E. J. Dionne is noting that politicians tend to flip-flop on abortion a lot, and suggests this is because it’s not that important a political issue except to each party’s base. And, in a way, he could be right. Most politicians don’t care about abortion. Why would they? The average politician everywhere is an upper-class male with a post-menopausal wife who has access to contraceptives.
In the US, there are only two serious Presidential candidates this issue means something to. Not coincidentally, one of them is the only woman in the race (the other is a genuine Dominionist). In the 2004 primary, when the only woman in the race was a lightweight, the only contender who cared about the issue was a doctor who had interned at Planned Parenthood and later encountered pregnant teens in his practice.
In such a climate, it’s not surprising that people who think the entire political arena will be a lot more civil if only women and the men who care about their concerns shut up. Fifteen years ago, the same sentiments were aired in connection to black people, and indeed the Democratic Party became the party of welfare reform and the drug war. The sentiment is always the same: unless an issue predominantly affects rich white American men, it’s not worth fighting over.
But then again, there could be other reasons why politicians flip-flop on abortion. One is confirmation bias: politicians flip-flop on everything, but Dionne is looking for a reason to dismiss only abortion. Edwards is woefully inconsistent on foreign policy, McCain is inconsistent on everything, and Romney’s campaign’s choice line is about a position he disagreed with in 2002.
Candidates usually don’t care about any issue but one or two core ideas. For Edwards, everything but poverty is secondary. For Clinton, it’s mostly foreign policy; she’s fairly consistently hawkish. For Brownback, it’s religious fundamentalism, which explains his relative centrism on economics and foreign policy. It’s very rare to find someone like Feingold, who consistently fails to flip-flop even on issues that aren’t central to his political identity.
But suppose Dionne is right and this trend is more marked for abortion. There’s an alternative explanation that he doesn’t even mention: the political gamut on abortion. Abortion is perhaps the only political issue in the US on which the political gamut spans all possible views; debate on other issues is very narrow.
The average poll shows that there’s at least a substantial minority for every position on abortion in the US from “available on demand” to “legal only to save the woman’s life,” as well as for every sub-issue, such as parental notification and state funding.
No other issues displays this breadth in the US. On foreign policy, Americans are divided on whether to approve every military action, or every military action except those executed with total incompetence. The gamut on unions runs from opposition to strong opposition. The gamut on health care runs from major reforms to a total overhaul, with Milton Friedman’s view and even support for the status quo being out of the question. On education, the issue of funding equality isn’t even on the radar.
In that light, it’s not surprising candidates will flip-flop on abortion, since their views are likely to be almost right in the middle. Anyone with even a slight left-of-center attitude toward economics, like me, can be relied on to support the Democrats, who are still to my right on the issue. But in a debate when the two mainline views on abortion are very far apart, a politician is very likely to be in the middle, where he’s likely to waver.
It could be that this is what Dionne is rooting for. A lot of pundits would like to see fewer distinctions between the parties, which would allow them to make broad policy pronouncements without antagonizing anyone. For the people, more distinct parties mean more choice at the ballot box; for the punditry, they mean being required to take concrete positions on controversial issues.
This is probably why the media loves Obama so much. Regardless of what he does in practice, in theory he calls for greater party cooperation, which is good for any media spectator who wants to gain political power without going through the trouble of convincing large numbers of voters that he’s right.