Easy Choices

Terrance Heath

The first time I heard it, I did a double-take, because I thought I heard it wrong. The second time I heard it, I rolled my eyes. The third time I heard Sarah Palin, in her interview with Oprah Winfrey, suggest that women who choose to terminate pregnancies are essentially “taking the easy way out.”

There is much — so much, really — that I object to here, but I’ll start with one really simple point.

I don’t know, and can’t know, what it’s like to decide whether or not to have an abortion. But I can listen — and have listened — to the voices and experiences of women who have. None of the women I’ve known who have faced that choice, based on what they told me, experienced it as an “easy” choice.

Such choices — the ones that have unknown and unknowable, long-term consequences for ourselves and our families — are almost never easy choices to make. As both Republicans and Democrats demonstrate, it’s the choices we make for other people — people who are not “us” — that are the easy choices.

Palin’s remarks on Oprah virtually echoed what she said earlier this year, in a speech at a fundraising dinner.

UPI POY 2008 - Campaign 2008.

The Alaska governor told the Vanderburgh County Right to Life banquet, billed as the largest annual event of its kind, that she learned she was pregnant with her fifth child while on an out-of-state trip at an oil and gas conference.

“There, just for a fleeting moment, I thought, I knew, nobody knows me here. Nobody would ever know. I thought, wow, it is easy. It could be easy to think maybe of trying to change the circumstances. . . . No one would ever know.”

Palin was 44 years old with four children already. Less than a year into her tenure as governor, she had trouble imagining “putting down the BlackBerry and picking up the breast pump,” AOL.com reported.

It was her faith, she said, that made her realize that ending her pregnancy “wasn’t any answer.” But she said the experience helped her relate to the many women and girls who face unwanted pregnancies.

“I do understand what these women, what these girls go through in that thought process,” she told the crowd, who gave her two standing ovations during her remarks.

On the same day of Palin’s sit-down with Oprah, I read Emily Douglas’ column about Rep. Bart Stupak’s (D-MI) amendment to the House health care reform bill.

“That’s the price of healthcare reform.” That’s what plenty of oh-so-well-meaning pundits have told those of us making a fuss over the Stupak amendment, the late-night attachment to the House healthcare reform bill that will leave virtually any woman accessing insurance through the health insurance exchange without abortion coverage. (Another argument that’s cropped up is that the Stupak amendment won’t actually affect abortion access for that many women, a claim that’s based on faulty analysis of Guttmacher data on billing for abortion care, as Adam Sonfield explains.)

But both pro-choice and progressive healthcare reform leaders and members of Congress have come out swinging against the amendment, some going as far as to make it clear they’ll refuse to support reform if Congressional Democrats decide to pay for it with women’s healthcare. Calling the amendment a “middle-class abortion ban,” Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards said Wednesday that her organization would not support healthcare reform with an amendment further limiting access to abortion. Meanwhile, Senators Barbara Mikulski and Diane Feinstein have begun strategizing how to keep Stupak off the Senate bill, the New York Times reports.

I’ll say it again. Whether it’s Sarah Palin’s self-serving contradictions, or Democrats’ and Republicans’ cynical political compromises, in the realm of politics, the choices we make for others are the truly easy choices.

Predictably, it’s easy for Sarah Palin to say that women facing unplanned or unwanted pregnancies shouldn’t take “easy way” out of their circumstances, with no apparent consideration of the full context of the circumstances in which women make these decisions — deeply personal circumstances that are easy to exploit politically, when decisions are made about policies that make those already difficult circumstances even moreso.

By the same token, it’s easy for Rep. Stupak to say that his amendment essentially does nothing and changes nothing and then, without a sense of irony, go on to make the case for its necessity and blame progressives for making it necessary in the first place. (It’s worth nothing that the Stupack amendment doesn’t quite do everything Stupak initially wanted it to distinguish between “forcible rape” and, well, the other kind I guess.) It’s easy for Stupak to ignore that both recent academic reports and health insurance executives say that his amendment will limit access to abortion. services.

Because, though it would initially be limited to those women covered by health care exchanges, in all likelihood insurance companies will gradually stop covering abortion services themselves.

“I really think it would be impractical,” says Robert Laszewski, a health insurance industry consultant. Several health insurance companies contacted for this story declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the subject matter.

Laszewski says the problem is that by all estimates, the vast majority of people who will be shopping in the new exchanges will be getting subsidies, so they won’t be allowed to get abortion coverage. Thus, if a health insurer did offer a separate plan with abortion coverage, it would only be available to a small universe of buyers, and it simply wouldn’t make much business sense.

“It’s not an ideological issue, it’s not about abortion or not abortion,” Laszewski says. “It’s about what is administratively simpler, easier to administer. It just adds a level of complexity they will likely avoid.”

Sara Rosenbaum, a health lawyer and professor at George Washington University, agrees that it’s impractical to expect health insurance plans to cover abortion in the exchanges, even for people paying the full premiums without federal help.

“If you speak to insurers in the industry, they will tell you that they simply can’t operate under these circumstances,” Rosenbaum says. “They need to be able to offer standard products that get administered in a standard way for everybody.”

And that’s also the death knell for the supplemental policies Stupak points to as evidence of how little his amendment (which, nonetheless, he says must be in the final health reform legislation) actually does.

“As a result, Stupak/Pitts can be expected to move the industry away from current norms of coverage for medically indicated abortions. In combination with the Hyde Amendment, Stupak/Pitts will impose a coverage exclusion for medically indicated abortions on such a widespread basis that the health benefit services industry can be expected to recalibrate product design downward across the board in order to accommodate the exclusion in selected markets.”

Furthermore the study finds that the supposed fallback option for impacted women--a “rider” policy that provides supplemental coverage for abortions only–may not even be allowed under the terms of the law. “In our view, the terms and impact of the Amendment will work to defeat the development of a supplemental coverage market for medically indicated abortions. In any supplemental coverage arrangement, it is essential that the supplemental coverage be administered in conjunction with basic coverage. This intertwined administration approach is barred under Stupak/Pitts because of the prohibition against financial comingling.”

Again, Stupak’s and Palin’s political choices are easy choices, because they deny or simply ignore the circumstances of those “others” who will bear the consequences.

§§§

It would seem like a lot to ignore, but they make it appear quite easy.

In the aftermath of Dr. George Tiller’s murder, a lot of people writing about his murder in the context of the increasingly angry rhetoric of the extreme right. But I found myself drawn into the story of why Tiller chose to continue his father’s practice of offering abortion services to women, and eventually ended up writing a series of posts about Tiller’s medical practice as a matter of conscience. I had written previously about late-term abortion, and the reasons why some women seek abortion services.

The stories goes that when his father, who was also a physician died, Tiller took over his father’s practice, intending to phase it out and pursue the dermatology practice he’d wanted to start after medical school. But in the process of taking over his father’s practice, he learned that his father had performed abortions during the 50s and 60s (illegal, in those pre-Roe v. Wade days), prompted by guilt over the death of a woman he’d refused to help. Tiller spoke with a number of his father’s patients, and learned from them how much his father’s services meant at a time when their options were much fewer.

And just as offering abortion services became a matter of conscience for his father, so it became for George Tiller, who would become one of a handful of doctors offering late-term abortion services. He was one of a handful because few doctors, hospitals or medical schools wanted to deal with the threats and violence that inevitably came with the territory.

The result is that threats and violence curtail the availability of abortion services, to the point that there was no one willing to help the 9-year-old girl who was one of Tiller’s patients.

The 9-year-old girl had been raped by her father. She was 18 weeks pregnant. Carrying the baby to term, going through labor and delivery, would have ripped her small body apart.

There was no doctor in her rural Southern town to provide her with an abortion. No area hospital would even consider taking her case.

Susan Hill, the president of the National Women’s Health Foundation, which operates reproductive health clinics in areas where abortion services are scarce or nonexisistent, called Dr. George Tiller, the Wichita, Kan., ob-gyn who last Sunday was shot to death by an abortion foe in the entry foyer of his church.

She begged.

“I only asked him for a favor when it was a really desperate story, not a semi-desperate story,” she told me this week. Tiller was known to abortion providers — and opponents — as the “doctor of last resort” — the one who took the patients no one else would touch.

“He took her for free,” she said. “He kept her three days. He checked her himself every few hours. She and her sister came back to me and said he couldn’t have been more wonderful. That’s just the way he was.”

After reading about a the death of 12-year-old girl after a painful childbirth — in Yemen, where abortion is illegal except to save a woman’s life, and then only if the mother’s death is imminent — I can only imagine the fate of this 9-year-old girl if Tiller had refused to help her as other doctors and hospitals had done.

How’s that? Why was there no physician in her rural southern town who could or would help her? Why would no area hospital — where people would surely have known the risks this young girl (no doubt already traumatized by being raped by her father) would face during delivery? (Vaginal or c-section, it seems like there are no good choices here.)

Why is abortion not readily available in 87% of counties in the U.S.? Why, between 1992 and 2005, did more than 250 hospitals and 300 private practitioners stop providing abortion? Why do so few medical schools train doctors to do these procedures? Why do 74% of ob-gyn residency programs no train all residents in abortion procedures? (Figures via The Gutmacher Institute.)

Why would a nine-year-old girl, raped and impregnated by her father, have nowhere to turn except to Dr. Tiller, and then 18 weeks into pregnancy? (Where will others like her turn now that there’s one less doctor willing to help? It’s likely that, because of all of the above, her pregnancy went on that long because of the time it took for someone willing to help her?

Why was no one willing to help her?

…What hospital or doctor wants to face thousands of protestors, not to mention shootings, bombings, and other violence? What doctor wants to risk his or her life, and take a chance of being added to the list of physicians murdered to help a nine-year-old girl in those circumstances? After all, no protestors will show up if she’s turned away, no headlines will be printed, no television vans will show up, and neither will bombers and gunmen.

She might very well have died, just as the 12-year-old Yemeni girl, in a long and painful childbirth that ended up killing the fetus as well. If she had died, it would not only have been because she was impregnated by the father who raped her, but also because refusing to help her became the easy choice. After all, there are fewer consequences for saying no to a pregnant nine-year-old. perhaps several hundred or even thousands fewere, depending on how many protesters show up in response to saying “yes” to a pregnant, 9-year-old rape victim.

Yemen, by the way, is among those countries that have seen a rise in abortions in the Middle East.

Despite legal and religious restrictions against abortion in much of the Arab world, changing social values and economic realities as well as demographic shifts have contributed to an apparent increase in the number of the procedures in the Middle East.

“There’s definitely an increase compared to 10 to 15 years ago,” said Mohammed Graigaa, executive director of the Moroccan Assn. for Family Planning. “Abortion is much less of a taboo. It’s much more visible. Doctors talk about it. Women talk about it. The moral values of people have changed.”

In most Middle East countries, the 15-to-24-year-old age group has grown to make up about a third of the population, but the percentage of early marriages is dropping. In Egypt, only 10% of 15-to-19-year-old females were married in 2003, down from 22% in 1976.

…In addition, Arab youths receive little in the way of birth control or sex education, say family planning experts in the Middle East, many of whom work discreetly to provide reproductive health services in conservative Muslim societies that hold women’s maternal roles as sacrosanct.

“If access to contraceptives was widely and freely available, abortion wouldn’t be necessary,” said an official at a Western family planning organization in Yemen. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear her organization would be targeted. Abortion, she said, is “a last resort.”

According to most interpretations, Islam strictly forbids abortion after the fetus has reached 4 months, and allows it before then only in cases of violent rape or when birth poses an extreme threat to the physical or psychological health of the mother.

It’s not just the Middle East, either. African women, in countries where the procedure is banned, have been maimed and killed by illegal abortions performed by amateurs.

A handwritten ledger at the hospital tells a grim story. For the month of January, 17 of the 31 minor surgical procedures here were done to repair the results of “incomplete abortions.” A few may have been miscarriages, but most were botched operations by untrained, clumsy hands.

Abortion is illegal in Tanzania (except to save the mother’s life or health), so women and girls turn to amateurs, who may dose them with herbs or other concoctions, pummel their bellies or insert objects vaginally. Infections, bleeding and punctures of the uterus or bowel can result, and can be fatal. Doctors treating women after these bungled attempts sometimes have no choice but to remove the uterus.

Pregnancy and childbirth are among the greatest dangers that women face in Africa, which has the world’s highest rates of maternal mortality — at least 100 times those in developed countries. Abortion accounts for a significant part of the death toll.

Maternal mortality is high in Tanzania: for every 100,000 births, 950 women die. In the United States, the figure is 11, and it is even lower in other developed countries. But Tanzania’s record is neither the best nor the worst in Africa. Many other countries have similar statistics; quite a few do better and a handful do markedly worse.

For years, even despite the comeback of left-leaning political parties, illegal abortions have killed women in Latin America.

For proof that criminalizing abortion doesn’t reduce abortion rates and only endangers the lives of women, consider Latin America. In most of the region, abortions are a crime, but the abortion rate is far higher than in Western Europe or the United States. Colombia – where abortion is illegal even if a woman’s life is in danger – averages more than one abortion per woman over all of her fertile years. In Peru, the average is nearly two abortions per woman over the course of her reproductive years.

In a region where there is little sex education and social taboos keep unmarried women from seeking contraception, criminalizing abortion has not made it rare, only dangerous. Rich women can go to private doctors. The rest rely on quacks or amateurs or do it themselves. Up to 5,000 women die each year from abortions in Latin America, and hundreds of thousands more are hospitalized.

Abortion is legal on demand in the region only in Cuba, and a few other countries permit it for extreme circumstances, mostly when the mother’s life is at risk, the fetus will not live or the pregnancy is the result of rape. Even when pregnancies do qualify for legal abortions, women are often denied them because anti-abortion local medical officials and priests intervene, the requirements are unnecessarily stringent, or women do not want to incur the public shame of reporting rape.

But Latin Americans are beginning to look at abortion as an issue of maternal mortality, not just maternal morality. Where they have been conducted, polls show that Latin Americans support the right to abortion under some circumstances. Decriminalization, at least in part, is being seriously discussed in Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay and Argentina, and perhaps will be on the agenda after the presidential election in July in Mexico.

One story, from a BBC article, sounds vaguely familiar.

Every year four million women in Latin America have an illegal abortion, according to the World Health Organisation.

Preventing illegal abortions, which leave hundreds of thousands of woman dead or seriously injured, has been the focus of the conference in Mexico. Many groups present believe the only way to reduce the numbers is to make the practice legal.

“It is the first to the third cause of maternal death in different countries in Latin America,” the chair of the conference, Maria Consuelo Mejilla – director of Catholics For The Right To Decide, a Mexican pressure group – told BBC World Service’s Outlook programme.

“It is affecting mostly poor women.

“Unsafe and illegal abortion in Latin America is a social justice problem. Women who have no resources die.”

…Ms Mejilla of Catholics For The Right To Decide said that doctors’ opposition to abortions could lead to some women being “maltreated” at hospitals.

She outlined the case of one 15-year-old Mexican girl who became pregnant after being raped and wished, together with her mother, to have an abortion.

However, the doctor they saw was against the practice, and delayed any help until eventually the girl had no option but to give birth.

“It is mostly affecting poor women… Women who have no resources die.”

It may be considered cliché and “alarmist” to point to stories like those above as examples of what might could happen if access to safe, legal abortion is restricted — which seems to be the likely outcome of the Stupak amendment. The poor, who don’t currently have access to the medical care they need, won’t have access to abortion services, and the practice of not covering abortion services will very likely spread to private insurers and affect virtually all women who rely on private insurance.

If the examples of other countries bear out, effectively cutting off access to legal abortion — as the Stupak amendment would likely do — would immediately impact “women who have no resources”, but eventually all women could be affected. Still, for an ideologue these are easy choices to make.

The newly unveiled Senate health care reform bill takes a more nuanced approach to abortion than the House bill does with the Stupak amendment.

The health care reform package unveiled by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) Wednesday night bars the use of federal funds for abortion services, but does not go as far as the House bill — which prevents women in many cases from buying insurance with their own money that covers abortion.

The Senate version would require at least one plan within the health insurance exchange that the bill sets up to offer a plan that covers abortion and one that doesn’t. It would also authorize the Health and Human Services Secretary to audit plans to make certain that abortion isn’t being paid for with federal dollars.

Igor Vlosky further explains the Senate compromise.

The bill maintains the Senate Finance Committee’s immigration language and preserves much of the more moderate Capps-abortion compromise. Federal dollars can only be used to pay for abortions when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother or results from rape or incest; private premiums must be used to pay for any other type of abortion, including those for health reasons. Each plan in Exchange will decide whether to cover additional abortion services and at least one plan in each market must offer abortion services and one plan must not. In the public option, the Secretary can cover abortion only if the procedure is financed with private funds.

I am still wrapping my brain around how the Senate bill changes the debate over abortion in health care reform. Ruth Marcus and Lisa Miller make compelling arguments for a more nuanced debate on both sides. And while I’m still undecided on the seemingly Solomon-like compromise of the Senate bill, this latest debate over reproductive freedom and choice makes it clear that some choices are disturbingly easy for Democratic leaders to make.

§§§

The choice is front of Democratic leadership is spelled out pretty clearly by Tim Fernholz.

Peter Beinarthad a cheekily counterintuitive piece in The Daily Beast yesterday, arguing that the Stupak Amendment is good politics, since it represents the functional “big-tentism” of the Democratic party, which hearkens back to the days of FDR and LBJ, when a big-tent Democratic party built the modern welfare state we know and love.

In general, I agree with Peter: The Democratic party is better for being bigger, even it is trickier to assemble decent legislation because of that fact. Sometimes the sausage-making is going to get ugly and compromises will be hard for progressives to stomach. In this case, though, Peter is wrong. For him, the Stupak Amendment is just one of those ugly compromises, but his analysis is flawed — and offers a warning today’s progressives and Democrats would be wise to heed.

As Emily Douglas wrote, what’s only slightly more disturbing than the Stupak amendment itself is the speed with which so many Democrats accepted its “necessity” and hinted that this is one of those times for pro-choice progressives to “take one for the team.” It’s a pattern that’s cropped up again and again in progressive/Democratic politics — perhaps due to the Democratic party getting “bigger.” During the Bush administration, when Republicans held the White House and the Congress it morphed into a strategy for getting Democrats back into power, and now it’s apparently morphing into a strategy to keep Democrats in power.

Maybe it’s that the party never got over losing the “Reagan Democrats” and have never stopped trying to get them back, but above strategy has the added effect of putting on the back burner constituencies whose numbers put them in the majority and/or whose specific issue-related concerns are not or are not perceived to be “majority issues” — the kinds of issues that are “safe” for politicians to risk taking a stand on, because they sufficiently popular or a matter of concern a vast majority of voters.

It doesn’t mean that political leaders are “flip-flopping” on those particular issues. It just means that the message to those constituencies is, “You’re right. But not right now.”

No one in the blogosphere, I think, has summed it up better than Kos did a few years ago.

One of the key problems with the Democratic Party is that single issue groups have hijacked it for their pet causes. So suddenly, Democrats are the party of abortion, of gun control, of spottend owls, of labor, of trial lawyers, etc, etc., et-frickin’-cetera. We don’t stand for any ideals, we stand for specific causes. We don’t have a core philosophy, we have a list with boxes to check off.

So while Republicans focus on building an ideological foundation for their cause, we focus on checking off those boxes on the list. Check enough boxes, and you’re a Democrat in good standing.

And again here.

And while there are Democrats in the Colorado House that are less than optimal on any number of progressive issues, the entire movement benefits from having a friendly party in control.

It’s an attitude that, as a gay activist, I’ve heard too many times — and one I railed against upon my return from YearlyKos a year later.

I’ve written before about my dismay with Democrats when it come to gay issues, and my frustration with Howard Dean and the direction the party seems to be taking where LGBT issues are concerned. And I suppose going into YearlyKos I should have known what I was getting into. Kos is, after all, known for saying that us “single issue” folks should zip it, sit tight on the back burner and support the party no matter what, even when it backs candidates that don’t support our concerns or issues. I should have known what to expect based on the comments I’d seen when the subject came up on netroots sites like MyDD and DailyKos. I should have figured I’d hear the same things I’d heard all along, even during the FMA debate.

I guess just hoped being there and bringing it all up might help, or might mean something. But I heard the same thing, even from gay folks who are just as frustrated as I am, and from supportive straight people too: this is what we have to do to win, and if gay issues have to take an extended back seat consider it taking one for the team.

The thing is, there comes a point when those of us consistently asked or expected to “take one for the team” start to wonder whose team it really is.

You know what I don’t want to hear right now about the Stupak-Pitts amendment banning abortion coverage from federally subsidized health insurance policies? That it’s the price of reform, and prochoice women should shut up and take one for the team. “If you want to rebuild the American welfare state,” Peter Beinart writes in the Daily Beast, “there is no alternative” than for Democrats to abandon “cultural” issues like gender and racial equality. Hey, Peter, Representative Stupak and your sixty-four Democratic supporters, Jim Wallis and other antichoice “progressive” Christians, men: why don’t you take one for the team for a change and see how you like it?

…Women Democrats have taken an awful lot of hits for the team lately. Many of us didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton in the primary because the goal of electing a woman seemed less important than the goal of electing the best possible president. Only a self-hater or a featherhead didn’t feel some pain about that. And although women are hardly alone in this, we’ve seen some pretty big hopes set aside in the first year of the Obama administration. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which would expand women’s protections against sexism in the workplace, is on the back burner. Meanwhile, the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is not only alive and well; it’s newly staffed with antichoicers like Alexia Kelley of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, who, as Frances Kissling notes in Salon, has compared abortion to torture.

I know what you’re thinking: conservative Democrats like Stupak took Republican districts to win us both houses of Congress. Thanks a lot, Howard Dean, whose bright idea it was to recruit them, but those majorities would not be there, and Obama would not be in the White House, if not for prochoice women and men–their votes, talent, money, organizational capacity and shoe leather. We knocked ourselves out, and it wasn’t so that religious reactionaries like Stupak–who, as Jeff Sharlet writes in Salon, is a member of the Family, the secretive right-wing Christian-supremacist Congressional coven–would control both parties. Elections have consequences, you say? Exactly: Obama, the prochoice, prowoman candidate, won. Stupak didn’t put him in the White House, and neither did the Catholic bishops or the white antifeminist welfare staters of Beinart’s imagination. We did. And we deserve better from Obama than sound bites like “this is a healthcare bill, not an abortion bill.” Abortion is healthcare. That’s the whole point.

And — something I’ve been writing about for a few years now, and that Katha Pollitt expressed in the post I just quoted — we begin to wonder why we’re “knocking ourselves out” for it.

This is the crux of the problem I have with this strategy for Democrats, and calls to put “party unity” above single issues, with promises that the party will get back to those issues after it’s safely back in power. But if they regain power, with narrow margins and while winning the support of moderate-to-conservative voters by stepping back on issues like gay equality and reproductive choice, will those same moderate-to-conservative voters let Democrats return to progressive positions on those issues and remain in power?

Probably not, at least not without the help of the very people from whom the Democratic party is distancing itself; help by working on those issues in our own back yard, moving the ball down the field against some pretty tough opposition while the party watches and waits from somewhere near the end zone. We have to get the ball down the field on our own. In states like Maine, it might happen. In states as conservative as Texas it ain’t gonna happen. And on a national level chances are slim we’re going to get much support. We’re basically abandoned on the field, at least until we’ve moved our issues far enough that it’s safe for the Democratic party to take them up again. Even if we’re able to do that, we’re probably going to take several hits and get rather bloodied in the process.

It won’t surprise me if Democratic candidates attempt the same strategy in other states, and with some degree of success. It will surprise me even less if the same strategy is evident in the Dems’ 2008 presidential and congressional campaigns. Successfully, even. That will essentially leave gay and lesbian Americans out in the cold politically, without a (major, viable) party that has a clear position of standing up for our equality.

We wonder if we have the same goals as our “teammates” at all, and if we’re working against our own interests to some degree while watching them hand the ball to the other(?) team.

A Democrat who wins under those conditions will be hard pressed to govern from a progressive position, and keep the voters who gave him the margin of victory — are decidedly not progressive on some issues. (The best progressive evangelicals can do on gay issues and reproductive choice is to just not talk about them or ignore them. Candidates who want their votes would do well do downplay those issues as well. Note, again, the progressive laundry list petition linked above.)

Progressives, being the base, don’t provide that margin of victory, because they don’t “swing.” And in the current political landscape, they don’t have anywhere else to go. The Greens? Sure, go ahead. Progressives will volunteer, phonebank, fundraise, and canvas for their candidates; everything that any campaign needs hordes of volunteers to do. But we will do it for candidates who aren’t always progressive, and yet believing that we’ll get a progressive-governing elected official after the election. But we do not have to be pandered to, courted, catered to, or convinced, because — again — where else are we going to go?

We can’t afford to stay at home either, which differentiates us from the Republicans’ religious right base. They have less to lose if their candidate doesn’t win because the reality is that if our candidate wins he will probably have to spend so much of his time and energy cleaning up the mess of the last 7 1/2 years that he won’t be able to do much in terms of moving in a more progressive direction. There’s a swamp to be drained, and then alligators to fight as the first order of business. Once that’s done, we might well be half-way through the second term. At which point, the best we can hope for is a couple of Supreme Court appointments, and some executive orders.

Progressive, in a sense, have become political prisoners of a sort. After we work to get a candidate elected, the real work of then moving that candidate towards more progressive positions begins. We will get them elected so that we may begin lobbying and petitioning them and hoping they will listen.

We begin to wonder who our friends are, and if they really are our friends.

I find myself returning the playground analogy; probably something unavoidable in this situation, for a gay man who came out and grew up smack in the middle of the bible belt. Hearing the Republican strategy is reminiscent of hearing the school bully say he’s gonna pound you good after the bell rings.

And sure enough, he’s waiting for you after school. You know he’s big. Too big to take on by yourself. But you have friends, right? They know how big the bully is. Big enough to pretty much control the whole school. But they’re your friends, right? They might get banged up, but surely they’re not going to stand by and watch you take a beating right?

Well.

…To return to the schoolyard for a minute, maybe if you give your “friends” your lunch money, they’ll keep the bully off your back.

Or not.

Sometimes you get to thinking your friends may find it inconvenient to be your friends. Maybe they have an overblown perception of the bully’s popularity, despite evidence to the contrary. And even if he isn’t very popular any more, the bully has a posse that gave him his power, and they’d like to win over that posse for themselves. So, if that posse doesn’t like you much, your friends might have to put some distance between you and them. Like the DCCC suddenly forgetting its non-discrimination policy includes/d sexual orientation.

So, your friends won’t sit next to you in the lunchroom anymore. But if they make new friends at the cool kids table, they’ll say nice things about you. Maybe that’ll get the bully and his posse to ease up on you, right?

Well.

…And if your friends seem likely to stand by and watch you take a beating, and tell you later (when nobody else is watching or listening) what a shame they thought it was … well, then you don’t have any friends.

§§§

Whether the Stupak amendment ends up in the final health care reform bill or is replaced by the more moderate compromises in the Senate bill, Tim Fernholz is right that both the passage of the amendment and the almost immediate response that women and pro-choice progressives should “take one for the team” hold a lesson and a warning for both progressives and Democrats.

Actually, the warning and the lesson are the same for both progressives and Democrats (note that the two are by no means synonymous).

For progressives, wondering how the Democratic victories of 2006 and 2008 got us here, it means understanding that merely getting Democrats elected is not sufficient.

But over and over I basically hear about all of the above “If that’s what we have to do to win … ”

And then I remembered something I hear a certain A-list blogger (who honestly seems to care about these issues, and keeps asking how Dems should talk about them) say a while back: just getting Democrats elected is not sufficient. Certainly not if they’re going to put their constituents and the convictions in the closet in order to win. A party that believes it has to put its own values on the back burner in order to win must not believe that it can and should win based on its values. It becomes something else entirely, and will find it hard to go back if the trick should work.

At some point, candidates who get our support, our votes, our money, our time, energy, trust and confidence have to face some real consequences when they don’t follow through with progressive stands on the issue and progressive changes in policy.

And I don’t mean consequences in terms of blog posts and editorials. For example, progressives could take a lesson from the gay community’s response to the Obama administration’s ill-considered brief on the Defense of Marriage Act.

By now, the Obama Justice Department’s “Defense of Marriage” brief, which was filed more than a week ago, has essentially become known as the brief heard around the LGBT world, in large part due to its insulting comparisons of homosexuality to incest, and it’s general support for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which the brief called a “rational” policy.

In response to the DOMA brief, as well as the Obama administration’s silence on LGBT rights (the outlier is last week’s extension of some limited partner benefits to LGBT employees), many LGBT donors to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) have been making their anger known by bailing on DNC fundraisers.  A fundraiser in D.C. scheduled for Thursday night with VP Joe Biden has already seen its fare share of prominent LGBT folks backing out, and now comes word that a fundraiser to be held at Fenway Park in Boston is going to be protested by local LGBT organizers with Join the Impact Massachusetts, who are upset about the DOMA brief.  Here’s the scoop:

As we’ve all seen, we’ve gotten more in the past 6 days for the LGBT community than we have in the past 6 months. Once this firestorm of criticism and public pressure began over the repugnant DOMA brief, we began hearing that the Hate Crimes bill may pass very soon. Then once the boycotting began of the DNC fundraiser in Washington, DC, we then learned about the relocation benefits memorandum which seemed to be a direction reaction to the boycott.

Money talks folks and we have a HUGE opportunity here. Putting on this protest will be emblematic of a larger issue at hand for the Obama administration and the Dems. No longer is the protest singled out just in Washington, DC, but now they’re spreading. If the Obama administration and the Dems want to tamper down frustrations, the only way for them to do so will be to take concrete strong action to pass substantive LGBT civil rights measures. Let’s make them do it!

That was June. Fast forward to the Obama administration arguing in August that DOMA should be repealed, pledging (again) to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and signing the Hate Crimes Bill. Of these it remains to be seen how much tangible change the first two actually mean, but the LGBT community has shown at least some willingness to hold the administration accountable. Consequences work, and merely being a Democrat can’t be enough for a candidate to earn our trust, confidence, time, energy, and campaign contributions.

These things must no longer be taken for granted, or given unconditionally, but reserved for candidates who stand up for progressive values and have a record of following through.  A Democrat who asks for and accepts our contributions and support should be be held accountable, and face the consequence of losing both if he or she doesn’t follow through.

For progressives, the lesson is: stop making it easy for Democrats not to stand up for progressive values and ideals in policymaking.

For Democrats, the lesson is: stop making it increasingly easy for progressives not to support you.

There are many constituencies that Democrats may too easily take for granted, among them pro-choice progressives, and the LGBT community. Perhaps that’s because we’re perceived as having nowhere else to go. But we constitute an energetic part of the Democratic base. Or at least we do when we turn out. But as Tim Kaine pointed out, a Democrat who moves away from progressive values telegraphs that he or she doesn’t need our support.

“After the [June] primary was done, his advisers basically said, distance yourself from the president. We think we have our base locked down, we’ve got to win independents. And we’re going to win by being negative about McDonnell,” Kaine said. “That was the basic strategy they pursued, despite some significant urging to the contrary.”

Asked about his own advice to Deeds, who lost to McDonnell on Nov. 3 by 17 percentage points, Kaine said: “I’d rather not talk about my personal conversations. But what I will say is that I always believed from the very beginning that the paradigm in Virginia had changed and that the way to win the race was to energize voters who had demonstrated they would vote for Democrats. That I did advise him very, very early. I advised all the candidates, prior to the primary, that was a path to victory.”

…”I think the issue of being nervous about the Virginia electorate was overdone and I think Creigh did exactly what the McDonnell campaign hoped he would do, which was distance himself from the president and national issues,” Kaine said.

The truth is, there’s no such thing as a constituency that has “nowhere else to go.” It’s fine to be a “big tent” party, but if the constituencies that constitute your base are so taken for granted that they are pushed closer and closer to the back of the tent, that just leave them closer to the exits. As Tim Ferholz (again) points out.

Ultimately, he fails to understand that every majority contains the seeds of its own undoing. While Peter focuses on the economic aspects of the previous big-tent Democratic majority, he downplays the advances made on civil rights and gender equality, especially by LBJ. As Peter recognizes, the Civil Rights Act and other culturally progressive victories led to the Democratic majority’s defeat as racists and social conservatives fled to the Republican party. He suggests that this was a result of a decision for the party to become more “pure” under pressure from activists, but that’s foolish. It was because the party decided to do the right thing under pressure from activists. Does Peter think this was a bad decision? He doesn’t say.

Believers in the Big Tent, like Peter and myself, have to be very careful about the compromises they make. If you lose track of what the point of politics is — what you leave behind — then you risk betraying the entire progressive agenda. If Peter thinks today’s progressives should choose economic issues over other ones, he should make that case explicitly. But he shouldn’t pretend that it’s a normatively good choice. There’s going to come a time when this Democratic majority has the chance to do something so big and important that it will destroy itself by alienating its conservative and moderate members. Maybe it will be gay marriage, maybe it will be the Freedom of Choice Act, who knows. I hope the leadership at the time has the principles and the guts to pass the law and blow up their majority. That’s what it’s there for, after all.

The warning for progressives is to choose what kind of party we want. The warning for Democrats is to choose what kind of party they want to be. The good of the country may depend upon close we come to making the same choices.

Markos and Jerome opened their book, Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, with this quote from Gandhi.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

I’d like to suggest another Gandhi quote to the netroots and the party leadership.

Be the change you want to see in the world.

If, that is, it’s a change you really want to see.

If that’s not an easy choice, it should be.

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