Jewish World Review Feb 21, 2005/ 12 Adar 1, 5765

Steve and Cokie Roberts

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Breaking the grip of secular fundamentalists | Democrat Tim Roemer won a Congressional seat in a Republican state, Indiana. As a member of the 9/11 Commission, he had strong credentials on fighting terrorism. Yet his bid for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee went nowhere, and for one reason: as a practicing Catholic, he opposes abortion in most cases.

"It was a very difficult mountain to climb from the beginning, and people tried to hang a radioactive anvil around my neck on abortion," says Roemer. "They threw a couple of kitchen sinks and then some at us, with phone banks and mailings and efforts to derail the candidacy just based on that one issue."

Instead, the new chairman is Howard Dean — a favorite of pro-choice activists, and a leader of what evangelical Christian writer Jim Wallis calls the "secular fundamentalist" wing of the Democratic Party.

Which choice made more sense for a minority party that's lost control of every branch of government? A man of faith who doesn't need a visa to visit Red State America? Or a classic Northeastern intellectual who said, during his failed bid for the 2004 Democratic nomination, that he had just discovered that Southern voters take religion seriously?

From any practical perspective, Roemer was the better option, but the abortion rights lobby was simply too powerful. Democrats deride the rigidity of religious fundamentalists in the GOP, but in fact, on the abortion issue, they are no more tolerant of dissent than the Republicans — and in some ways are worse.

Three of the most visible Republican politicians — California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York Gov. George Pataki, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani — all favor legalized abortion. Where are the comparable pro-lifers in Democratic ranks?

It's a mistake to let abortion define moral values in politics. One example: during the election, President Bush opposed Catholic teaching on a wide range of issues, from war to poverty. Yet the church hierarchy ignored those lapses and backed Bush, over a Catholic opponent, mainly because of his anti-abortion stance.

Moreover, when many parents talk about "values," their core concern is not government programs and policies. It's the sex and violence sold to their children by the popular culture.

But abortion remains the most volatile of all "values" issues, and despite Roemer's defeat, some Democrats are struggling to break the grip of the pro-choice apostles who treat even the most reasonable compromise as heresy.

Start with Sen. Hillary Clinton, who took a brave step recently by saying, "We can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women."

Clinton is reaching for a "common ground" reflected in Supreme Court decisions and embraced by a majority of Americans. Abortion should remain legal but rare. Greater efforts are needed to prevent unwanted pregnancies and encourage adoption.

More important, all rights are subject to restrictions, and abortion is no exception. Most people think it makes sense to notify the parents of a minor before she has an abortion; the occasional case of incest or abuse can be handled through a judicial bypass.

And as medical science advances, limits on late-term abortions become more compelling. Anyone who spends time in a neo-natal unit, as we have, and sees doctors saving 1-pound newborns, gains a new perspective on the issue.

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Another intriguing sign: some party leaders are defying abortion rights groups and promoting the Senate candidacies of two pro-life Democrats, Pennsylvania Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr. and Rep. James R. Langevin of Rhode Island. The new Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, is also anti-abortion, and he's been inviting progressive religionists like Jim Wallis to counsel Democrats on how to broaden their message to people of faith.

As Wallis told the magazine Christianity Today, "It's important for Democrats to change the way they talk about a moral issue like abortion, to respect pro-life Democrats, to welcome them in the party and to talk first about how they are going to be committed to really dramatically reducing unwanted pregnancies — not just retaining the legal option of abortion."

Clinton and Wallis are right. Democrats have to move beyond the narrow-minded, with-us-or-against-us approach on abortion that caused Tim Roemer's defeat. It's one way of convincing voters that the party is not the prisoner of the secular fundamentalists.

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