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Occasionally All Politics (and this column) are Not Local

By Frank Gruber

April 11, 2011 -- The last few days of the budget crisis in Washington unfolded as a textbook example of why Democrats have been unable to frame the debate about fiscal and economic policy to put the Republicans in the ideological corner that their truest believers seem eager to occupy.

When the final pushes were coming to the final shoves, what was the Democrats’ final argument against the Republicans’s attack on governmental action? The good, populist one that they were hell bent to give to the rich while taking from everyone else? No; the final argument of Harry Reid was that the Republicans had made the budget deal all about abortion; that there wasn’t a material dispute over the amount of cuts, but that anti-abortion rights Republicans were willing to shut the government down over the de-funding of Planned Parenthood.

But if an issue is the final issue for the Republicans it is also the final issue for Democrats, and sure enough, according to reports about the final negotiations last week, that’s where President Obama drew the line. The Republicans, of course, caved on that last point (and with the approval of social conservatives like Mike Huckabee). They don’t really care about de-funding Planned Parenthood (they didn’t do it when they controlled Congress); they only use the abortion issue to rally their base and, most effectively, to separate Democrats from those who should be the Democrats’ base.

The Left needs to understand that when the final issue is abortion, the Democrats lose. Not because a majority of Americans want abortion rights to be curtailed -- a majority doesn’t -- but because the Democrats’ focus, if they are going to win elections, needs to be on the economic well-being of working Americans. The Democrats lose when they are identified as the social-change party rather than the economy party.

This time, the issue wasn’t even funding for abortions, and the Democrats still stuck their foot in it. Since 1975 federal funding for abortions has been prohibited; the issue last week was funding for women’s health programs dating back to the Nixon years. In fact, the money, some of which is for family-planning and contraception, will reduce the number of abortions and save money for the government as well.

What almost closed down the government were two words: “Planned Parenthood,” the most famous brand name in abortion rights.

While the words “Planned Parenthood” are inextricably identified with the fight for reproductive rights, including abortion, today the organization Planned Parenthood is a $1.1 billion healthcare provider. It receives about a third of its budget from the federal government, and only 3 percent of patient visits involve abortions. According to an article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, the most popular services are screenings for cancers and sexually transmitted diseases, and for contraceptives.

So: why is the name of the organization still Planned Parenthood? Who on the Left is so politically deaf and blind to give the Right a huge bull’s eye to shoot at? If you’re trying to protect basic health services for women, why not spin off the medical services part of the organization into something with a name like “Healthy Families USA” and keep “Planned Parenthood” for political organizing?

Hey -- the right-wingers over at Focus on the Family don’t call themselves “Back to the Kitchen.” Maybe they’re not as stupid as so many on the Left think they are.

The budget dispute should have provided Democrats with a platform to proclaim loudly and clearly that it is they who are defending the economic interests of working people, but instead once again the Republicans tagged them with the most controversial issue of the 50-year long culture war. That the Left has largely won that war is irrelevant, because it is not now the war that the Left needs to win -- not only to safeguard working people, but also to safeguard the advances in individual liberties the Left has achieved. There is no indication that swing voters cast their votes based on the abortion issue.

Look -- I have donated to Planned Parenthood for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a family that supported abortion rights; I later learned that a cousin of my mother had died from an illegal abortion during the Depression and I suspect that had something to do with my mother’s strong support for abortion rights. I would have been distraught if the Democrats in the Senate had not stood up for Planned Parenthood last week.

But it should never have come to that.

For many on the Left, tactics are always subsidiary to emotions. Let the word go out, “Defend Planned Parenthood!”

But how about a little smarts?

Democrats will need some smarts when it comes to the next budget battle, the bigger one against the Republican’s budget plan for the next fiscal year, the one that Rep. Paul Ryan authored that would, among other pernicious things, privatize Medicare.

This makes me recall January 2005, when President George W. Bush was inaugurated for a second term, with a newly-elected Republican-controlled congress. Bush had proclaimed a mandate after winning the 2004 election, and his primary legislative goal was to privatize Social Security. Using the power of the filibuster, Harry Reid and the Democratic minority turned this bad idea against the Republicans, setting the stage for the Democratic victories in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

But now things are different, and more dangerous. Back in 2005, the Republicans were in charge of governing, and the Democrats could use their filibuster-veto to good effect, because they weren’t responsible for keeping the government running. Now the Democrats are in charge, and as we saw with the last Congress, when they controlled both houses of Congress, this makes them vulnerable to obstructive tactics.

With the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, the situation is many times worse. Now the Republicans can pass legislation that the Democrats must deal with. This is the paradox of power in America today, because “deal with” means compromise.

But how can you compromise with people who want to turn Medicare over to the private medical insurance industry?

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on

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