from both wings of the spectrum. How could you ever have voted Democrat when the party platform insists on abortion on demand? How could you consider voting Republican, the party of war and wealth? Polarization has become so dramatic, it seems some people think that the words Clinton and Ashcroft are obscenities. Even one person thought that priests, especially after the scandalous revelations of the past year, should keep their mouths shut, particularly on the issue of abortion.
It’s a confusion. But the confusion is in my own mind as much as anyone else’s. Case in point: Senator Paul Wellstone. He was a Democrat I could have voted for, even for president, and yet I would not have voted for his replacement, former Vice President Mondale. How can I explain that to someone? How can I make sense out of it for myself?
During the now infamous Wellstone memorial service, it became a bit clearer. What bothered me most about the event was not that it turned into a partisan pep rally, but that so many Democrats who once treated Wellstone as if he were some kind of kook seemed to claim solidarity with him. They may have agreed with him on abortion rights, but that is about all. I disagreed on that, but agreed with him on much else. He was strongly committed to unions and all employees who lose their jobs. He realized that healing the deepest wounds of racism required more than lip service and affirmative action programs. He never gave up on campaign finance reform, and he did not have to: his were grass-roots campaigns from the very beginning. He was against the North America Free Trade Agreement because of what it would do to the middle class of our country and the poorest of other countries. He was tireless in efforts to provide better mental health care for the poor. And he wanted universal, minimal health insurance for all.
Shortly before he died, he found himself the only Democratic senator in a close election race to vote against a blank check for President Bush to initiate war on Iraq. Many thought his strong opposition would cook his goose. But when Wellstone died, he was leading his opponent, Norm Coleman, by seven points. (Coleman, by the way, had left the Democratic Party because of its rigidity on abortion). Coleman beat Walter Mondale.
It just so happened that in the one Coleman-Mondale debate, Mondale called his opponent an arbitrary pro-lifer. Coleman looked him straight in the eye and said that he resented the arbitrary label. After defending his position, he asked Mondale to join him in legislation ending partial-birth abortion and proposing parental notification for abortion on minors. Mondale mumbled away into knee-jerk choiceism. And that’s why I would not have voted for him, but would have voted for the far more liberal Paul Wellstone. You could count on Wellstone for a lot of things. You can count on some Democrats for only one thing.
Some Democrats. I emphasize some because the most challenging and helpful response to my column was written by Kristen Day, the executive director of Democrats for Life of America (type in the organization’s name on a Google search and you will find its Web site, which features a brilliant article by Day, Abortion Stance Hurts Dems, that appeared in the Harvard Crimson). Rightly convinced that not all Democratic women are for abortion on demand and that there is a solid public sentiment favoring restrictions, she works to change the party from within, to call it back to its basic principles supporting rights and justice for all.
Yes, she is angry over the intolerance and even hostility frequently shown to pro-life Democrats, but she is not giving up. She notes that as many as 70 House Democrats vote against abortion at various times and that only 25 percent of Americans support the Democratic plank concerning abortion on demand. She makes a strong case that in my own state of Missouri, the Republican Jim Talent defeated Senator Jean Carnahan with the help of a likely swing vote of 80,000, based on opposition to abortion on demand. Something similar seems to have been a factor in the victory of Saxby Chambliss over the pro-choice Democratic incumbent Max Cleland of Georgia.
Kristen Day hopes, as I do, that the Democratic Party will be more principled as well as politically savvy on the pro-life issue. For not being so, they may well have paid a steep price in the 2002 election.
But there may be a higher price to be paid with the Republican victory. With the erosion of Democratic strength, the Republicans are in charge. It will be interesting to see what they do with their power.
If in two years, we find ourselves mired in war, our treasury depleted by huge tax cuts for the super-rich, our economy further ravaged by corporate greed, and our middle class disappearing, we may long for the days of Paul Wellstone. And we may wish there had been more of his kind around. True, his moral judgment, as one of his own books titled it, followed The Conscience of a Liberal. But at least we knew he had one.