Scott MacKay Commentary: Abortion Rights Have Entered The Democratic Party Mainstream

Jul 6, 2018

Rhode Island Democrats have been beset by battles over women’s rights and the direction of the party. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says voters -- not party bigwigs—will decide these issues. 

Rhode Island Democrats last week got the kind of national media coverage no politician seeks. 

NBC News and social media lit up with news that the state’s all-male Democratic General Assembly hierarchy refused to endorse several liberal Democratic women who support abortion rights.

After an outcry by women’s groups, actress Debra Messing, a Rhode Island native, and some of the party’s top elected officials, including Congressman David Cicilline and State Treasurer Seth Magaziner, the party quickly backtracked, rescinding the endorsements.

The rift between the men who have long run the Rhode Island Democratic Party as a barony, and a group of mostly Democratic women progressives, is both local dust-up and a mirror that reflects the national divide.

The local lightning rod is Democratic House Speaker Nick Mattiello, a Cranston pol who represents a district that went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a double-digit margin in 2016. Mattiello has governed as a centrist. He hasn’t been the cartoon conservative that many on the left love to lampoon. As speaker, he has been pragmatic, reducing taxes on businesses and phasing out the dreaded car tax.

He has also boosted some liberal initiatives and voted for gay marriage.  And he has presided over paid sick leave, domestic violence initiatives, increased minimum wages and some modest gun control legislation.

What Mattiello has blocked is a vote to ensure that abortion remains legal in the Ocean State if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Until recently, he could say that delaying a vote on abortion was reasonable. There was no need, he said, to take up a polarizing issue until the court repealed Roe. Lawmakers hate to take stands on hypothetical issues, particularly in election season.

The relevance of that argument was tossed out the window with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy from the U.S. Supreme Court.  Abortion rights are being restricted in red states. President Donald Trump has loudly denounced abortion. So women’s rights advocates are energized, engaged and enraged. Abortion is not a transactional issue that can be finessed in compromises forged in a Statehouse backroom.  You can’t be almost pregnant; you either support abortion rights or you don’t.

Public opinion surveys reveal that most Americans support legal abortion. Last week, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Americans back the Roe decision two to one: 63 percent approve of the ruling and just 31 percent disagree with it. Recent Democratic National Conventions have approved platforms supporting legal abortion.

A February poll by WPRI Television pollster Joe Fleming found that only 18 percent of Rhode Island women had a favorable opinion of Trump.

At the legislative level, Rhode Island is a one-party Democratic state. As is Massachusetts. This means that prickly social issues are played out inside the Democratic Party. Yet the contrast between the Democratic leadership in the two states is stiletto sharp. On Beacon Hill, the Democratic hierarchy is working to protect abortion rights in the event of a Roe repeal. They have the support of Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican moderate. But on Smith Hill, Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio have shut down consideration of codifying the Roe protections in state law, flying in the face of Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat who supports abortion rights.

Neither Massachusetts nor Rhode Island has a large bloc of conservative Christians. Overturning Roe is likely to fuel a backlash that in our slice of New England will only galvanize abortion rights activists.

Establishment Democrats can denounce progressive voters until the polls close. But they’re likely to get a big wake up when voters speak this fall. Abortion rights are now in mainstream of Democratic voter  philosophy.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday morning at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 in the afternoon. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our “On Politics” blog at ripr.org