The Democrats’ Dilemma: Their Own Trojan Horse Kicks Free

Democratic leaders have said that the Stupak amendment’s draconian new restrictions on abortion contained in the House health-reform bill will not appear in the final version. Here why voters who value women’s health cannot sit back and accept such assurances. Re-posted here courtesy of the Women’s Media Center which originally posted it as an exclusive and is rolling out a public and media education campaign to help Stop Stupak. But I think stopping the bad is only the first part of what we need to do…

House Democrats broke into a paroxysm of self-congratulation for passing a health reform bill. By embracing the Stupak-Pitts amendment, however, they entered the women’s hall of shame. They had promised no more limitations based on preexisting conditions. But House leadership allowed a codicil: Except if you are a woman.

The Stupak-Pitts amendment to the health bill is a sweeping ban on insurance coverage of abortion. It expands the 1976 Hyde amendment, which outlaws abortion coverage by existing Federally funded programs, to middle class women participating in the public option, even if they pay from their own pocketbooks. Hyde began a juggernaut of restrictions on abortion and birth control that I’d hoped the current health care debate would rectify.

Headlines blaring, “Abortion an Obstacle to Health-Care Bill,” got it backward. And the biggest obstacle was President Obama’s approach, which meshed all too well with Speaker Pelosi’s: they are both so averse to feather-ruffling that one wonders why they entered the rough and tumble of politics in the first place. No amount of Rahm Emmanuel’s mean-guy interference could have kept this chicken’s eggs from breaking, let alone its feathers in place.

Smart as he is, why didn’t Obama know that when you start from a position of compromise, you’ll end up with a fragment of what you wanted, if that? The public option is too weak to exercise serious cost-cutting control. And now women have been sacrificed, like so much detritus, even though we are 51 percent of the population and (in case they haven’t noticed) 60 percent of Democratic voters.

In response, I’m seeing the most intense wave of anger building among women voters of all ages since the Senate’s 1991 trashing of Anita Hill culminated in the 1992 “Year of the Woman”.

I am not convinced by after-the-fact reassurances that the final bill will reflect the already unjust status quo via the Capps amendment “compromise” that codifies existing restrictions. That’s because the table for expanding prohibitions on abortion was set by the Democrats themselves.

Nancy Pelosi and I walked together on the frontline of the March for Women’s Lives in April 2004—at 1.2 million strong, the largest civil rights protest ever mustered in the nation’s capital, demonstrating that the majority of Americans stood for women. But Pelosi, like many Democrats, allowed herself to be frightened by misinterpreting Republican victories that fall.

Frankly, John Kerry lost that election all by himself, in no small part by taking increasingly equivocal positions on issues—from war and peace to abortion—that concerned women. That Karl Rove’s grassroots machine then prevailed over Kerry’s demoralized base shouldn’t have shocked anyone. But post-election, the losing Democrats took the predictable circular position and started shooting at one another. Pelosi excoriated me for blasting anti-choice Tim Roemer’s candidacy for chair of the Democratic Party, a possibility that was one of the first signals to me of principles gone rogue.

The Democrats jubilantly regained control of the House in 2006. But in doing so they built their own Trojan horse and rolled it right into the center of the party’s soul. Howard Dean, who had entered the 2004 presidential race proclaiming himself the candidate from the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” became, ironically, one of the main architects of a desperation plan to recruit any anti-choice pol who had a chance to defeat a Republican.

Some strategists, like Daily Beast columnist Peter Beinert, assert this was the smart way for the Democrats to gain a governing majority. But if party powers had recruited, supported, and funded progressive women candidates at the level they wooed Blue Dogs, they could have saved both their integrity and their majority, and they’d be much stronger today.

Pelosi said she was “breaking the marble ceiling” when she accepted the speaker’s gavel. As sparkly-eyed and optimistic as any other attendee, I wrote about her swearing in for the Women’s Media Center, saying she would be smart to “spend less time cultivating the ‘Blue Dog’ Democrats and recognize the progressive women as her greatest asset.”

Clearly she didn’t get that message.

But many women in Congress did. Congresswoman Diana DeGette (D-CO) assured the Washington Post the day after the vote: “There’s going to be a firestorm here. Women are going to realize that a Democratic-controlled House has passed legislation that would prohibit women paying for abortions with their own funds. . . We’re not going to let this into law.” To back up her claim, she’s collected 41 and counting signatures from House Democrats that they will kill any final bill retaining the Stupak amendment’s restrictions. That’s enough to block passage of one of the cornerstones on which Barack Obama has staked his presidency.

And while we must keep pointing the finger of blame at the weasely Democrats, the fact is that the Catholic Bishops and the National Right to Life played with the kind of hardball tactics that pro-choice advocates failed to employ. From here out, we need a different, bolder, more proactive approach.

So how do women get out from the underside of the bus and start driving it?

First, we cannot accept any health care reform that retreats on women’s human right to reproductive self-determination. Second, this health reform debate is the opportunity to revisit and excise the cancer represented by the Hyde amendment and make women’s health care whole again (yes, President Obama, abortion IS health care).

But let’s not stop there. President Obama said during the elections that the Freedom of Choice Act, which would guarantee women’s civil right to make our own childbearing decisions and give us at last the right to our own lives, would be among his top priorities. He subsequently took it off the priority list, but we must hold him to his promise by the fire of our political engagement.

That’s how the Democrats can send their Trojan horse packing and get back on the road to fairness and justice for which their party stands. For if they think a health reform bill betraying women is victory, they’ll soon find out it’s a Pyrrhic one indeed.

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GLORIA FELDT is the New York Times bestselling author of several books including No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, a sought-after speaker and frequent contributor to major news outlets, and the Co-Founder and President of Take The LeadPeople has called her “the voice of experience,” and among the many honors she has been given, Vanity Fair called her one of America’s “Top 200 Women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers,” and Glamour chose her as a “Woman of the Year.”

As co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a leading women’s leadership nonprofit, her mission is to achieve gender parity by 2025 through innovative training programs, workshops, a groundbreaking 50 Women Can Change The World immersive, online courses, a free weekly newsletter, and events including a monthly Virtual Happy Hour program and a Take The Lead Day symposium that reached over 400,000 women globally in 2017.

5 thoughts on “The Democrats’ Dilemma: Their Own Trojan Horse Kicks Free

  1. Do you really believe the Democratic Party stands for fairness and justice? Democrats like to pretend they do, but for whom? You must remember the Clinton welfare reform? How many times must Democrats betray women before women realize how skillfully Democrats employ nice sounding talking points and fearmongering about the Republican menace to convince women they must vote for Democrats, only to be taken for granted and stabbed in the back every time women’s rights might get in the way of a higher priority?

    1. Did I say the Democrats act fairly and justly? No I did not. In fact, the whole point of my commentary is that they have not done so.

      However, if you look at their platform, it does represent the principles of fairness and justice I mentioned. Certainly much more so than the Republican platform. It is up to the women to hold their feet to the fire on those principles where women’s rights and reproductive justice are concerned. They can’t stab us in the back when we are in front of them looking them in the eyeballs and telling them they aren’t going to be reelected if they betray us.

  2. Sorry, Gloria, for creating the impression I did not understand your point. I was right with you until you threw in that bit about what Democrats stand for. I am not sure you understood my point. If one looks at the respective platforms of these parties, certainly Democrats appear to stand for fairness and justice more than Republicans. The problem is, party platforms are like campaign promises; they are made to be broken. Their purpose is more to create the impression of what the party stands for than to be an actual blueprint for action. Feminists put in a lot of work on the Democratic platform, which is one reason many feminists had such high hopes after the Democratic landslide, but if those words are just talking points in the eyes of the politicians, not meant to shape actual policy, why should anyone believe them? Especially in the face of so much contrary evidence? Democrats mix it up, doing a few good things to keep hope alive, but when the going gets tough, women’s rights are all too often considered expendable.

    I have watched Democrats and Republicans play this game with increasing skepticism since I was a rebellious teenager. Of course they want to create the impression they are dedicated to fairness and justice. The system as it stands precludes either party from keeping such promises. Political reality is all public relations, or in other words, spin. On another thread, you observed politicians always disappoint. Why is that? Why do they get away with that? Is it because women can tell Democrats betrayal will cost them reelection, but Democrats think that is just a bluff, because where else can women go? In other words, women can try to hold the feet of Democrats to the fire to live up to their platform, but unless these politicians can be convinced there will be a heavy price to pay for their perfidy, they are unlikely to mend their ways. It is as though, Democrats feel free to make women furious, thinking women will get over it, because however egregiously they may sell women out, they can always claim Republicans are worse. This is a pattern; Democrats have regularly betrayed the environmental and peace movements as well, confident those who care about those movements also have nowhere else to go.

    Look at the President. He is dismayed by the turn of events, calling for revised language to make the bill abortion neutral, but all that would mean is to enshrine the Hyde Amendment. Is that change I should believe in? Obama promised the Freedom of Choice Act would be a top priority, but changed his mind soon after taking office. Some feminists protested that, but Democrats thought it was more important to expand their tent. If the Hyde Amendment is allowed to stand, where would that leave the Freedom of Choice Act? Just another campaign promise made to be broken? If the Stupak-Pitts amendment or equivalent is in the final bill, does anyone doubt Obama would sign it? Democrats may be foolish to accommodate their Trojan horse, but I doubt the Democratic leadership will realize that, until women stop enabling these betrayals.

    1. You say it all very well, Aletha. Your last paragraph almost sounds like I might have written it myself. What I am attempting to do is take off from where we are to inspire action to change that sorry state of affairs that is unfortunately just politics as usual.

      So let’s think about what would make the difference. First of all, progressive, prochoice women can stop giving to the Democratic Party (which I did long ago after I had joined the Women’s Leadership Council then saw how the very women who raised $60 million in the 2006 election cycle were systematically excluded from the decision making table unless they were the “good girls” who turned over the checks and made no fuss when their rights and principles were trampled on).

      Second we can hammer home that the Hyde amendment is the root of the Stupak amendment and that neither is acceptable. We must support Diana DeGette and the 40 other House members who have said they won’t vote for health bill with the Stupak language in it, with petitions, contributions, op eds, blogposts, and every other means we can employ. For them to be hugely victorious in the 2010 elections would deliver a powerful message.

      Other thoughts about political hardball to employ?

  3. You wrote such a marvelous protest, I got inspired. Democrats ought to think long and hard about what they really stand for, and what it means that with such a large majority, they still had to placate their anti-abortion minority, not to mention the insurance and pharmaceutical companies, to barely pass this bill. It is a sad day when a Democratic President makes the Hyde Amendment sound like the appropriate middle ground, which I think emboldened Stupak to press for harsher restrictions. Ironically, Jim Dean, Howard’s brother, has sent coathangers to twenty Democrats with good records on abortion rights who voted for the Stupak-Pitts amendment. We may win this battle, either by getting that out of the bill or by defeating the bill if the amendment survives the conference committee, but why on earth must we be fighting this battle again with a Democratic President and large majorities in both houses of Congress?

    I think you know what I think about political hardball. What would really make the Democratic leadership sit up and take notice is for disillusioned women to stop supporting that party in any way. Unfortunately most women do not have much money to donate to political campaigns, so Democrats might not pay much attention if angry women stopped giving them money. If some of these women abandoned the party, to run as independents or representing a feminist-centered party, or even threatened to do that, I doubt that would go unnoticed. Women have been too forgiving. That may be partly due to feeling we have no alternative, as if whatever Democrats offer is the best we can hope for. The Democratic leadership seems to count on that, as if women as a group are basically powerless, too fragmented to make trouble, but I think despite all the political differences among women, it would not take many angry women declaring independence to cause a great stir. NOW activists passed a motion to consider starting a new party twenty years ago, which did cause a great commotion, but for whatever reason, NOW blinked and abandoned the idea.

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