Last month Katha Pollitt wrote a searing indictment of NARAL and how single-issue solipsism in the face of a concerted regressive Republican agenda threatens to undermine progressive causes. I think Pollitt provided as correct a rebuke as possible to the presence of metric-based interest group endorsements in a time when every single congressional race matters. I’ve taken issue with NARAL and other ostensibly progressive single-issue groups maintaining their endorsement of fifth party candidate Joe Lieberman over progressive Ned Lamont, as well as similar races where “moderate” Republican incumbents are endorsed over pro-choice, liberal Democratic challengers.
The November 6th issue of The Nation includes a letter to the editor by Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL, in response to Pollitt’s article. It is a resoundingly obtuse and flat response to Pollitt’s critique and one that makes fully clear how NARAL has arrived at the precipice of political irrelevancy. Keenan makes a few points that I want to address and try to rebut.
Yes, at this moment Congressional Democrats vote prochoice more often than incumbent Republicans. But as we all know in politics, the game board always changes.
Except, it doesn’t change that much. The Republican Party has never been a strong supporter of abortion rights than the Democratic Party. Looking at the sort of things the current GOP is engaged in nationwide, I don’t think any sane pro-choicer can argue that the GOP is about to steal the flag of reproductive rights from the Dems.
If you look at our generic vote count in the House, even if the Democrats take back control by a slim margin, without prochoice Republican votes there are more than enough antichoice Democrats to continue passing antichoice amendments and bills. The antichoice movement knows this and over the years has cultivated antichoice Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Should we be shortsighted and ignore the important and critically needed votes of prochoice Republicans? [Emphasis added]
This is a fantastic straw man. Keenan assumes that since the ostensibly pro-choice minority of Republicans will do nothing to block amendments introduced by the Republican anti-choice majority, that a Democratic anti-choice minority would help introduce similar amendments and bills in partnership with the anti-choice majority of the Republican caucus. That is patently absurd for two reasons. (1) Keenan assumes that the Democratic congressional leadership will allow anti-choice bills and amendments to make their way onto the floor against the wishes of the pro-choice Democratic majority. I’d love to hear what current House minority leader Nancy Pelosi thinks about that bunk. (2) Keenan also assumes that anti-choice Democrats will place their views on abortion ahead of party loyalty — the exact opposite of what we’ve seen from pro-choice Republicans who have done nothing meaningful to stand in the way of the regressive, anti-choice Republican agenda.* I haven’t seen Harry Reid pull that card out of his sleeve yet and I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon. He and other pro-life Dems have made clear that their personal views on abortion will not be deployed from the bully pulpit of national policy, particularly when speaking as representatives of pro-choice America.
Pollitt originally wrote:
When I asked NARAL political director Beth Schipp about this, she repeated that NARAL was a bipartisan organization. “We need support in both parties. I can take out a fully antichoice incumbent, so why would I turn my back on my friends?” Well, maybe because the friends, unfortunately, stand in the way of that larger goal, the six and fifteen, without which reproductive rights will continue their slow death by strangulation at the hands of the party in power.
But Keenan just doesn’t get it.
[On Republican Representatives Nancy Johnson and Rob Simmons] Without question, they have earned our endorsement.
That’s the problem. These endorsements, if they are to mean anything, must come forth from deep questioning about what is happening in American politics today. Not how did so-and-so vote on a particular amendment, but what does that person stand for and who do they stand with? When one party is working night and day to reverse Roe v. Wade and the other party is still trotting out proud pro-choice candidates who believe in reproductive rights, the affiliations all pro-choice politicians make must be telling. Moreover, these affiliations are all that matters when it comes to an individual politicians ability to affect reproductive rights policies. A politician is only as good as the bills they get to the floor and the votes that they whip.
Unfortunately Keenan’s complete lack of political aptitude continues to shine through.
We can gain the fifteen seats we need for a prochoice House if Johnson and Simmons are re-elected.
So now you care about a Democratic majority? And what sort of majority would it be without victories in Connecticut over Johnson and Simmons? Likely a slim one. The 800 pound gorilla in the room with this line by Keenan is that both Johnson’s opponent (Chris Murphy) and Simmons’ opponent (Joe Courtney) are pro-choice Democrats. Murphy and Courtney victories would keep the CT-05 and CT-02 districts occupied by pro-choice legislators and have the added bonus of working towards a Democratic majority. Keenan’s decision to play electoral math with NARAL endorsements effectively says that their endorsements of Johnson and Simmons would be irrelevant in the best possible world. I hope that NARAL’s endorsements of those two Republicans does turn out to be irrelevant, too, but I’m not sure it’s best for NARAL’s president to be optimistically hyping how great it will be if their endorsements are irrelevant (calling all NARAL Board members…).
Keenan’s apologia takes a turn for the surreal when she lists the pro-choice Democrats that NARAL has endorsed in the House.
The list below includes seventeen races in which we are supporting prochoice challengers against antichoice incumbents or prochoice challengers in open seats currently held by antichoice members. Yes, they’re all prochoice Democrats, who earned our endorsement under the same standards Johnson and Simmons did.
The decision to then list the long list of Democratic candidates that NARAL has endorsed seems quite strange. Keenan is saying in defense to an critique of her organization’s endorsing some Republicans that NARAL predominantly endorses Democrats. Well, of course they do. The whole point, the whole reason that endorsing Republicans like Simmons and Johnson is bloody ineffective, is that there aren’t a lot of pro-choice Republicans! Not only has Keenan failed to respond to Pollitt, she’s just blown past the crux of Pollitt’s argument. NARAL’s decision to continue endorsing candidates who cannot muster the legislative pull of a party behind them when there are alternatives who can, threatens to make NARAL (and other single-issue groups) irrelevant. Clearly Keenan’s demonstration of the capacity of NARAL’s political analysis shows that such a downfall is unsurprising, if continually disappointing.
I’d like to know what Keenan thinks NARAL’s endorsement does outside of the electoral sphere. Does NARAL believe that an endorsement from them can be traded to keep a Republican politician pro-choice or does it hand out its endorsements to candidates who have demonstrated their principled support for abortion rights? If NARAL bases their decision on a politician’s principles in any way - that is, if NARAL believes that politicians who are pro-choice will continue to fight for reproductive rights even without their endorsement - then it’s time for them to start working for the bigger picture control over who gets to introduce legislation. A Democratic majority with pro-choices Dems in Simmons’ and Johnson’s seats can do much more than NARAL’s desired “prochoice House.” Unfortunately Keenan’s refusal to accept this truth speaks to NARAL’s failures to be an effective political campaigning organization.
*I recognize that I’m deploying what appears to be a double standard here. On the one hand I’ve claimed that anti-choice Dems would not be empowered to assume the role that Keenan fears they’ll play - blocking the pro-choice Democratic agenda. On the other hand, I’m exhorting these allegedly moderate Republicans (Nancy Johnson, Lincoln Chafee, Rob Simmons, et alia) for not stopping the regressive Republican agenda. I think there’s a difference here in my critiques between what I expect Democrats to do as a party and what I expect individual politicians to do to stand up for their beliefs. Republican “moderates” need to prove that they are, in fact, in possession of a spine that enables them to speak against their party’s interests. I do not take these categorizations on face value. I do not believe abortion rights is an area that allow for much leeway when it comes to speaking outside of the party ranks; thus standing up for abortion rights if you’re a Republican is something that has to go beyond the “Issues” statement of a candidates website. I’d hope NARAL could see that, for this is much of the difference between the effects of a Democratic majority and a Republican majority.