The Democrats Have Been Embarrassingly Useless on Abortion

For months, the Democratic Party leadership knew the Supreme Court was preparing to gut Roe v. Wade. When it happened, they sprang into action and immediately did nothing.

President Joe Biden speaks while meeting virtually with governors in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC, on Friday, July 1, 2022. (Ting Shen / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Observers of American politics should by now know the Democratic Party is a feckless, corrupt institution incapable of meeting the challenges of our time — congenitally averse to fighting for its principles, to the extent that it actually has any. But even the most jaded cynics have to be shocked at just how useless the party’s response has been to the Right’s most recent assault on abortion rights.

As an increasingly rogue Supreme Court snatched the remnants of the right to abortion away from 40 million women around the country, party leadership boldly ruled out doing much about it. President Joe Biden wouldn’t expand the number of judges on the court or curb its jurisdiction, as progressives like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) suggested. He and his team fret that this “would be politically polarizing” ahead of the midterms and “undermine public trust in institutions like the Supreme Court” — the implication being that the court’s attack on abortion rights somehow did neither of those.

As calls to eliminate the Senate filibuster and pass Roe into law grew louder, the Biden administration ruled that out too, dispatching Vice President Kamala Harris to CNN to deliver the bad news. “What do you say to Democratic voters who argue, ‘Wait a minute, we worked really hard to elect a Democratic president and vice president, a Democrat-led House, a Democrat-led Senate — do it now’?” asked Dana Bash.

“But do what now? What now?” replied Harris, who went on to insist the votes weren’t there to eliminate the filibuster and ruled out using the presidential bully pulpit to get them.

Ocasio-Cortez and others had suggested a creative move: putting abortion clinics on federal lands in states where it was illegal. Was that something the administration might consider? “It’s not right now what we are discussing,” said Harris. Elsewhere, administration officials expressed worry that taking such a step would open those seeking abortions to prosecution or violate the Hyde Amendment, which bars using federal money to fund abortions. (On the last point, it was up to, once more, Ocasio-Cortez to explain why that wasn’t the case.)

Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member Representative Cori Bush (D-MO) and others have called on Biden to declare a public health emergency as a result of Roe being overturned, something that could open the way to paying patients’ travel expenses. So far, the administration hasn’t done anything of the sort, with one White House advisor warning that if it took that step, “It’s very possible that the next incumbent of the Oval Office would declare an emergency for the life of fetuses,” which was “exactly the kind of politicization of public health that we really need to avoid.” In other words, yet more action stymied by a misguided, conservative obsession with preserving norms and institutions.

A slew of such novel ideas has now been suggested by individual members of the party. What’s notable is the near-total absence of an echo from the White House, even though practically the entire globe has known for two whole months Roe would be overturned.

Biden’s speech reacting to the long-time-coming decision was light on specifics, beyond pledging to maintain access to contraception and abortion pills. He also made a point of urging those infuriated by the decision to “keep all protests peaceful” and with “no intimidation,” a pointless warning since, unlike the increasingly violent antiabortion movement, pro-choice protesters are already overwhelmingly peaceful. From the sound of it, Harris’s “coalition call” on reproductive rights was similarly light on specific, concrete federal actions.

Even the Democrats’ opposition is shocked by their ineptitude. “If I were the libs, I would be putting forward a flurry of legislation like making birth control free and widely available,” a GOP aide told Julia Ioffe:

If you say it’s not widely enough available, go after that, cover the gaps. Don’t go for the really big stuff, just split the GOP conference as much as you can, force people to vote. If the goal is really protecting women or advancing legislation that could actually pass, then take every potential approach you can.

But observations of the party’s uselessness extend beyond just Republican operatives and the left-wing carpers at Jacobin. “What the fuck are we doing?” one exasperated Democratic lobbyist told Ioffe, aptly summarizing a spreading mood. Or just look at the words popping up in headlines describing Democrats’ responses to their leadership’s inaction: “frustration”; “exasperation”; “anger.”

The wave of criticism seems to have had an effect, as only one day after sending Harris to insist to the nation that the filibuster wasn’t going anywhere, the president undercut her by finally publicly calling for an exception to the rule for abortion bills. Whether he’ll follow through remains to be seen.

Vote and Vote Again

To be fair, there is a particular call to action Biden and other top Democrats have been consistently stressing to fix this issue: it’s up to you, the voter, to vote harder.

“The only way we can secure a woman’s right to choose and the balance that existed is for Congress to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade as federal law. No executive action from the president can do that,” Biden said in his recent speech. “And if Congress, as it appears, lacks the vote — votes to do that now, voters need to make their voices heard.”

“When I think about what is happening in terms of the states, we have to also recognize, Dana, that we are 130-odd days away from an election, which is going to include Senate races,” Harris told Bash. “We need to change the balance and have pro-choice legislators.”

“A woman’s right to choose, reproductive freedom, is on the ballot in November,” House speaker Nancy Pelosi reminded people at her press conference reacting to the decision.

In other words, despite the fact that voters and grassroots volunteers killed themselves in 2020 giving Democrats control of the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives so they could enact this exact kind of change, the party is still powerless to do anything, and the only solution is for voters and volunteers to do the same thing again this year. No guarantees, though.

This comes after decades of the party using the abortion issue as a staple of campaign fodder yet never actually codifying abortion rights into law when they had the chance, such as when Barack Obama swiftly demoted the matter from “the first thing I’d do as president” to “not the highest legislative priority” upon actually becoming president. A recent fundraising email from Pelosi inadvertently underlined this record of failure while trying to attack the GOP: “I watched Republicans steal a Supreme Court seat from President Obama. I watched them pack the Supreme Court with THREE of Trump’s radical justices. I watched those justices take an apocalyptic vote to DECIMATE Roe v. Wade.”

Now, Democratic apparatchiks are positively salivating over using the issue against Republicans in battleground states and marginal seats around the country. But there’s already signs that crassly using the death of Roe for campaign purposes without an accompanying political fight is causing a backlash, at least among some voters. A clip earlier this week of one young woman unloading to CNN about getting a Democratic fundraising email tied to the Roe decision went viral, and several other voters made similar complaints to journalist Eoin Higgins.

Foot in Mouth Disease

Meanwhile, at the same time they’ve failed to meet the moment in terms of concrete action, the party has stepped in it over and over again with a series of tone-deaf symbolic gestures.

At the same time furious demonstrators gathered outside the Supreme Court to protest the gutting of Roe, House Democrats gathered on the Capitol steps across the street to sing “God Bless America” over the House’s passage of a gun control bill even as lawmakers like Ocasio-Cortez joined the protesters, for which the Democrats were excoriated by even usually pro-Democratic voices in the media.

“It’s a little anticlimactic, I think we all expected this,” said Representative James Clyburn (D-SC), the third-highest ranking Democrat in the House. Pelosi reacted to the decision by reading a verse by an Israeli poet about patriotism in the face of disappointment in one’s country, before sending out a fundraising email.

To make matters worse, as the news about Roe roiled the country, news leaked that Biden is preparing to nominate a Republican antiabortion lawyer for a lifetime appointment as a federal judge, reportedly as part of a deal with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that would allow Biden to confirm two US attorneys in Kentucky, both of which are temporary positions.

It’s the latest in Biden’s long history of cutting lopsided, outrage-inducing deals with the Republican mastermind, and it comes not long after top Democrats like Clyburn and Pelosi threw their support behind a scandal-plagued, antiabortion incumbent in Texas instead of his progressive challenger. (It also comes just a few years after the party establishment used Senator Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) endorsement of a mayoral candidate dishonestly portrayed as having an antiabortion record to attack him as out of touch with the party’s values as he prepared his presidential run.)

From Branch to Root

This Democratic failure runs deep. The road to the overturning of Roe v. Wade was paved by decades’ worth of Democrats proving unable and unwilling to counter a concerted, well-planned campaign by the Right to take over the Supreme Court — some of the same Democrats, in fact, who are now impotently hectoring Americans to vote for them in four months’ time.

First among them is Joe Biden, long known as a prominent antiabortion Democrat who spent his career clashing with women’s groups and working to move the party in a more conservative direction. Though Biden now claims it was Donald Trump’s three Supreme Court picks “who were the core” of the court’s recent jettisoning of Roe, the reality is that while serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee, including eight years as chairman, Biden played a key role in facilitating the GOP takeover of the institution, most famously by shielding Clarence Thomas from sexual harassment allegations in his confirmation hearing. He was also a backer of the very Hyde Amendment his administration now says prevents it from putting abortion clinics on federal land.

But of course, the issue is bigger than just Biden. There’s a lot of well-deserved scorn being directed right now toward the elite liberal lawyers and commentators who falsely assured the public Trump’s Supreme Court picks were dispassionate jurists who would never overturn Roe. And we can’t forget Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fateful refusal to retire, a product of the same hokey faith in institutions that led Justice Stephen Breyer to declare the court was made up of open-minded legal minds calling balls and strikes, just a year before declaring it wasn’t.

The question is whether any of this will matter. Viewed externally, the past week, to say nothing of the past few decades, has appeared as an obviously damning indictment of the Democratic establishment, which has cynically leaned on the abortion issue over and over again to discipline its base and maintain its hold on the party but in reality proven utterly incapable of actually defending reproductive rights. Whether the party’s most reliable supporters will see it that way is another story. This November, we may well find out.