Saturday, February 19, 2005

More on Democratic Wedge Issues 

The other day I promised to follow up on this idea of Democrats' using birth control as a wedge issue in the abortion arena. And, for the first time ever, I'm actually going to write about something I said I would write about.

Kevin Drum explained the basic idea:
WEDGE ISSUES....Noam Scheiber writes today about the Hillary Clinton/NARAL tactic of seeking common ground with anti-abortion activists in the area of reducing unwanted pregnancies. No matter what you think about abortion rights, after all, everyone's in favor of trying to reduce the need for abortion. Right?

In a word, no. Carol Tobias, political director for the National Right to Life Foundation, said her group took no position in the debate over birth control and declined NARAL's offer:
Takes no position? That's it? That's your response? As far as I can tell, the only way you could be an anti-abortion activist and not think of birth control as directly relevant to what you do is if you really weren't interested in preventing unwanted pregnancies. Maybe that's the case. But it would be a pretty alarming admission.
This is classic wedge politics, and it's how the game is played. There are plenty of anti-abortion conservatives who think that reducing unwanted pregnancies is an excellent idea, and NARAL's stance is likely to drive a wedge between them and the hardline abortion activists who view abortion primarily as another bludgeon in the culture war (itself a hodgepodege of conservative wedge issues).

Conversely, it's a freebie for liberals. No matter how they feel about abortion, liberals unanimously support programs that make contraception more widely available and reduce the rate of unwanted pregnancies.
Sounds great, right? But, well, I just don't think it's going to work. First of all, I don't think there are a lot of people out there who would vote Democratic but for the Democratic Party's position on abortion. Actually, let me clarify that a bit. There are clearly people who fit into Kevin Drum's category of "people who are anti-abortion but think reducing unwanted pregnancies is a good idea," but I have a strong feeling these people are more concerned with their personal tax rate than whether anyone (other than themselves) have access to birth control, especially, if, say, said other people are poor or dark-skinned.

So, while I think lowering unwanted pregnancies is good policy, and certainly isn't bad politics, it's not some sort of silver bullet in the culture wars.

But, and now I'm going on a bit, my main point is that Democrats simply aren't good at wedge issues. This birth control gambit is clearly an attempt to put a wedge in-between those who are hard-core anti-choice and anti-contraception and those who are pro-contraception but don't like abortion. Now, if the GOP really started pushing policies that would make it very difficult for affluent women over, say, 25 to get access to birth control, this might work. In the real world, there are plenty of Republicans who don't agree with the fundamentalist no-contraception rule, but they're not going to vote on it so long as they can buy condoms and birth control pills (or patches or rings or whatever). And, today, they can do so, and they don't blame the goverment that insurance doesn't cover many of these birth control methods (they should, but that's a different story).

Now, to get to the deeper point, Democrats can succeed in making centrist-type noises on cultural issues, like Clinton did with the V-chip (remember that? me neither) or school uniforms. But this isn't really the use of "wedge issues." I'd say it's more like the "salami slicing" tactics used by the various Soviet-backed Communist Parties in Central and Eastern Europe after WWII. The difference is subtle, but this is the slicing off of constituencies from the front, as opposed to a rearguard action that inserts a wedge (to push the metaphor a bit). Now, birth-control-as-wedge-issue could turn into birth-control-as-salami-slicing tactic if, as I stated earlier, the GOP really started making it hard for affluent whites over 25 or 30 to get birth control. In the absence of that (and Republicans are stupid, but not that stupid), this will remain a wedge issue, and will be one that gets us nowhere politically.

Re-reading what I've written above, I think kind of a theme here is self-interest. That is, if you could make this issue an appeal to self-interest, then I think it would work (and would be a classic salami-slicing tactic, which in many ways was no more than merely buying off certain constituencies). But, inasmuch as this is really an altruistic issue, or at best a societal issue, I just don't think it's going to get us anywhere.

Ok, sorry for the long post that may or may not make any sense. But, it's Saturday, which is a low-traffic day (even for us, whose high-traffic days are low-traffic days), so I feel I have a little more leeway to do this kind of post.
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