Mr. President, call their bluff.
When members of Congress, including some Democrats, express an inability to vote for your health-care plan on the grounds that it lacks specific language prohibiting taxpayer-funded insurance schemes to cover abortion, do what they are so sure you won't. Say, "Okay. For the greater good, stick in that language. Now, what's your problem?"
Even as a person who is far to your right on the abortion question, I would consider such a move regrettable. To outlaw the funding of abortion without altering the legal status of abortion itself strikes me as a small, sneaky way to approach a big moral problem. But that's not the issue here. The issue here is, should health-care reform in its entirety be threatened by an asterisk? The answer is no. (Threatened by its overall long-term cost? Maybe, but that's a different debate.)
If you include the abortion language, some of the political consequences will be most pleasant for you. For members of Congress who actually would vote with you but feel that they can't because of this one issue, you will free them to do so. For lawmakers who want to vote with you but feel a need to be seen gaining some kind of concession, you will have given them their concession. And as for all those members of Congress who have no intention of voting with you and are looking for a moral-sounding excuse, you will have taken that excuse away.
Of course, other consequences will be very unpleasant. You will infuriate abortion-rights activists. But to be blunt, where are they going to go?
Perhaps they will go straight to Capitol Hill and start pressuring your congressional allies to withdraw support for the entire bill if it includes this language. But you've got three lines of defense on that. First, if their constituents are liberal enough to be infuriated by the language, they are liberal enough to be at least as infuriated by yet another health-care dream deferred. Second, while abortion-rights groups could threaten to fund-raise against anyone who betrays them on this issue, you could promise to fund-raise for them, and you're a pretty good fundraiser. Third, six months into your first term, do your congressional allies really want to tick you off?
Of course, if you support the abortion restriction, you will be sticking it to lower-income women who would seek abortions.
Given that you have no problem with abortion rights and presumably a big problem with sticking it to lower-income women, this will feel horrible. But what about all the women who need every other kind of medical attention? Fortunately, not every woman in America seeks an abortion. But every woman does need basic, decent health care. Pro-choice lobbyists will pressure you to sacrifice the latter, if need be, in the name of the former. Don't do it.
To be sure, health-care reform will not stand or fall on this one controversy. Substantively, there are dozens of more central practical difficulties with the proposal that could be its demise. But, as with many major systemic reforms, those difficulties tend to be extremely complicated, and thus beyond the ken of most normal people (myself included). In short, they don't resonate.
Say what you will about the abortion debate: It resonates.
What's also resonating now is the sense that you are starting to slip. It's not just the recent drop in your approval ratings; as the glamour of your presidential candidacy has turned to the grind of your presidency, that is inevitable. But the slippage has been greatest among independents and Republicans who voted for you. That isn't surprising, but it is troubling. Lose the hearts and minds of those crossover Americans, and you lose any hope of the transcendent, unifying presidency that was your brightest promise. Those independents and Republicans are starting to think that, for all your talk of breaking molds and building bridges, you're just another far-left, spendthrift social liberal who wants to ram this big-government behemoth through just exactly the way he wants it.
Pro-life members of Congress are handing you an easy way to signal that that is not the case.
Call their bluff.
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