A missionary position for the Democrats.

How you look at things.
Nov. 17 2006 2:31 PM

Missionary Position

Birth control, responsibility, and the Democrats.

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Two years ago, after Democrats blew the 2004 election, I threw an idea at them: "Go back to being the party of responsibility."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

They ignored me, of course. Instead, the GOP established itself as the party of irresponsibility. It ran up the debt, ignored congressional misconduct, and left American troops to die in an unplanned occupation.

So, after 12 years of playing defense, Democrats are getting the ball back. Having won the 2006 election with no affirmative message and a wildly diverse slate of candidates, they need something to hold them together. They need an idea.

Watching Democrats struggle to express what they stand for is always painful. They talk in platitudes and laundry lists. "The message of this election came down to one word: change," Sen. Chuck Schumer, their Senate campaign chairman, declared on Election Night. "But the message of what we will do next comes to four words: We can do better."

We can do better? Isn't that what Robert Redford said in The Candidate, when he had no idea what to do?

At his post-election press conference, DNC Chairman Howard Dean described his party as a powerful collection of demographic groups—exactly what its critics fear. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of evangelical voters, "We, the Democrats, respect and value their faith and their values that they adhere to in their families and in their communities." Faith, values, values, communities, families, respect, values. People can tell when you're babbling from a polling memo.

Not every Democrat is so tongue-tied. In their timely book, The Plan, House Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel and Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed (who writes a crackling blog in Slate) propose a "new social contract." The contract spells out "what you can do for your country and what your country can do for you." It echoes the two most successful Democratic presidents since FDR. "What you can do for your country" was JFK's theme. "New covenant" was Bill Clinton's.

The first line of the contract invokes the R word. All of us must "live up to new responsibilities," it says. Around this principle, Emanuel and Reed enumerate four "mutual obligations": citizen service, college access, retirement savings, and children's health care. College aid is "for those willing to work, serve, and excel." Saving for your retirement is a duty as well as a need. So is insuring your kids' health. Budgets have to respect "fiscal responsibility and an end to corporate welfare." The tax code shouldn't "punish [people] for going to work." Oil imports have to be reduced so we stop "sending tens of billions a year to support corrupt regimes" that foment terrorism.

Look up the House Democrats' "Six for '06" agenda, and you'll see lots of items that fit this frame: "budget discipline," "energy independence," "honest leadership" (congressional ethics), and "pension reform to protect employees … from CEO corruption." "Fully man, train, and equip" our troops, National Guard, and firefighters, says the agenda. "Honor our commitments to our veterans." "Prohibit the Congressional pay raise until the nation's minimum wage is raised." "End tax giveaways that reward companies for moving American jobs overseas."

If Karl Rove were a Democrat, he'd pull these ideas together under an ideological banner and beat the other party's brains out. But most Democrats lack the skill or will. They blather about "solutions" and the "common good." They call Bush's Iraq policy incompetent when it's actually reckless. They make environmental stewardship, which ought to be as simple as cleaning up your mess, sound like a plea instead of a Biblical injunction. "Hurricane Katrina showed that the federal government was still not prepared to respond," the House Democrats protest. Not prepared? When you watch a city get wiped out and blame the mayor, that's not lack of preparation. That's unfitness to govern.

Two years ago, the guy who showed Democrats how to talk this way was John Edwards. This year, it's Rahm Emanuel. "We accept, humbly accept, your challenge to clean up a broken budget and broken politics," he told voters on Election Night. "It's time for the endless campaign to stop and the hard work of governing to begin. … We welcome the opportunity to usher in a new era of responsibility."

Responsibility can't be just another platitude. You have to mean it. You have to do things that are hard for you, not just for the other party. For Democrats, the toughest test is spending restraint. But the voters most attracted to responsibility as a concept are more socially than fiscally conservative. As Senate races in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia demonstrated, many of these folks are willing to vote Democratic. And they care about cultural issues.

Democrats hate talking about cultural issues. Not one plank in their "Six for '06" platform addresses these issues, unless you count stem cells, where they're on the liberal side. In their otherwise-brave book, Emanuel and Reed don't bring up cultural issues till the epilogue, and what they trot out are the old Clinton favorites: welfare reform, school uniforms, and protecting kids from smut. But in one paragraph, the authors gingerly touch on an issue that really could wake people up to a new Democratic attitude: abortion.

If ever there were an issue on which Democrats looked amoral, this is it. Abortion as birth control. Culture of life. If it feels good, do it. Republicans use this kind of language to make Democrats unpalatable even to voters who don't think abortion should be outlawed. Polls show that Democrats can win these voters back. And there's no better place to rebrand yourself than on the issue where you originally got branded.

The remedy is simple: Democrats are for reducing abortion without banning it. The most effective way, short of abstinence, is through birth control. Birth control isn't about doing what feels good. It's about taking responsibility.

This is no gimmick. It's a model for a new, more responsible definition of responsibility. Conservatives have often joked, astutely, that for many liberals, social responsibility is a euphemism for personal irresponsibility. But the reverse is also true: For many conservatives, personal responsibility is a euphemism for social irresponsibility. The solution is to require responsibility on all sides. Birth control is a perfect example. Its effectiveness depends on technology, access, and use. Better technology is industry's responsibility. Better access is society's responsibility. Better use is the individual's responsibility. If everybody does his or her job, the abortion rate goes down. Way down.

Democratic politicians worry that if they target the abortion rate, they'll offend pro-choice groups. But pro-choice groups are already heading in this direction. They've always been for birth control, and they're increasingly admitting what everybody knows: The fewer abortions, the better. Last month, Planned Parenthood's new president called for an increase in Medicaid coverage of contraception, pointing out that it "would result in the prevention of nearly 500,000 unintended pregnancies and 200,000 abortions annually." Pick up the latest issue of Conscience, and you'll see the presidents of NARAL Pro-Choice America and Catholics for a Free Choice calling for abortion reduction. "The ability to create and nurture and bring into the world new people should be exercised carefully, consciously, responsibly and with awe," writes CFC's Frances Kissling. Anyone who thinks such talk of right and wrong betrays reproductive freedom is illiterate. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. That's how the word planned ended up in Planned Parenthood.

With culturally conservative Democrats gaining seats in Congress and clout in their party, now's the time to move on this issue. It's Republicans who stand in the way. Guess who just got appointed by President Bush to run federal family-planning programs? The medical director of a pregnancy counseling service that prohibits its employees from referring patients to birth control providers. When those women get pregnant again and show up for their abortions, I'm sure Bush and his man will deny responsibility. As usual.

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