Saturday, June 24, 2006

You're gonna need a bigger tent.

At the North Carolina Democratic state convention today, the platform approval process was contentious as usual, with several last-minute additions, deletions and replacements. And that was before the resolutions came to the floor.

State chair Jerry Meek runs a political convention like an accomplished auctioneer, moving proceedings along with a breathless, rapid-fire cadence. He goes from “For what purpose does the delegate rise?” to the closing “In the opinion of the chair, the ayes have it” so swiftly one expects to hear, “Sold! To the gentleman from Catawba County.”

“This Party shall provide an avenue for the free and open expression of diverse ideas and opinions, including the right of every person to dissent,” the platform’s preamble reads in part. But at the first opportunity to put that principle into practice, tolerance for dissenting voices was selective. As much as Democrats think of themselves as the big tent party, there’s one camel’s nose many activists wish to keep from getting under the tent: pro-life Democrats.

What pro-life Democrats wanted Saturday was some accommodation, a sop to their concerns, an acknowledgement in the platform that North Carolina’s big tent party includes people with significant disagreements on the abortion issue (40% pro-choice, they claim). And they no longer wish to ride in the back of the bus.

They received a chilly reception at the convention in High Point.

Pro-life Democrats from several counties complained they were unrepresented on the platform committee and offered preamble language acknowledging the party’s significant disagreements over abortion. They were roundly shot down.

Later, in an effort to make the “Health and Human Services - Women” section more “abortion neutral,” they sought to include the same significant disagreements verbiage. There were impassioned speeches (some by ministers) about Democrats living up to their promises of inclusiveness. If “big tenters” are going to talk the talk, they need to walk the walk.

This time (by my estimate) the voice vote was only about 60/40 against. Not the accommodation pro-life Dems had hoped for, but a sign they’d gained some real ground.

“You just don’t get it,” one pro-life delegate told me. Too many party activists are largely from urban centers, she explained. They don’t deal with rural voters who say they won’t vote for Democrats because they’re the party of abortion. It’s not just about an issue she feels strongly about. It’s about hard-nosed, practical politics.

Earlier this week Democrats in Congress proposed several amendments for ending the Iraq occupation. While ABC’s The Note thought this a sign of weakness, Paul Begala at TPM CafĂ© and mcjoan of Daily Kos cited the competing proposals as a sign of strength. Democrats are actively debating solutions to ending the cycle of violence Iraq, as opposed to the Republicans’ “more of the same” policy.

It’s just that admitting to having a similar debate about abortion isn’t seen as healthy, but a sign of weakness. One convention speaker objected to the platform’s acknowledging pro-choice Democrat’s concerns. The party needs to speak with one voice, he said, and not present an image of equivocation.

But as long as the party’s pro-choice activists refuse to make room under the tent, in the front of the bus, and in their hearts for pro-life Democrats who otherwise agree with them on most every other issue, they’ll continue to lose elections. They’ll continue to lose elections to users who are expert at convincing conservative voters they actually care about the abortion issue – by listening to and including them.

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