By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Of course, President-elect Barack Obama’s most urgent task is to repair an ailing economy. But one of his most important promises was to end the cultural and religious wars that have disfigured politics for four decades.
As he goes about keeping his central domestic pledges, Obama should not forget that one of the most inspiring aspects of his campaign was his call to “turn the page” on spiteful conflicts that have pitted believers against nonbelievers, cultural conservatives against cultural liberals, red states against blue states.
One of the best places for Obama to start the healing process would seem the most unlikely: our decades-long conflict over abortion.
In theory, common ground on abortion is hard to find. Neither those who see it as a fundamental right nor those who see it as a form of murder are prepared to give up on their core principles.
Yet a very large number of Americans are simultaneously uneasy with a government ban on abortion and with abortion itself. Substantial majorities would not make abortion illegal, but they would like fewer of them.
One candidate spoke directly to this unease. “There surely is some common ground,” Obama declared toward the end of the third presidential debate.
He argued that “those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, ‘We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby.”’
Obama added: “Nobody’s pro-abortion.”
Once he assumes office, Obama might be tempted to forget that moment, issue the pro-choice executive orders that the abortion rights movement expects, and move back to the sagging economy. But doing this would be both politically foolish and a breach of faith with the pro-life progressives who came to Obama’s defense during the campaign. They argued that Obama truly was committed to reducing the number of abortions. He shouldn’t turn them into liars.
Rep. Tim Ryan, a pro-life Democrat from Ohio, stumped all over his state urging Catholic groups and others on his side of the abortion question to put their faith in Obama’s pledge. He’s confident Obama will keep it.
“He could address this issue in a thoughtful way and take it off the table,” said Ryan, the co-sponsor of an abortion reduction bill with Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. In moving quickly, he says, Obama would “show that there is a new politics by acting on one of the most divisive issues of the last 30 years.”
This should not be hard, Ryan says, since the central elements of their bill are “bread-and butter issues for Democrats.”
These include contraception programs, even if these are a sticking point for some social conservatives, along with “programs that are going to encourage women to bring their children to term.” Among them: expanded health coverage for women and children, more child care, adoption help, and income support for the working poor.
“What shouldn’t happen,” says DeLauro, who is staunchly pro-choice, “is that we continue to fight the old battles.” Noting that many new members of the Democrats’ expanded House majority are opposed to abortion, she adds: “A common-ground approach is more consistent with the times and—with the increased diversity of new House members—more likely to succeed.”
Obama, who has shown he can draw lessons from Bill Clinton’s presidency, can find one on this issue. Picking up on the pro-choice movement’s most popular slogan, Clinton declared during his 1992 campaign that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”
Abortions did become rarer during Clinton’s time in office, dropping by 11 percent. But since Clinton made no major public moves on abortion reduction, many pro-lifers who had been inclined his way felt he had ignored the third word in his motto. There’s no reason for Obama to make the same mistake—and no reason for advocates of abortion rights to get in the way of his trying to build a new consensus.
On Election Day, according to the exit polls, more than 60 percent of Obama’s ballots came from voters who described themselves as either “moderate” or “conservative.”
These voters don’t want Obama to be timid on his core economic promises, but they do expect him to govern as the cultural moderate he promised to be. He should not lose his chance to make cultural warfare a quaint relic of the past.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group