As state by heartland state turned red on the night of 11/2, a few brave Democratic strategists began hinting that something would have to be done to move their party closer to the center of American life and, in particular, to lessen its hostility to traditional religious believers who once were part of the FDR-Truman coalition.
Ever since, GetReligion has been watching for signs of compromise on the lifestyle left, especially on the big issues — abortion and the redefinition of marriage. Clearly the debates have begun behind the scenes and they are seeping into public view. Richard Cohen’s op-ed this week in the Washington Post — "Democrats, Abortion and ‘Alfie’ " — is one sign of this, but there are others.
We’ll get to his take on the "Alfie" movies in a minute. His key political statement is that the Democratic Party simply has to make room for people who — for intellectual, moral, scientific and even theological reasons — are convinced that abortion is a complex life-and-death issue that is hard to reduce to a bullet-proof slogan. He writes:
Yet the party insists otherwise. It entertains no doubts and counters reasonable questions and qualms with slogans — a woman’s right to choose, for instance. The party is downright inhospitable to abortion opponents. Therefore, it was good Sunday to hear Howard Dean — both a physician and pro-choice — say on "Meet the Press" that "I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats."
Dean may make a run for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and so what he says could matter. As it is now, being pro-choice is a litmus test for all Democrats, especially their presidential candidates. It is almost inconceivable that a Democratic candidate could voice qualms about abortion. It’s almost inconceivable, though, that the candidates don’t have them.
In this entertainment-drenched culture, Cohen has structured his column as a clash between the classic ’60s movie "Alfie" and the current remake. The former, he notes, included a strong reference to abortion. The latter does not. He sees this as a sign — with a nod to those values voters — that times have changed and that abortion opponents have changed some minds.
What he seems to have missed is that the abortion in the older film is treated as a soul-searing tragedy, not as a triumph for individualism. The new film veers around a possible abortion, yet strongly hints that life would have been better if a problem pregnancy had been ended. (Tip of the hat to views expressed in a personal email from Frederica Mathewes-Green of Beliefnet.)
So Cohen may have the movies backward, but that does not negate his political point. (By the way, the Weekly Standard has a fine essay that notes that Bill Naughton’s 1966 novel "Alfie" was even more complex and — gasp — rooted in a Catholic worldview.) You could make a case that the new "Alfie" tried to soft-sell its moral worldview, rather than face up to it. This may not have worked with blue consumers or with all of those alleged red-culture consumers.
Meanwhile, back to the main point. Apparently, Howard Dean is not the only Democrat who is thinking it may make sense to let a few more pro-life congress-persons in the side door of the once big tent. According to Newsweek, Sen. John Kerry has asked the same question. Here’s the lead from Debra Rosenberg’s report:
The week after Thanksgiving, dozens of Democratic Party loyalists gathered at AFL-CIO headquarters for a closed-door confab on the election. John Kerry dropped by to thank members of the liberal 527 coalition America Votes. When Ellen Malcolm, president of the pro-choice political network EMILY’s List, asked about the future direction of the party, Kerry tackled one of the Democrats’ core tenets: abortion rights. He told the group they needed new ways to make people understand they didn’t like abortion. Democrats also needed to welcome more pro-life candidates into the party, he said. "There was a gasp in the room," says Nancy Keenan, the new president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
The freak out will not end soon. However, there was an interesting news peg in the body of the story. It seems that a small group of red-zone Democrats — Newsweek names Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, Arkansas Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh — have joined a "a new progressive advocacy group" called Third Way that wants to discuss compromises on the hot cultural issues.
How will we know that this is serious? Reporters can start by watching for signs of a Democrats For Life link on mainstream party websites — ending the existing ban. We can also listen for louder screams in party publications such as the New York Times.
UPDATE: Friend of the blog Peggy Noonan has suggested another possible battle front in this war of the symbols in the Democratic Party. Want to send a signal to pew-gap Americans? Why not come out in favor of Christmas?