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Unreliable Narration


Amy Sullivan asserts that the Stupak-Pitts amendment was the result of “political malpractice:”

Despite the fact that anyone who has followed U.S. politics over the last thirty years could have told you that abortion would be a controversial aspect of health reform, no one tried to preemptively address the concerns of pro-life Democrats by sitting down with them early in the process. The White House didn’t reach out to some of the more good-faith players on the pro-life side until early September. And Pelosi didn’t sit down with Stupak until September 29. This despite the fact that 19 Democratic members sent her a letter in June expressing their concerns with abortion coverage in health reform.

I know many in the Democratic caucus tend to see their pro-life colleagues as a pesky but ultimately insignificant faction. But this sort of leadership strategy isn’t just inexcusable, it’s malpractice. It appears that Pelosi thought Stupak et al were bluffing and would come around in the end rather than oppose health reform. That assumption also depended on a scenario in which the Catholic bishops may not have supported health reform but also didn’t vigorously oppose it.

Is there some truth here? Possibly, yes. Certainly, there are many potential criticisms of how Democratic leadership has dealt with health care, although when you actually care about expanding access to health care it’s hard to negotiate with the Stupaks of the world who don’t, but want to use other people’s progressive impulses to attack women. I am, however, very skeptical about this particular narrative, given that it seems intended to salvage Sullivan’s own political position on such issues. As you may remember, Sullivan’s longstanding niche among the “Democrats need to do much more pandering to cultural reactionaries” set has been to argue that there’s a free ride, that Democrats can appeal to an allegedly significant number of cultural conservatives looking for subtle rhetorical shifts rather than substantive concessions. The most obvious lesson of Stupak is that this is nonsense: broadening the Democratic coalition to include more anti-choicers carries real political risks, for the obvious reason that they generally want to use laws to restrict access to abortion rather than having Democratic leaders “acknowledge abortion as a moral issue” or some such.

So I’m not willing to accept at face value Sullivan’s assumption that Stupak was willing to make a deal for legislation that wouldn’t really change the status quo but was offended by the fact that the Democratic leadership was focused on providing health care to more people rather than taking it away from women. As her prior cited article concedes, the Conference of Catholic Bishops and many of their cat’s paws in Congress spent the summer negotiating in bad faith. You have to be optimistic bordering on delusional to think that Stupak would have surrendered his leverage if only the Democratic leadership had given him more access. It seems much more plausible that he and his followers would have kept pulling away the football until we ended up in the same place.

Essentially Sullivan is asking us to believe that Stupak and anti-choice colleagues wanted some friendly acknowledgment from the Democratic leadership, but when they didn’t get it they were willing to settle for major substantive concessions instead. I don’t buy this list of priorities in general, and I’m not persuaded by the analysis in this particular case.

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