Commentary Politics

Sorry, John McCain, But Anti-Choicers Are Judged on Actions, Not Words

Amanda Marcotte

John McCain joins the growing list of Republicans who claim that attacking reproductive rights while declining to talk about it in public will help them win elections. But that strategy has been in effect for years now, and it's not working anymore. 

This video of John McCain on Fox News Sunday morning is getting a lot of traction, because it seems like he’s telling Republicans to back off their opposition to abortion rights.

But as with Bobby Jindal before, if you actually listen to what he’s saying, he’s not actually telling Republicans to make substantial changes to either what policies they advocate for or even necessarily telling them to tone down their actual passion for stripping women of their reproductive rights. He’s just telling them to be quiet about it, and hope the voters don’t notice. After McCain stated that Republicans should leave the issue of abortion alone, this happened:

CHRIS WALLACE (HOST): When you say leave the issue alone, you would allow, you say, freedom of choice?

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McCAIN: I would allow people to have those opinions and respect those opinions and I’m proud of my pro-life position and record, but if someone disagrees with me, I respect your views.

In other words, McCain is saying that Republicans should generously allow pro-choicers to not only have opinions but to state them. The problem with this, I hope would be obvious, is that voters, especially single women, didn’t turn out against Republicans in the polls because we believed that Republicans were trying to strip away our First Amendment right to have and state opinions. (Though perhaps McCain has behind the scenes information that I’m not privy to on this front.) Not one of the thousand bills offered by Republicans addressing reproductive rights in the past two years, either in state houses or in Congress, was an attempt to ban people from stating out loud that they believe abortion is a right. All McCain is really advising here is for Republicans to continue pushing for restrictions on abortion and contraception access, but he’s asking them to be a bit quieter about it.

The problem with this advice, which is becoming routine on cable news talk shows, is that it’s simply advising Republicans to stay the course. Both in the 2010 and 2012 elections, Republicans running for office by and large tried to avoid talking about reproductive rights, and did so only when pressed. And even then they would try to pivot and change the subject to jobs or the economy half the time. Republicans have known for eons that this issue hurts them with independent voters.

Even George W. Bush was smart enough to know to talk elliptically about abortion when asked about it. In a 2004 debate with John Kerry, when asked about his strategy for appointing Supreme Court judges, Bush described the kind of judge he wouldn’t appoint by saying, “Another example would be the Dred Scott case, which is where judges, years ago, said that the Constitution allowed slavery because of personal property rights.” It was a smart move, in that most viewers had no clue what he was talking about, but ardent anti-choicers knew he was telling them he’d appoint judges to overturn Roe v Wade, which anti-choicers erroneously compare to Dred Scott. (In fact, Roe is the opposite of Dred Scott, because it’s based on the premise that women own themselves.) It allowed him to downplay his opposition to abortion rights to independent voters, which helped him win the election.

In 2010, Republicans had massive victories in state houses and Congress because they claimed to have solutions to fix the economy. Republican campaign slogs were “Jobs jobs jobs” and “Where are the jobs?” Voters were clearly convinced that Republicans would be too busy rolling up their sleeves and getting on with creating jobs for Americans to worry about abortion. But what happened when Republicans got into office was an all-out assault on reproductive rights. The House passed one go-nowhere bill after another that attacked abortion rights and they twice tried to shut down the federal government in order to cut out contraception subsidies. And, of course, on the state level a record number of laws restricting abortion were passed.

In other words, Thomas Frank had it exactly backwards when in his famous quote describing the bait and switch Republicans play on their voters: “Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes.” In fact, many people voted Republican in 2010 to get jobs and instead got relentless attacks on abortion and contraception.

Even if Republicans get even more aggressive in self-censorship when it comes to talking about reproductive rights in public—even if they start refusing to acknowledge questions about the issue, as Romney started doing on the campaign trail already—the fact that they are attacking reproductive rights will hurt them in the polls. They won’t be able to stop Democrats from pointing out their record on reproductive rights, nor will they be able to bully the press into not covering their assaults on reproductive rights. The only way they can actually keep voters from punishing them over this issue is to stop attacking reproductive rights.

So why don’t they? Well, they’ve created a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation. For years, conservatives have been whipping up the base on the abortion issue precisely because invigorated anti-choicers are such a political asset. Abortion gets them out of the house and knocking on doors like few other issues can. Some churches that used to be multi-faceted have become entirely about hating on reproductive rights. People who want to control women have unflagging energy when it comes to pursuing their obsession. (Witness Saudi Arabia’s embrace of electronic monitoring of women to see how bad misogyny can get when left unchecked.) To give up the war on women would be to see many of those anti-choice supporters lose interest and walk away. And there’s no guarantee that disgusted pro-choicers would switch to voting Republican even if they did give up the war on women, as pro-choice people tend to be generally more liberal anyway.

But they should at least stop pretending that they just came up with the idea to attack abortion rights while declining to talk about it in public. They’ve been trying that strategy for years, and no one is buying what they’re selling. 

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Republicans Can’t Help But Play Politics With the Judiciary

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Republicans have a good grip on the courts and are fighting hard to keep it that way.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

Linda Greenhouse has another don’t-miss column in the New York Times on how the GOP outsourced the judicial nomination process to the National Rifle Association.

Meanwhile, Dahlia Lithwick has this smart piece on how we know the U.S. Supreme Court is the biggest election issue this year: The Republicans refuse to talk about it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging doctors to fill in the blanks left by “abstinence-centric” sex education and talk to their young patients about issues including sexual consent and gender identity.

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Good news from Alaska, where the state’s supreme court struck down its parental notification law.

Bad news from Virginia, though, where the supreme court struck down Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) will leave behind one of the most politicized state supreme courts in modern history.

Turns out all those health gadgets and apps leave their users vulnerable to inadvertently disclosing private health data.

Julie Rovner breaks down the strategies anti-choice advocates are considering after their Supreme Court loss in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.   

Finally, Becca Andrews at Mother Jones writes that Texas intends to keep passing abortion restrictions based on junk science, despite its loss in Whole Woman’s Health.

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.