Several weeks ago, I received an email from one of the nation’s top political reporters. The bottom line: This reporter could not understand why editors and other reporters in the newsroom could not do the math and realize that the pro-life Democrats in the House of Representatives were serious. They wanted an up-or-down vote on the status of the Hyde Amendment and its attempts to ban federal funds from being spent to fund abortions.
This reporter was reading many of the same commentaries that I was reading, by people like E.J. Dionne and Jim Wallis. The pro-life left had quietly or vocally backed the candidacy of Barack Obama and now they wanted some respect.
It was clear that, with their support, some significant form of health-care reform had a very good chance of passing. Without their support? That would be a really tight situation. It was all there in the math. And behind the math was another reality. It would be easier to pass health-care reform with the help of the U.S. Catholic Bishops than without it.
Why couldn’t other reporters see this?
Now we have this frank headline from the New York Times: “Abortion Was at Heart of Wrangling.” Here’s the lede and it contains two very, very important words:
WASHINGTON – It was late Friday night and lawmakers were stalling for time. In a committee room, they yammered away, delaying a procedural vote on the historic health care legislation. Down one floor, in her office, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi desperately tried to deal with an issue that has bedeviled Democrats for more than a generation — abortion.
After hours of heated talks, the people she was trying to convince — some of her closest allies — burst angrily out of her office. Her attempts at winning them over had failed, and Ms. Pelosi, the first woman speaker and an ardent defender of abortion rights, had no choice but to do the unthinkable. To save the health care bill she had to give in to abortion opponents in her party and allow them to propose tight restrictions barring any insurance plan that is purchased with government subsidies from covering abortions.
The key word? That would be “Democrats.”
The other key word? That would be “propose.”
From the start, this was a battle between Democrats and, in particular, two kinds of Democrats — Catholics who accept their church’s teachings on the “life” issues and the conservative Southern Democrats, often evangelicals, that the party had to embrace if it truly wanted to elect a Democratic majority in the House.
In other words, this was largely about the “pew gap,” that factor in American politics that indicates that the more a person attends worship services the more likely they are to vote Republican.
But note again, this fight was between Democrats.
Remember the horrid red state-blue state maps after the 2000 and 2004 elections? Well, the reality is that there are red zip codes and blue zip codes, which is why all of this is taking place in the House. Also, the press now has to see that there are Democrats that are red on some issues and blue on others. There is a pro-life left. There is a pro-life middle. There is a pro-life right. And, by the way, there is a pro-abortion-rights wing on the GOP right, as well.
So what is the point? The point is that abortion, as an issue, is not a simple left vs. right matter in American politics — at least, not in the House, where zip codes really, really matter. And if reporters want to cover the middle of the voting spectrum, that means covering Catholic voters, all four kinds.
This fight will, of course, start all over again after the conference negotiations with the Senate. But the pro-life Democrats got their Hyde Amendment vote and, of course, they knew they would win it. Pelosi knew it, too.
Thus, the Times story states the obvious:
Through the 1980s, the Democrats struggled over abortion. But by the 1990s, the share of Americans supportive of abortion rights had grown. Democrats lost their majorities for 12 years, leaving the most liberal and pro-abortion rights members in office. As a result it seemed to fade as a public issue. Now, however, Democrats once again have a large and diverse House majority, with more members from conservative-leaning districts where anti-abortion rights groups are active.
The story mentions the negotiations with the U.S. bishops, of course. But there is more to this story than that. Here is a major story angle: Abortion is not fading, as a moral, religious, scientific and political issue. Look at the polls.
You can’t cover the health-care wars without facing that fact, and the reality that these issues are being debated in both major political parties.