Harry Reid's pro-life stance vs. Ron Paul's

Can one be pro-choice and yet lend support to a politician who isn't?

Published December 20, 2007 10:07AM (EST)

Writing at The American Prospect blog, Dana Goldstein criticizes Andrew Sullivan for endorsing Ron Paul as the GOP candidate (Sullivan also endorsed Democrat Barack Obama, his clearly preferred candidate) and specifically objected to Sullivan's praise of Paul on civil libertarian grounds. Goldstein's complaint: Paul's pro-life position means he believes in freedom "only when it comes to half of the population" and therefore no "thinking person committed to individual rights" could coherently support him.

Ezra Klein offers qualified agreement: "it's a bit hard to square the immense affection Ron Paul receives from putative civil libertarians with his intensely restrictive attitude towards such issues as whether a woman will be forced to use her body as a vessel for childbearing." The premise here appears to be that abortion is not merely one issue, but an issue of such overarching importance that having the wrong position there ought to preclude "any thinking person committed to individual rights" from supporting that individual, regardless of their views on every other issue.

That's all fair enough, or at least certainly reasonable -- and my purpose here isn't to dispute that view -- though it still ought to be noted that feminist Naomi Wolf, who has devoted much of her adult life to advocating for reproductive rights, among many other pro-choice and liberal political figures, seems to disagree with Goldstein's view. Wolf has repeatedly praised Paul as one of the very few national political figures who recognizes the profound threats to American freedoms and who appears willing to take meaningful action in response.

In a speech last month, Wolf cited Paul's sponsorship of The American Freedom Agenda Act of 2007 (.pdf) -- which would restore habeas corpus, prohibit torture and rendition, bar warrantless surveillance, protect journalists from prosecution for reporting on classifed matters, outlaw the use of secret evidence, and compel Congress to sue to challenge the validity of signing statements -- as a measure necessary to "stabilize democracy long enough to take a breath."

During the Q&A session following the speech, Wolf was asked if there were any presidential candidates who were similarly committed to standing against the tidal wave of liberty erosion in the U.S., and she responded (video is here):

There is only one candidate, I'm sorry to say -- well, there's three candidates -- Ron Paul has always talked about these issues, and it's amazing to see -- he's on the other side, but I have a lot of respect for a lot of what he's saying. And he has supporters really from both parties who are passiontate about him, because he's saying things like: "You know what? We don't need an empire. Let's just give up our domination all over the world and let's just have a Republic." You know, I get chills thinking about that: "Let's have a Republic. We don't need an emprie." Can you imagine? So he would. And Kucinich and Chris Dodd are both committed, and they've always talked constitutional issues.

It's fair to assume that Naomi Wolf is no less opposed to Paul's pro-life position than Goldstein and Klein are, but she presumably thinks that other issues can be weighed against it in importance, including the fact that Paul seems to be one of the very few candidates who has made the erosion of constitutional liberties a centerpiece of his campaign, and is the only candidate with a credible campaign making a substantive case against the premises of America's imperial, militaristic role in the world (i.e., not merely objecting to the invasion of Iraq on cost-benefit grounds but rejecting the core premises that led to it and other U.S. interventions against countries that haven't attacked us).

It's hard to see why a pro-choice politician who affirms the basic premises of America's imperialism and who has no real intention to roll back the massive abuses of the Constitution is any more acceptable in decent company than a pro-life politician who repudiates America's war-making and who does intend to do what is possible to restore America's basic constitutional framework. How do those issues get weighed exactly? And who, in Goldstein's view, are the candidates with sterling records across the board on liberty, war-making and constitutional rights, whom a "thinking person committed to individual rights" can enthusiastically support?

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In any event, if one accepts Goldstein's premise -- that no decent person would ever support any pro-life politician regardless of other concerns -- it is difficult to understand how her position is reconciled with support for Democrats generally, given that they have installed in one of their two most powerful positions -- Senate Majority Leader -- a fairly dogmatic pro-life politician in Harry Reid. Here is what Taylor Marsh, one of Reid's constituents, said (accurately) when Reid was chosen by Democratic Senators to lead them in the Senate:

This week, something pretty amazing happens.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada takes over the minority leader spot in the Senate.

That he's replacing long-time Republican thorn, Tom Daschle, is only one big headline.

The other is that Senator Reid is a pro-life Democrat and devout Mormon from red state Nevada.

Senator Reid offers something special for the minority spot, because he is one of the first powerful Democrats in a long time who is devoutly pro-life:

Voted YES on criminal penalty for harming unborn fetus during other crime. (Mar 2004)

Voted YES on banning partial birth abortions except for maternal life. (Mar 2003)

Voted YES on maintaining ban on Military Base Abortions. (Jun 2000)

Voted YES on banning partial birth abortions. (Oct 1999)

Voted YES on disallowing overseas military abortions. (May 1999)

Rated 29% by NARAL, indicating a pro-life voting record. (Dec 2003)

Despite that solid pro-life record, Marsh (who is now a Clinton supporter) appeared to view Reid's election positively, calling it "quite serendipitous" and praising him as being "pretty independent." Indeed, Democrats elected Reid as their Leader despite this, from the Christian Broadcasting Network:

For example, on the issue of abortion, he says he's pro-life which puts him at odds with the majority of his party.

Says Senator Reid, "I don't in any way apologize for being pro-life. I'm pro-life."

And this is what The Progressive said when Senate Democrats elected him as Leader:

Harry Reid is a pro-life converted Mormon, vocal in his opposition to gay marriage, unlikely to appeal to the activist faction of the party. Though he does not support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (on the grounds that it interferes with states' rights), he did vote for the Defense of Marriage Act. He voted against a ban on assault weapons and was endorsed by the National Rifle Association.

He voted to authorize force in Iraq. On his website, the Senator does not offer much in the way of contrition for that vote. He argues that the world is a safer place without Saddam and stresses continuing the search for WMD, suggesting it's possible they were "smuggled out of the country." Regarding the likely new head of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean, Reid says, "I'm not sure Howard Dean is the answer to our problems. For right or wrong Howard Dean is recognized as part of the left, the anti-war crowd. I'm not sure we need more acrimony."

Are all Senate Democrats -- who elected the unapologetically pro-life Reid unanimously to be their Leader -- guilty of the same things of which Goldstein accuses Paul supporters (or even those who find good things to say about Paul's campaign): namely, exhibiting complete indifference to the freedom and liberty of half of the population? How could they not be? Most of the Senate Democratic caucus is pro-choice -- many vehemently so -- but they apparently assumed that the benefits of Reid's leadership on other issues enabled them to overlook his pro-life dogma, the same calculation pro-choice boosters of Paul (such as Wolf) are making. What's the difference?

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Ultimately, this is the key issue: the unfortunate reality is that there are fundamental issues concerning America's foreign policy, economic instability, and basic conceptions of governance which simply aren't addressed in meaningful ways in our mainstream discourse, which includes most if not all of the leading presidential campaigns. As Ezra somewhat hints at, many people (including myself) who think that Paul's candidacy has important positive elements (without wanting him to be President) believe that to be the case because he's injecting into our political discussions critical ideas and debates (such as his belief in a republic rather than an empire) which are otherwise all but excluded.

I don't see how someone can claim to be opposed to, say, America's presumed right to attack countries that haven't attacked us while simultaneously insisting that the only candidates worth listening to are ones who affirm that right. That makes no sense to me. Nor do I understand how someone can claim that we suffer from a civil liberties and constitutional crisis while thinking that the only legitimate candidates worth hearing from are ones who won't do very much about that other than to nibble around its edges.

Presidential campaigns aren't just about selecting the next person who will be President. They are also about debating political questions that need attention and expanding the scope of issues we consider and the ideas that are worth hearing. A campaign can be valuable by virtue of its ability to achieve those objectives.

By definition, one cannot coherently claim to find our mainstream political culture fundamentally corrupted but then simultaneously be wedded only to mainstream political discourse. Trying to narrow debate that way does nothing but perpetuate the status quo.

That doesn't mean that people who are deeply dissatisfied with the political framework are precluded from supporting highly imperfect, mainstream candidates. Especially in a presidential race, there are lots of good, pragmatic reasons why one might do so. But it should mean that such a person would want to expand rather than contract the scope of political debate we have, particularly during the primary season when the opportunity to debate such issues exists. There will be plenty of time later -- in fact, shortly -- for those who want to hear nothing other than boisterous cheering for the Democratic nominee and attacks on the GOP candidate.

Nonetheless, if the standard is (as Goldstein suggests) that, regardless of any other considerations, anyone who is pro-life ought to be removed from good company -- along with those who support any such individuals -- that's a perfectly principled position, but it ought not be applied selectively. It would mean, by definition, that none of the Democratic Senators (who unanimously chose to elect as their Leader one of the very few pro-life Senators in their midst) can be said genuinely to support individual rights, and that doesn't appear to be a conclusion which many people actually embrace.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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