It's Your Turn to Do Something
Democrats want us to vote to save Roe. Didn't we do that already?
When news broke on Tuesday that the Supreme Court was preparing to overturn Roe v. Wade, the response from leaders of the Democratic Party was clear: “Vote!” With the midterms six months away, so many of them said, it’s critical that we elect pro-choice officials to protect abortion rights at both the federal and state levels.
Of course, it’s good to encourage participation in the electoral process. I vote in every election, and I think everyone else should too. But the problem with such messaging — besides the fact that preaching the sanctity of the ballot box rings hollow when this ruling comes from a group that is not accountable to the electorate — is that we already have voted. Many of us did so specifically because the Democratic Party said they would fight for the right to choose. And now they are passing the buck back to the electorate.
Joe Biden wants you to vote. But we did! Two years ago, he vowed that if he were elected President he would codify the ruling of Roe v. Wade into law. That’s surely a major part of why the younger voters delivered him the presidency. Yet more than 15 months into his term, with his party in control of both houses of Congress, that hasn’t materialized, and there’s no sign that it will anytime soon.
Of course this is not entirely up to Biden; the Democrats don’t have the votes in the Senate to get such a bill passed. But this wasn’t an unforeseeable circumstance. When Biden pledged to legalize abortion through Congress in June 2020, he knew there was a good chance that Joe Manchin would be the swing vote in the Senate. Or worse — it was legitimately possible that the chamber would be held by Republicans. Yet he still claimed he could do it legislatively. If codifying Roe was an unrealistic expectation, take it up with the guy who promised it.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration was caught completely off-guard by a ruling that they knew was likely to happen. His purported openness to expanding the Supreme Court and reestablishing a choice-friendly majority has gone nowhere. Even when asked whether the Senate should abolish the filibuster to codify Roe — a purely symbolic statement, since the President has no authority to do such a thing — he was noncommittal. (Compare the meekness of Biden’s leadership on this front with the full-throated advocacy of some of his rivals for the 2020 nomination. Primary elections have consequences, too!)
Barack Obama wants you to vote. But when you read his statement about the judicial news, there’s no acknowledgment of the fact that he, too, was elected to the White House after pledging to write Roe into law. In fact, he vowed to do so as his first act as President. Yet over his eight years in office, during which he had large Democratic majorities in Congress for his first two years and even had several months of a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate, no such legislation was enacted. Why didn’t voting work that time?
Surprisingly, as far as I’ve seen Hillary Clinton hasn’t publicly responded to the news by saying to Pokémon Go to the polls. Yet social media has been flooded with supporters rehashing the 2016 Presidential campaign, blaming nonvoters for Donald Trump’s election and thus the path that led us to this point. I voted for Clinton, and I wish more people had too. But beyond the murkiness of this counterfactual (a hypothetical Clinton administration with a hostile GOP-controlled Senate still leaves the Supreme Court in a precarious place, and likely leads to a Republican victory in 2020), voting for Clinton also meant voting for Tim Kaine, whose record on abortion rights (as was noted at the time) is mixed at best. There’s no way to know the ultimate impact of having Kaine on the ticket, but in an election that close it’s possible that signaling a compromise on abortion rights kept enough people home to have made the difference. At the very least, it’s a more-compelling explanation for the disappointing Democratic turnout than continuing to blame Susan Sarandon.
Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi wants you to vote…for Henry Cuellar, the only Democrat in the House of Representatives to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act. Pelosi has endorsed Cuellar for reelection against a more-progressive challenger who believes in the right to choose, and so far she has resisted the renewed calls to rescind her support in light of the Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling. Unfortunately, this is in line with New York Times’ Alex Burns’ reporting from last month that Pelosi was uncomfortable with full-throated support for protecting abortion.
Speaking of Cuellar, he had a special guest at his campaign rally on Wednesday: House Majority Whip James Clyburn. A day after the Court’s draft ruling leaked, Clyburn — the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, and someone whose literal job is to foster ideological consistency among the party’s members — told the crowd that he and Cuellar could agree to disagree on the right to choose. And we’re supposed to believe that the solution is just to vote harder?
So to the party’s leaders, and to the rank-and-file legislators who have echoed the same thoughts, and to the fervent partisans online who can’t abide a critique of the Democratic Party without reminding you that the Republicans are worse, I’ll put this in terms you’ll appreciate. Yes, I’ll vote, but as The West Wing’s President Bartlet once said: “Give me the next ten words.”
How many Senate seats will it take to actually protect abortion rights, and what is the DNC’s plan to win them? When in the political calendar can we talk about presidents not delivering on their explicit promises and party leaders supporting anti-choice colleagues? How many more times do we have to vote before our elected officials use the powers of their offices instead of deferring to the next campaign cycle? And most importantly, how many people will suffer from lack of access to health care, be arrested for performing and receiving medical procedures, and even die from complications of pregnancy in the meantime?
No, the administration can’t realistically codify the right to choose overnight. But we now find ourselves in the strange situation where merely fighting the good fight would be both woefully inadequate and a huge improvement. If all the Democrats do while they’re in power is say they’ll protect Roe if they win the next election, neither of those things is likely to happen.