Pro-Life and Pro-Obama: Women Giving Up on the GOP, by Melinda Henneberger

October 14, 2008 at 2:27 am Leave a comment

barack-obama-25.jpgMarlene Turnbach is a pro-life Democrat from Hazelton, Pa., who twice voted for George W. Bush over abortion. As she told me a couple of years ago when I interviewed her for a book on women voters, “Bush won because all my friends who are Democrats voted for him and put abortion over everything else.”

Though only about 13 percent of those likely to turn out at the
polls are true single-issue pro-life voters, I met a surprising number
of women, most of them Catholic, who said that they did not expect the Democratic Party to switch its basic position on Roe v. Wade but nonetheless felt increasingly marginalized and unwelcome in the party as dissenters from party orthodoxy on that one issue.

now? Not so much. With the economy in freefall, abortion opponents
afraid even to peek at their third-quarter 401(k) statements suddenly
see their way around this obstacle on their road home to the Democrats.
In Turnbach’s state, where one-third of all voters are Catholic (and
six in 10 Catholics describe themselves as pro-life), pro-choice Barack
Obama is nonetheless ahead of John McCain, who opposes abortion rights,
by 12 points in one poll and 14 in another. At a rally
in Johnstown, Pa., on Saturday, Sarah Palin all but pleaded with
pro-life voters to give her party one more chance to deliver on 35
years of pro-life promises: “In times like these with wars and
financial crisis, I know that it may be easy to forget even as deep and
abiding a concern as the right to life, and it seems that our opponent
kind of hopes you will forget that.” Yet when I checked back in with
Turnbach and others, it was clear that for them social issues are off
the table, at least for now.

It isn’t that Turnbach’s stand on
abortion has shifted any, she says. But her view of the Republican
Party’s commitment to seeing Roe overturned has: “Even if McCain does get in, he’s not going to do anything” that would lead to a reversal of Roe. The legality of abortion “is not going to change,” she’s concluded, “and I really don’t think it should be an issue” in this presidential race.

Like others who told me they had based their vote on the single
issue of abortion the last two times around, Turnbach’s says her ’08
calculus takes other matters–like the economy, the economy and the
economy–into account: “McCain was on my nerves the other night,
prancing around” at the debate in Nashville, she says, while Obama”
strikes her as “level-headed, intelligent, and someone who doesn’t fly
off the handle; I like him.” Age is another strike against McCain in
her view: “McCain is so old,” says Turnbach, who is retired.
“If he passed away, we’d have someone so inexperienced it’s scary.”
Most of her pro-life friends who went for Bush in 2000 and 2004 are
also Obama grandmamas now, she says, including one who is really
sweating the switch but “doesn’t think McCain is mentally stable.”

the past, I’ve tried to make the case that Democrats could pick up some
votes just by being less insulting to people who disagree with them–on
abortion and more generally. Mostly, the response has been “screw you,
dumb troll, and what do you mean we’re insulting?” (That’s the PG-rated
version.) Last year, I argued in an op-ed in the New York Times
that the Democratic Party could win back some pro-life voters with a
more tolerant attitude towards those who break with party orthodoxy on
abortion. Contrary to the exciting headline on the piece, I never
argued that “Pro-Choice Is a Bad Choice for Democrats” but, instead,
said it shouldn’t be the only possible choice for Democrats in good
standing. But now, the whole argument has effectively been put on hold
in a time of crisis.

Most of the women I talked to who voted for Bush over abortion and
are supporting Obama this time didn’t want their names used because
they didn’t want to be thought of as defectors, particularly at church.
In some cases, they fear being barred from receiving communion; Doug
Kmiec, the conservative pro-life law professor, was denied the
sacrament this summer after he announced in Slate that he was for Obama.

Even Turnbach’s friend Nancy Gilgannon, a pro-life Pennsylvania Democrat who voted for Bush and is
voting for McCain this year, says that abortion has nothing to do with
her decision this time around. Two years ago, she told me she blamed
her church for Bush’s election–and felt she’d been conned into voting
for him: “It was the church’s fault … I talked to several priests and
they all said, ‘There’s only one issue in this election.’ I said, ‘What
about the poor, and Social Security?’ And they said, ‘There is only one
issue.’ Oh, it was hard to push that button for Bush; I think I was
just used, and that’s what really grinds me.”

Now what she says
is “I never did like George Bush, and he’s turned out to be a disaster
I contributed to.” Still, she’s voting Republican again this year
because the lesson she takes from the failures of the Bush presidency
is that experience in national politics is everything. And McCain has
more of it. “George Bush didn’t have enough experience, and look what
happened. Obama has two years in the Senate and two years campaigning,”
and that’s not enough, especially given “the mess we’re in now.”
Gilgannon, who is a retired college professor, voted for Hillary
Clinton in the Democratic primary, and also influencing her is the
feeling that Obama treated Hillary and Bill Clinton poorly: “He made
the Clintons out to be racists, and that didn’t sit well with me; he
really threw her in the garbage can.”

Another friend of Gilgannon and Turnbach who voted for Bush twice,
Liz Tarone, says the last eight years have convinced her that abortion
and other social issues should be off the table for good. She went for
Bush last time because she couldn’t stomach John Kerry, but she now
thinks “Iraq will go down as the worst political decision of the
century, worse than Vietnam.” She doesn’t like either Obama or McCain.
So she plans not to vote for president this year (though she will turn
out to vote “against every incumbent on the ballot”). These days, just
the mention of abortion or gay marriage by a politician makes her want
to scream: In the middle of the worst economic crisis since the
Depression, she says, “I don’t want to hear about questions for which
there are no answers.”

After 35 years of fighting over Roe, even some of the most convinced combatants are ready for a cease-fire.

Source: SLATE Magazine


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