On June 24, 2022, a majority ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States officially reversed the historic 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which established that pregnant women had a constitutionally protected right to choose to have an abortion. This has quickly transformed the nation around reproductive issues. Eleven states had trigger laws which immediately banned or heavily regulated abortion once the decision became official. Another twelve states have legislation in place to do the same. Rather than take swift action to protect abortion rights, the Democratic Party – which currently controls the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government – chose to fundraise.
They rightly chided Republicans, who have boasted for nearly 50 years that their political project would overturn Roe v. Wade. In that time, Republicans successfully advocated for 1,000 restrictions on abortions. But on the other side of the ideological spectrum, the Democratic Party also focused blame on the Green Party’s Jill Stein voters, Bernie Bros, Susan Sarandon followers, and Bad Faith Podcast subscribers. The Democratic Party’s analysis relied on attacking their left flank in defense rather than engaging in introspection about what they could have done to prevent Roe’s reversal.
A more substantive and introspective review would look back to then-Senator Joe Biden, who has a long history of questioning the legitimacy of the Roe decision, for aiding Roe foe Justice Clarence Thomas to the court. Indeed, it is hard to imagine Thomas becoming a Justice in 1991 without Biden leading a rhetorical assault on Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment. At the time, Biden was so confident that Thomas would not overturn Roe that he accused those who claimed otherwise of experiencing a “failure of logic.”
Still, Biden is just one of the many Democrats who have demonstrated that abortion rights are not a central issue for the party. Twice since Roe, the Democratic Party had super majorities in Congress, which would have allowed them to override any effort to filibuster the codification of abortion rights. However, when faced with a supermajority in 2009, then President Barack Obama stated that “[abortion rights are] not the highest legislative priority.” Later in Obama’s two terms, abortion rights’ advocates were admonished by party loyalists when they called for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was suffering from cancer at an advanced age, to step down so Obama could nominate a more viable justice to extend her legacy of protecting women’s rights.
Democrats have routinely made fear of losing Roe a key plank of their campaign strategies and this specter has vaulted many a Democrat into office. It is not surprising that a party that can offer little other than the threat of a worse alternative has taken few decisive steps to safeguard abortion rights. For many Democratic hopefuls the prospect of losing Roe has been their only point of leverage with American voters as party leaders promote a “vote blue no matter who” electoral strategy. In short, this translates into a paltry and hollow “we’re not the other party” message of fear.
In 2016, after Democratic Party leadership colluded to defeat the pro-choice candidate Bernie Sanders in the primary – whom some polls had doing better than Hillary Clinton against Trump in the election – they nominated Hillary Clinton, who had stigmatized abortion and chose Tim Kaine as a running mate. Kaine supported and signed anti-abortion legislation when serving as Governor of Virginia. During the Donald Trump Administration, the New York Times ran articles making the “liberal” case to support Trump’s Supreme Court nominees Bret Kavanagh and Neil Gorsuch. Bloomberg did the same for Amy Coney Barrett. All three voted to overturn Roe.
Even after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe was leaked to the press in May 2022, Democratic Congressperson James Clyburn—who is largely seen as saving Biden’s 2020 presidential run—campaigned for an anti-abortion Democrat, who was previously endorsed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. What a tangled web these Democrats weave.
Just as they have done in the five decades since Roe, the Democratic Party refuses to protect a woman’s right to choose an abortion while they have had the power to do so. Instead, they ignore that history and blame Republicans and those on the left rather than themselves –even though Democrats have been in a position to do something to codify Roe. Currently, they control the legislative and executive branches of government. They could remove the filibuster and codify abortion rights tomorrow. However, they would rather protect the filibuster than abortion rights. This is especially mystifying given that Republican Party Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has clearly stated that if the GOP wins the majority in 2022, they may remove the filibuster to eradicate abortion rights. If the filibuster is going to likely disappear anyway (and under partisan circumstances), why not protect abortion rights and women’s rights to choose? Why are they going to repeat the strategic blunder of not ending the filibuster without getting anything out of it?
That is not all. The Democratic Party could wield their power to expand the court. Yes, it would break with recent precedent (though dating back to FDR’s failed attempts to do so, it could be studied and reconsidered). However, the Republicans broke with precedent when refusing to entertain Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016 because it was an election year, and then changed their minds again by entertaining a Trump nominee in the election year of 2020. Just days after Roe was overturned, the Biden administration refused to consider increasing the number of justices on the high court. One may argue this would be a radical act, but perhaps that is what is needed to counter reactionary rulings that ignore stare decisis (i.e., the importance of legal precedence) by a mostly unaccountable Supreme Court. Don’t worry, the Democrats are not radicals, they are performers in political theater.
Rather than propose an immediate plan of action, on the day of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi read a poem, Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted a picture of her watching protests, and the members of the U.S. Congress sang “God Bless America” on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. This vapid virtue signaling was just the beginning. The very members of the Democratic Party that failed to protect abortion rights for ages had the audacity to fundraise off of this mass assault on women’s rights. Case in point, from an e-mail sent by Pelosi’s office just days after the ruling:
Now that Trump’s Supreme Court just ruled to rip reproductive rights away from every single woman in this country: How we act NOW will decide the future of reproductive rights. I don’t say this lightly. We can either sit back and admit defeat to these far-right extremists… Or we can RISE UP, meet this ONCE-IN-A-GENERATION moment, and marshal a response so HISTORIC that we make every last anti-choice Republican REGRET what they’ve done. Please, I’ve never needed your support more than now. Can you chip in $15 so we can WIN these midterms and finally codify reproductive rights into law?
Pelosi’s call to “act NOW” makes no reference to why the party needs $15 to use its current power to– act now. Nor does it explain why they have been so ineffective for nearly five decades. Worse, Pelosi poses that the other option is to “sit back and admit defeat to these far-right extremists,” but that has been what Democrats have done for the last 50 years. What evidence is there that Pelosi – a party politico for so long she borders on qualifying as a relic – will do anything different with these donations than the party has for the past half century? Pelosi is one of many members exploiting this tragic ruling to increase their coffers and distract from the ineptitude of the party.
In her first major interview since the reversal of Roe on CNN, Vice President Harris further rejected any plan to codify abortion rights, shooting down Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to expand abortion access on federal lands, declaring “it’s not right now what we are discussing,” and that “we are 130 odd days away from an election, which is going to include senate races.” So the plan is to give Democrats $15 and vote for them in November, to do what is clear– pretty much nothing. This is the way Democrats have governed since the 1970s. They are happy to fundraise around images of inclusivity, diversity, women’s rights, labor rights, immigration, and social progress, but they refuse to take any substantive actions to achieve related goals. Instead, they blame Republicans, the news media, Russians, fake news, overzealous progressives, and the “far left” for their failures. To say this is tiresome is a gross understatement.
Leaders do not blame, they lead. Movers and shakers such as LBJ, warts/scars and all, knew that the art of politics necessitated deal-making to get thing accomplished. Today’s Democrats rely on the art of inaction and lecture voters on what is possible rather than working to make the purportedly impossible come to fruition. Of course, their argument is always: if the public wants us to protect X (insert abortion right here), they need to vote in more Democrats in November. How many Novembers shall we wait? Voting the same milquetoast neoliberal centrists who made the collapse of Roe possible will not change our current political reality. Indeed, that is the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Women deserve better. The Democratic Party should recognize this, change course, and deliver.