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Is South Dakota Abortion Bill the New Gay Marriage Amendment?

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Message John McDonald
This past week, The South Dakota Legislature passed a new bill basically outlawing abortion in the state. And it is expected that South Dakota’s Governor will sign the new legislation. Many abortion opponents are overjoyed. Their hope is that the new legislation will result in the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the new and more conservative version of the Supreme Court.

But before pro-choice forces launch a full-scale attack, those in the progressive movement would be wise to take a closer look at what this new legislation really represents – the first salvo in the Congressional elections of 2006 and a down payment on efforts to determine the next presidential election.

The new Dakota anti-abortion legislation is just the new and improved version of the Gay Marriage Amendment used so successfully in the last election by Karl Rove and his henchmen to bring conservative voters to the polls. It is wedge politics at its worst or finest, depending on your point of view. It is designed purely to divide voters, and divert them from their interests.

Already, the bills backers have cut a deal with the Thomas Moore Center, a pro-life public interest legal group to plan and implement a campaign to bring the issue before the Supreme Court. As the legislation begins its journey, expect to see the Republicans use the abortion issue to mobilize their base of conservative Christian voters as foot soldiers and raise funds for the 2006 Congressional campaigns. Their message will be that they must maintain a Republican majority to ensure that Congress will continue to pack the courts with conservative pro-life judges -- and that if President Bush should get the chance to appoint another Supreme Court Justice -- a Republican Congress will be there to confirm the appointment.

The legislation will also shape the 2008 Presidential election. If it hasn’t yet reached the Court, the Republicans will make the case that they need another vote on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe, and need a pro-life Republican President to nominate one. If the case has already been rejected by the Court, as many legal analysts believe it will, the Republicans will seek to capture the fury of the Christian Right, and channel it into efforts to secure the Presidency for Republicans.

Some abortion opponents have criticized the new legislative effort, saying that the timing is not right, that it will only lead to reconfirmation of the principles of Roe by the Court, and that it may generate a national wave of support for pro-choice forces. But the Republican leadership doesn’t really care whether Roe gets overturned, and as a political strategy, there is little downside. Not only will it generate money and volunteers, but also it gives them a hot button issue to divert crossover voters from their concerns about national security, the economy and domestic matters such as education and healthcare. And the Republicans don’t need to win nationally, they only need to repeat their wins in Ohio and Florida, and keep the Democrats from picking off a southern state like Virginia.

They can’t do that if the election is about the War in Iraq, the budget deficit and the incompetence and corruption of the Bush administration and the Republican Congress. But if the election is about abortion and other lighting rod social issues, at least in key southern and more conservative Midwest states, the Republicans may maintain their Congressional majority and elect a new Republican president.

Which is why Democrats must carefully consider their next moves. While the temptation to launch a full scale attack on the new anti-abortion legislation out of South Dakota is strong, it may only result in recasting the upcoming elections into a debate over social issues and give Republicans the weapons they need to attract moderate cross-over voters in key states that otherwise might be inclined to vote Democratic.

Democratic forces might be better off ignoring the Dakota legislation and the looming Supreme Court battle for the time being. The best strategy to ensure the rights, privacy and health of women is instead to make sure that we elect a Democratic Congress and President. To achieve those goals, Democrats must make clear that the incompetence and corruption of the Bush administration and their colleagues in the Republican Congress have undermined the safety and well being of Americans. We are less safe, and we are worse off. And we need to offer a vision of how we would do better.

The bottom line is if the election is about the foreign policy failures and domestic disasters of the Republican administration, if we can make it clear that the Republicans have put the interests of the wealthy and powerful ahead of the needs and security of the American people, we can win. But if we let the Republicans distract voters by defining the election as being about “moral values” we risk losing. So before we spend millions on pitched narrow battles over abortion and the battle for the Supreme Court, let's focus the resources, talents and energy of Democrats on winning the upcoming elections.

And let’s remember one thing. If John Kerry had won in Ohio, he would be President.
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John McDonald is a writer and consultant in Los Angeles.
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