Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is not usually considered a moderating force within the Democratic Party, but at the moment he is playing that role on abortion policy.
It's not that he has any pro-life sympathies: He has been co-sponsoring the Freedom of Choice Act as a senator for more than two decades. But he has been willing to support Democrats who are not in lockstep with abortion-rights advocates, and some of those advocates have been fuming as a result.
While on a "unity tour" for the Democratic National Committee with its chairman, Tom Perez, Sanders rallied with Heath Mello, a candidate for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska. Mello has said that he would not restrict abortion as mayor. But as a state senator he co-sponsored legislation banning abortion 20 weeks after fertilization and requiring women to be notified that they can see an ultrasound before having an abortion. He also says that he is personally opposed to abortion on religious grounds.
Naral Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue blasted Perez and Sanders for supporting "candidates who substitute their own judgement and ideology for that of their female constituents." In a statement, Perez retreated under fire:
"I fundamentally disagree with Heath Mello's personal beliefs about women's reproductive health. It is a promising step that Mello now shares the Democratic Party's position on women's fundamental rights. Every candidate who runs as a Democrat should do the same because every woman should be able to make her own health choices. Period. "
Every Democrat? That's bad news for Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, a Democrat at the top of Republican target lists for next year who has generally opposed abortion. It would have been bad news for a lot of other Democrats over the years, too. Such leading Democrats as Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy and Dick Gephardt were at one point anti-abortion. Many others, such as Bill Clinton, broke with the pro-choice lobby on taxpayer funding of abortion.
Even last year, a Pew poll found that 28 percent of Democrats believe that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases.
Sanders, so far, has not joined Perez in backing down. It's left-wing economics that truly motivates Sanders, and he wants the largest possible coalition for those views. He does not want to drive away people who agree with him that the federal government should monopolize health insurance and set a $15 minimum wage, but disagree with him on abortion. The logic of his position would make the Democrats into an economically progressive party with a socially conservative wing -- or, rather, make it back into one.
Hogue and like-minded activists, on the other hand, want it to be a socially liberal party. And they have been winning for a very long time. First they drove the anti-abortion Democrats out of the party, or made them recant their views. Then they changed the Democratic platform, dropping the goal of making abortion "rare" and adding full-throated support for government subsidies for it. Perez's comments on Friday were another step on this path.
Other Democrats echoed his views. Dick Durbin, the party's Senate whip, told CNN that people who oppose abortion personally could be in his party so long as they favored legal abortion. Durbin knows the weather in his party as well as anyone. When he was a member of the House in the 1980s, he bragged about having been master of ceremonies at five annual anti-abortion rallies in Illinois. By the time he ran for Senate in 1996, he had switched to voting to keep even partial-birth abortion legal.
Republicans have become more uniformly opposed to abortion over time, too, although party officials have not said that to run for mayor anywhere in the country a Republican must agree with their platform.
These changes seem to be working out better for the Republicans than for the Democrats. Exit polls have shown that in most presidential elections, voters for whom abortion is a top concern have favored the Republicans. And socially conservative constituencies seem to have noticed that they aren't welcome in the Democratic Party.
Giving up on these constituencies seems to have weakened the Democrats. White evangelical voters overwhelmingly rejected a socially liberal Democratic Party in the 2012 election. They rejected a more militantly socially liberal Democratic Party even more overwhelmingly in 2016. If Hillary Clinton had kept Obama's share of those voters in Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin, she would be president today.
But perhaps attacking Bernie Sanders for insufficient commitment to abortion will turn things around for the Democrats.