Until last weekend's health care vote in the House, Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan was one of those worker bee congressman from a working-class district who would not normally find himself the pivotal figure in a critical juncture of American history.
The eight-term congressman from a sprawling district along the Great Lakes border with Canada has served ably on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and counts himself a member in good standing of, among others, the Congressional Auto Parts Caucus and the Congressional Boating Caucus.
But if health care reform akin to the bill the House passed late Saturday night does become law, President Obama and the Democratic Party may one day look back at Stupak as a key figure -- and the man who saved their political hide.
Right now, however, Stupak and some 40 other pro-life Democrats are taking serious heat from many in the party and from liberal interest groups. The source of their anger: Stupak and his group demanded that the reform bill not provide taxpayer funding for abortion, and in a stare down with the House leadership over the weekend, Speaker Nancy Pelosi blinked first. The Stupak-Pitts amendment (sponsored with Republican Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania and others) passed 240-194, ensuring that the entire package would also pass, 220-215.
Abortion rights advocates were fuming, and still are.
But perhaps they should be thanking Stupak and the other anti-abortion House Democrats for introducing a note of reality into the Democratic echo chamber, thereby giving health care reform its best chance for passage -- and the Democrats a boost at regaining political momentum and retaining their congressional majorities come next November.
That's because the amendment reflects the public's shifting views on abortion and would actually give substance to Obama's rhetoric about finding common ground on abortion-related issues.
On health care, in particular, Obama had promised, with increasing conviction and confidence, that any reform package would include "robust" conscience protections for health care workers who did not want to engage in what they considered to be morally objectionable procedures as well as a bar on any federal funding of abortion. Yet as the process ground on, the rhetoric was not matched by black-and-white guarantees in the bills, and pro-life supporters grew nervous.
Various "compromises" were trotted out, most notably the Capps amendment, which outlined a process whereby individual contributions and government subsidies for health insurance policies would be segregated. Ostensibly, that was to keep the money from pro-life taxpayers separate from that of individuals who wanted to contribute funds to a policy that covers abortion. But that provision was, as the Atlantic's economics blogger Megan McArdle
put it, "a transparently ineffective gimmick."
"The fact is, on a pooling basis -- and that's the level at which the federal government operates -- giving someone money to buy insurance that covers abortions is exactly the same thing as directly paying for their abortions," McArdle wrote. "I don't see how anyone ever thought this was going to fly; there are (as we just saw) more pro-life members of the House than pro-choice, and they're not actually total idiots."
Indeed, one could argue that those pro-lifers read the signs of the times better than pro-choice advocates -- though it didn't take a genius to do so.
Polls have consistently shown that Americans by a wide margin say they do not want government health care to cover abortions. A September Rasmussen poll was typical, showing that 48 percent thought "health insurance paid for or subsidized with government funding" should not
be required to cover abortions, while 13 percent said it should (32 percent said it should have no requirements concerning abortion).
Those numbers are also reflective of public opinion surveys showing that support for abortion has slipped
markedly in recent years, so that a public that was once solidly pro-choice is now almost evenly divided on the topic.
And that in turn was reflected in the vote for Stupak-Pitts, which included 64 Democratic "yeas." As Nate Silver's number-crunching at FiveThirtyEight.com
shows, a number of those "yes" votes were pro-choice Democrats. What gives? Simple: many of them are in districts that are considered vulnerable to a political challenge next fall. "[W]hereas health care is a sine qua non
for most Democratic base voters, they seem to be betting that the pro-choice position might no longer be," Silver concludes.
Pro-choice activists and some in the Democratic leadership apparently didn't get the memo on the shifting attitudes and political realities.
Sources close to the abortion funding negotiations leading to last Saturday's floor vote said abortion rights proponents "just never got it," as one put it. Both pro-choice Democrats and lobbyists from NARAL and Planned Parenthood seemed blindsided by Stupak's move, despite the fact that he had telegraphed his intentions. Moreover, since 2006 Democratic leaders had been broadening their base by recruiting more socially conservative candidates who could compete in Republican districts. It worked beautifully, as Democrats took over both houses of Congress in 2008. Yet a big tent means everyone else has to make room -- and too many Democrats and liberals activists weren't ready for that.
Instead, pro-life Democrats continued to be treated like country cousins by the cool crowd inside the Beltway, and as Time
's Amy Sullivan noted in her piquant post-mortem
, anyone could have seen this train wreck coming. When the first health care reform bills were introduced and allowed for federal funding of abortion, pro-lifers were forced to start from a position of opposition rather than support, Sullivan noted. And that oppositional stance was allowed to fester for too long. Anti-abortion Democrats wrote to Pelosi in June requesting action on their concerns and yet neither Pelosi nor the White House gave them the time of day until late September.
"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," Sullivan wrote. "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. It became very clear by late last week that this assumption was a mistake."
Another assumption that has not been pierced is that abortion opponents are being dogmatic fundamentalists who refuse to compromise.
On the contrary, one could argue that pro-lifers have compromised a good deal, allowing provisions for sex education and contraceptive coverage and a number of other issues that would be "poison pills" if the pro-lifers were, in fact, being inflexible. Moreover, many of those same provisions are going to provide windfalls for groups like Planned Parenthood.
Another upside of the Stupak amendment is that it succeeded in dividing opponents of health care reform. Those who opposed the measure for reasons related to abortion funding were either neutralized or -- as in the case of the Catholic bishops -- brought on board as allies. "Instead of exploiting that, what is the health care reform crowd doing?" asked one incredulous Democratic insider. "They're busy pointing fingers and threatening to go after Democrats who voted 'yes' on Stupak. You've got to wonder. It's bush league."
Now that the pro-life forces (and the Catholic bishops, who were deeply involved in the negotiations) have been emboldened by their victory, it seems unlikely the Senate can pass a bill without language very close, if not identical, to that of the Stupak amendment in the House version.
On Monday, President Obama indicated that he still wanted to try to find a compromise. "I want to make sure that the provision that emerges meets that test -- that we are not in some way sneaking in funding for abortions, but, on the other hand, that we're not restricting women's insurance choices," Obama told ABC's Jake Tapper
"There are strong feelings on both sides," he said, "and what that tells me is that there needs to be some more work before we get to the point where we're not changing the status quo."
He wants legislation that ensures that "neither side feels that it's being betrayed."
But that may be impossible -- and too late.
On Monday, Politico.com asked Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, if the group would actually oppose a final health care bill if it included the Stupak amendment.
"Absolutely," Keenan said
. "We are prepared to stop at nothing."
And nothing may be what they get. Thwarting health care reform over a dispute on government funding of a relatively small number of abortions would not only deprive progressives -- and all Americans -- of a goal they have sought for decades, but it could also start the clock ticking toward 2012 and the prospect of...Mike Huckabee? Mitt Romney? Sarah Palin?
Then the abortion rights crowd would know what losing really feels like.