Will the GOP Blackmail Dems into Defunding Planned Parenthood?
When the news came down Friday afternoon, it was genuinely shocking, which is a rare event in our era of over-the-top right-wing antics: House Republicans, following the lead of Planned Parenthood-obsessed Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., zeroed out spending for family planning services in the continuing resolution to fund the government.
Even though pro-choicers have known for years that the anti-choice movement opposes contraception right alongside abortion, these cuts to Title X, which doesn’t fund abortion but only contraception and other reproductive health care, were still a surprise, considering how popular contraception remains with the general public. Still, while this bill was a punch to the gut for the vast majority of Americans who support birth control services, most political watchers assumed it to be symbolic anti-choice posturing from House Republicans, and that the Senate and the president would not allow federal support of Planned Parenthood to be abruptly cut off.
I wish I could share their confidence in Planned Parenthood’s safety. There’s reason to fear this gesture is more than symbolic, and that Republicans could successfully blackmail Democrats into defunding Title X, a funding initiative that goes all the way back to radical feminist socialist Richard Nixon. For a hint of what could happen, look back at what happened with the Stupak amendment that nearly derailed health care reform, forcing Democrats to accept a compromise that dramatically curtailed access to abortion for low-income women. Republicans, and a handful of conservative Democrats, have already demonstrated that they will hijack the debate to attack women’s rights, and there’s no reason to think this won’t happen again.
The weapon of choice is the threat of a government shutdown. In 1995, House Republicans shut down the federal government in a fight with President Clinton over funding concerns, and Clinton was able to successfully pin the blame on the Republicans, which devastated them politically. One would hope that the lesson for Republicans would have been, “Don’t shut down the government,” but instead it seems like the lesson is going to be, “Those perceived as shutting down the government take the blame.” Because of this, the strategy that’s shaping up is to start blaming Democrats for a government shutdown before it even happens.
House Speaker John Boehner has made his intention to try to do just this very clear, claiming, “The only people cheering for government shutdown around here are Democrats, led by Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer. There’s been no talk about shutting the government down on our side.” It’s a blatant lie, of course, as Think Progress has amply demonstrated, but it’s not hard to figure out from his rhetoric what the hope is, which is to make a bunch of cuts to liberal mainstays under the guise of “fiscal responsibility,” and put the Democrats in a situation where they either accept these losses or face being blamed by Republicans for a government shutdown. And unlike in 1995, Republicans have Fox News and a cowed mainstream media ready to push that message.
The chances are high that the Democrats will give in to some cuts in order to avoid this showdown, especially considering how President Obama conceded Republican talking points by paying lip service to belt-tightening in his State of the Union address. Plus, the conventional wisdom is that having room to compromise by giving in to cuts is the Democrats’ best weapon.
Eugene Robinson went on "The Rachel Maddow Show" and spelled this out, saying, “The Democrats have a whole lot more maneuvering room, because, after all, they can give in to some budget cuts here and some budget cuts there. And the Democratic base is going to grumble and going to be annoyed, but it’s not really going to freak out.” What if it ends up being family planning funding that is sacrificed on the grounds that the pro-choice base has no power but to grumble?
This is exactly the game that was played during the health-care reform debate. Pro-choicers went in figuring our only job was to lay low and let the bill pass without making demands such as repealing the Hyde Amendment. President Obama and Senate Democrats assured us they wanted to leave abortion out of this, neither expanding access nor restricting it, just as President Obama is now trying to defend pro-choice views by saying the debate is beside the point. Anti-choicers, who had nothing to lose, held the health-care reform bill hostage until they got their way, which was a bill that dramatically restricted women’s access to private insurance funds to pay for abortion.
This time around, anti-choicers have quite the laundry list of Democratic concerns they can hold hostage. On top of defunding Title X, the continuing resolution also zeroes out the funding for health care reform and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as well as cutting the EPA’s budget by a third. Considering how Democrats gave in to severe restrictions of reproductive rights before to save health-care reform, the obvious play from Republicans here is to secure the cuts to family planning in exchange for funding health care reform, and most importantly, not shutting down the government in the midst of a terrible economy, which would send the already mind-boggling 10 percent unemployment rate up even further. If Republicans use the economy, the government, and health-care reform as blackmail to get rid of Planned Parenthood, it’s not hard to see Democrats accepting the compromise. Especially if you consider how easy it would be for Democrats to convince themselves that expanded insurance coverage would negate the need for Planned Parenthood, though it very likely wouldn’t. But most importantly, it’s hard to hardball an opponent who is practically begging you to do your worst. And there's a long list of Republicans who’ve indicated they welcome this idea of taking the fight to a government shutdown.
As the Stupak amendment demonstrated, pro-choicers simply don’t have much leverage. Pulling support from the Democrats will only result is a more rapid downhill slide toward abortion criminalization and severe restrictions on contraception. As Jamelle Bouie noted in the American Prospect, “Democrats can freely ignore abortion rights when it suits them, as they don't have to worry about electoral defection. What's more, they can treat reproductive health as a second-order concern, subordinate to election-year concerns, like electability and issue popularity.” It’s true that pro-choicers can always just avoid voting or giving to candidates, and this should concern the Democrats more than it does. But with the economy and health care reform on the line, can we really count on Democrats to stand up and defend Planned Parenthood as if doing so were a first-tier concern, after they’ve treated pro-choicers like the ladies’ auxiliary for more than a decade now?
The only thing pro-choicers can do is to get ahead of the curve on this one, and make a lot of noise before talk of compromise to get the bill passed even starts, to make it clear that Democrats will pay a price in votes and donations if they roll over on this one. Luckily, this seems to be exactly what supporters of Planned Parenthood are doing, with online protests and speak-outs, as well as rallies around the country. Republicans are going after Planned Parenthood with both guns blazing for the same reason they’re trying to destroy unions around the country, because they see dismantling the organized left as the key to holding permanent power.
Even if the Democrats don’t realize it, Republicans do: A political party is nothing without its base. That Republicans hate the organized pro-choice world so much shows they believe that pro-choicers have the power to win elections. Pro-choicers should make their voices heard so Democrats start to see what Republicans figured out a long time ago.