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General Elections Are Not the Place for Dealbreakers

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As Shakezula says, John Bel Edwards’s positions on reproductive rights are deplorable, and important. Does that mean that Louisiana progressives should have refused to vote for him? It does not. And the thing is, outside of a few select jurisdictions progressives have faced similar dilemmas in every election ever:

Reproductive rights are a core Democratic value, period. National and blue-state Democrats should all favor reproductive rights. Edwards’ terrible positions on reproductive rights shouldn’t be ignored. Even if an opponent of reproductive rights has to be supported for tactical reasons, we shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of reproductive freedom.

Given the importance of protecting a woman’s right to choose, it is tempting to go further than that, and suggest that opposing reproductive rights should be a “dealbreaker” that makes supporting any candidate unacceptable regardless of the context. Tempting, but very wrong.

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The Louisiana election was not a question of whether the Medicaid expansion is more important than reproductive rights. Vitter is also a steadfast opponent of abortion rights, and for that matter, even a pro-choice governor would not be able to get rid of Louisiana’s bad anti-abortion laws all by himself. The choice was between someone who is bad for reproductive rights and against Medicaid expansion and someone who is bad for reproductive rights and for Medicaid expansion. There’s no choice for liberals there at all: You obviously vote for the latter. Telling poor people to wait for health care until an across-the-board liberal can win statewide election in Louisiana is a really bad idea. Not because reproductive freedom isn’t extremely important, but because there are other crucial issues, and denying poor people health care wouldn’t protect anyone’s reproductive rights.

Indeed, “dealbreaker” logic simply doesn’t work in the context of elections between polarized parties. The inevitable outcome of waiting until it’s possible to address every major priority is that you would address none of them. Progressive voters in most elections, including every election for president ever, face the dilemma faced by progressive voters in Louisiana.

Let’s consider the most progressive presidents of the last century. None would even come close to meeting every single progressive ideal. FDR? Not only was the New Deal suffused with white supremacist values, denying African-Americans their fair share of benefits, he ordered more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent into camps based on claims of military necessity many members of his administration knew to be specious at the time. LBJ, who signed probably the greatest package of progressive legislation since Reconstruction, ordered the escalation of the Vietnam War, leading to the pointless slaughter of a huge number of people. I don’t think I need to belabor the many ways in which Barack Obama, the most progressive president since Johnson, has disappointed his liberal supporters.

The brutal truth is that politics requires making common cause with people who disagree with you. Putting off the Medicaid expansion in Louisiana until someone who would agree with blue state liberal Democrats on every issue would be as cruel and counterproductive as not passing Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act until the votes of segregationists were unnecessary, or to tell African-Americans and women that their civil rights could not be protected until Cold War liberals could be ejected from the Democratic coalition.

In the context of an election in which one party is significantly better than the other, “dealbreakers” represent a puerile form of anti-politics that make life worse for many people and better for nobody. When the Election Day comes, you pick the least bad choice, and you fight long-term to make the choices better.

The moral necessity of voting for Edwards doesn’t mean that he should be exempt from criticism for his terrible record on reproductive rights, any more than Bill Clinton’s admirably steadfast support for reproductive rights means that he gets a pass for his lousy record on welfare and regulatory policy. But, as Paul said recently, the choice between Edwards and Vitter is no choice at all.

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